When I was five, my parents decided I was old enough to have my own pet. The house already had two birds, a dog, and a cat, but these animals had all been part of the family long before I had and were the family pets, not my own. The night before we spent hours preparing the aquarium for its future inhabitants, laying down gravel and anchoring plants and carefully preparing the water to be the perfect acidity and temperature. My first fish was the classic childhood staple of a goldfish, and I named him Pumpkin. Pumpkin spent many happy months sitting on my dresser, accepting a single flake of food in the morning and a single flake at night. Although I would have told anyone that Pumpkin was extraordinary (as my childhood journal entries attest), one day Pumpkin began doing tricks. “Look, Mom! Pumpkin can flip upside down!”
As you may have already guessed, this story has a tragic ending. When my mom tried to tell me that Pumpkin was going to leave us for a better place, I became hysterical. The subsequent call to a fish store revealed that Pumpkin had most likely swallowed an air bubble while eating and was now doomed. The loss of Pumpkin was the first real trauma of my life.
Along the way, however, Pumpkin also became one of my most effective teachers. Sure, the lessons I learned in kindergarten, about how to read, write, use scissors, relate with peers, and the like have stuck with me, but considering that Pumpkin was a fish, his lessons are all the more potent. So what did Pumpkin’s short life teach me?
Pumpkin taught me to be responsible. Although I sometimes had to be reminded to feed him, it was my responsibility to make sure he ate twice a day. The responsibility I felt with Pumpkin was different than I had experienced with other things, because Pumpkin was wholly reliant on me. For some kids, this level of responsibility is not achievable. Don’t buy your child a pet and give them that level of responsibility before you both feel ready. One way to gauge responsibility and commitment is to have your child earn the privilege of having a pet by completing chores around the house, or improving grades on a report card.
My fish also taught me accountability. Responsibility is one thing, but being accountable to someone is the next step. If I didn’t feed Pumpkin, or if I didn’t change his water on a weekly basis, I could see the direct consequences of my actions, and his reproachful stare was a harsh reprimand.
With his death, Pumpkin also taught me the hard lessons about letting go. The coping mechanisms I learned from Pumpkin carried through when my best friend moved away in second grade, and into adulthood when family members began to pass away.
Research has shown that having a pet makes children better communicators and are more empathetic. Whether it’s a fish or a horse, animals can play an important, if unconventional, role in your child’s education.