By "starter pet" I meant a first pet. I think lots of families do this to see how well their child can handle the responsibility.
I loved my gerbils and hamsters and still remember all their names.
Sorry, I should have elaborated a bit. I know that some people (like you and I) loved their small pets just as much as we love our kitties. But most people (by which I mean the vast majority of parents that I have met/talked to, a few of my friends, many of my relatives, ect) thought of them as 'just a ____'.
Because of the number of times I've had to hear about someone's hamster/gerbil/guinea pig ect dying because it was 'just a hamster', ect and they wouldn't take it to the vet, I don't think there are any pets who should be thought of as a starter pet. I have three guinea pigs and I have taken them to the vet. I don't take them for yearly checkups, but I do take them if they're sick or hurt. I have a vet who is an exotics vet specifically so that she can help me take care of all my pets. My leopard geckos have been to the vet as one, one has had surgery. If you aren't willing to spend money on an animal, regardless of what you paid for it initially, then you should't have an animal.
I think ANY pet that a family takes in should be a family pet. This means that it should live in family areas such as the living room ect until the child is responsible enough to understand that they have a life in their hands.
I know of too many pets who died because a kid forgot to feed it, and since the hamster/whatever was in the kids room mum and dad (who were otherwise nice normal people) didn't think of it. It's a lot harder for that to happen if the animal is watching you sit on the couch and watch TV.
I don't think that any child should get a pet to prove
that they can be responsible. They should be getting a pet once they have already proven it!