Pet ownership has long been touted for its many benefits to children and adults alike. For children, owning a pet provides life lessons about living things, reproduction, illness and eventually, death. Pets offer comfort, loyalty and a safe companion for children to talk to, thus reducing anxiety. Dogs in particular provide daily opportunities for physical exercise.
Although dogs and cats are by far the most popular pets in the United States, accounting for 46.3 million and 38.9 million pets in American households, respectively—they aren’t the only option for your child. Our younger son’s pet is a fish which has been with us for a year now. Fish are the third most popular pet in the U.S. and 12.6 million of them reside in tanks and fish bowls across the country.
I’ll admit, when my mother gifted the pink and purple beta fish to my son for his birthday last year, I wasn’t thrilled. As someone who was raised with dogs and cats, I didn’t think a fish would make a very good pet. Fish are too sterile, emotionless and boring, I thought. You can’t pet fish or take them on walks, they can’t greet you when you come home or play with you in the yard. Fish can’t be cuddled or taught tricks.
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Although I wasn’t happy about my son’s new fish, my son was excited to have a pet all his own. We set up his tank, christened him with a name (Swimmy), and put him in our son’s room. Over the past year, my opinion of pet fish has changed. While a lot of the things I believed about fish are true, Swimmy has been a good pet for my son, and has taught him a lot of unexpected lessons. Here are just a few of them:
Each morning he turns the fish tank light on and feeds his fish. In the evening he feeds the fish again and turns the light off. On the weekend my son always reminds me that it’s time to clean Swimmy’s tank. He still needs help with this and can’t do it on his own for the sake of the fish’s safety.
Although his pet fish was shy at first, he read that beta fish can be taught to feed from one’s hand. Each day he attempted to give his fish a piece of food from the tip of his finger and eventually the fish learned to take it from him. By the way, I also stand corrected that fish can’t greet you when you come home. Swimmy definitely comes up to the side of the tank when he sees my son come into the room.
When making changes to his fish’s tank, my son always takes into account what would make Swimmy happy and comfortable, rather than simply purchasing items that he himself likes.
So many questions have popped up since Swimmy joined our family. How do fish breathe? How do fish reproduce? Where do fish in lakes go when the water freezes? Do fish sleep? I’m not a fish expert and can rarely answer these questions for my son, so he has spent hours finding the answers online and has learned a lot.
If you’d like to get your child a pet so he or she can experience these benefits of pet ownership and more, but you or your child aren’t yet ready for the commitment required by a cat or dog—consider adding a finned friend to the family to teach your child lessons that will last a lifetime.