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A friend with fins can be a low-maintenance first pet for a toddler or a fulfilling hobby for a teen. There are fish and tank systems for children of any age. Getting up close and personal with a fish allows your child to appreciate an animal he can't easily interact with in nature.
"Observing and caring for fish instills a sense of responsibility and respect for life. Watching how fish react to different stimuli helps children see directly how their behavior and actions affect others," says Steven T. King, executive director of the Pet Care Trust, a nonprofit that promotes the benefits of pets through education, support and interaction.
Carefully thinking through your fish selection and family pet care rules will help build your child's character and preserve his relationship with his new pet.
Pick The Right Fish
The ASPCA recommends goldfish for young children and older kids who have no experience caring for fish. These little guys live in cold water, so their tanks don't have to be as sophisticated as those housing tropical fish. Your child will also have plenty of companions to pick from, since there are six varieties of goldfish. Some of them aren't even orange!
As your child gains experience with fish care, you may select one of the hundreds of warm-water fish varieties. These guys need their water kept between 78 and 82 degrees Fahrenheit, so you'll need a heating device to go with the tank.
Saltwater fish should only be presented to experienced fish caretakers, since there are extra precautions involved with cleaning and maintaining the tanks. No matter which fish you select, make sure your tank holds 1 gallon of water per inch of fish, so you don't cramp the little swimmer's style.
Like all pets, fish require food, a clean living environment and attention. Your child's age and aptitude for responsibility will determine how fish care duty is divided among family members. Check on the fish once per day to make sure your older child is keeping up with its care. If you have a younger child, you'll be doing most of the feeding and tank care, but work alongside your little one and let him do simple tasks, such as dropping the pinch of food you took from the package into the tank.
"Remember that kids are very perceptive and will look to you as a model of responsible pet care. If you set an example of love, compassion, and dependability they will hopefully, in turn, model your example," King says.
In addition to teaching responsibility, a pet fish can stimulate your child's mind. Let him think of a name for his new pet, and select fun toys and decor for the tank. As your little one observes his fish, discuss age-appropriate facts, such as how fish use their gills to breathe, or how fish lay eggs when they have babies.
King recommends drawing inspiration from the fish for engaging art projects. "Using the fish and its environment as the focus of artwork can help children grow their bond with the fish while encouraging creative thought," King says.
Don't forget to stock up on plenty of fish-related books, movies and puzzles to help your child's imagination soar.
With proper care, goldfish can live for 10 years or longer, and some warm-water varieties of fish live even longer. In many cases, fish are already in poor health when they are purchased and your child's time with his new pet may be cut short. Whenever your child's fish reaches the end of its life, it is important to respect the bond kids and pets share. The loss of a pet is often a young child's first experience with death and must be handled carefully. Instead of disposing of the fish in secret and trying to hide the death from your child, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends having an honest discussion, in a soothing voice with plenty of hugs. Answer your child's questions, and encourage him to discuss, draw and write about the fish if he so desires.