When E got a new job working from home in 2013, he said he was going to get himself a fish tank to add a little visual interest and zen to his home office. I imagined something small and compact with a handful of fish, but in my beloved husband’s inimitable style, he ended up getting a massive 45 gallon unit that now sustains an entire aquatic ecosystem. Little did I know this aquarium would become such a focal point of fun, interaction and life lessons for our whole family!
The aquarium has been such a great experience for us that I thought I’d try to capture everything we’ve learned from the fish who share our home.
Illness and Death
From the occasional death of a fish, to the far more traumatic and sad death of our beloved African dwarf frog Prince Naveen this past fall, the tank has been a low-key way to introduce Zoe to this important yet difficult concept. When we lose a fish, Zoe is always very sad and talks about him or her for several days, remembering their names and descriptions long after E and I do. She doesn’t get super attached to the fish, but she does care for them, so it’s a low-cost point of entry into this conversation. Of course I would much rather she learn about these things in conjunction with our fish tank so that, when the time comes, she will be better able to understand if it happens with a more major player in her life (although I have no idea how we will deal when that time comes for her beloved hamster, Rhino).
When our little frog Naveen met his tragic end in our filter, it was such a tremendous loss to our family that we actually held a special burial ceremony for him in our back yard. Zoe and I said a few words about him and how special he was, she got to hold his little body (through the sealed baggie in which we had placed him), and she got to cover him with dirt and mark his grave with stones. We buried him near our creek so he would be close to the other frogs and would never be alone. This was in September and Zoe still talks about Naveen – in fact on New Year’s Eve, when we were talking about significant milestones and highlights from our year, she asked us not to forget little Naveen. We certainly haven’t.
Thankfully, the opposite side of the spectrum has also occurred within our little aquatic microcosm – our Dalmation mollies began mating immediately upon coming home from the pet store and we were blessed with a live birth and little teeny tiny babies right after Christmas. Zoe absolutely loves the “super tinies” as we call these guys. Sadly, we lost both of the parent fish while the babies were still too small to leave the breeding tank – and that makes us even more glad that we have three little fish to carry on their parents’ legacy. Ms. Salt and Mr. Pepper, we miss you and we’ll take good care of your little tiny offspring! The babies have been safely sequestered away in a floating breeders tank, but now they are almost big enough to be released into general population.
In the safe haven of our fish tank, Zoe has also learned about bullies. We had a Rainbow shark we liked a lot, and he got along well with all the fish in our tank, but alas he would not leave our Candy snail alone and kept biting at her anytime she came out of her shell. So, even though he was a nice size and quite a healthy fish, we had to take him back to the pet store so they could find him a new home. No room for bullies in our tank! We used this opportunity to talk to Zoe about being kind to others, especially those who are different from us (like the snail) or who move a little more slowly than we do. She got very upset with the Rainbow shark for picking on the snail, and she was the one who insisted we take him back to the store when he refused to leave her alone.
Being kind to new fish.
The kindness message is one we have repeated often with Zoe throughout her almost four years, and as a result she is incredibly gentle and kind with all animals, fish and bugs. When we have a new fish, especially, she is super gentle and respectful of their fear and uncertainty. We talk about how it must feel to be the new fish, how hard it would be to move to a new tank, and how she felt when Zoe moved to our new home and school when she was two. The aquarium gives us a great opportunity to talk about feelings and put ourselves into the shoes of others and imagine how they feel – even if they are “just” fish.
Names and personalities.
We’ve had a ton of fun coming up with names and personality descriptions for everyone in our tank. Zoe knows each species and will tell newcomers all about the who’s who of our fish tank. The pearl gouramis have feelers (antennae or “tickle sticks”) and use them often to keep other fish at bay or annoy each other. The remaining adult Dalmation molly seems to really enjoy being tickled by these feelers, even though other fish seem to recoil at the first touch. Our Jack Rabbit snail is speedy and sly, like a ninja – while our once-bullied Candy snail is far more laid back and more likely to rest in her shell than move around very much. Our Danios are probably the most fun of all to watch, from their varied colors (leopard, zebra, blue leopard and pearl) to their high-speed maneuvers and apparent fearlessness around even much bigger fish.
Seek and find fun.
Oscar our High-fin plecostamus, Prince Naveen the tiny frog and, in turn, the snails have all made for very fun games of “Where’s Waldo.” We talk about camouflage, good hiding places and how to spot these friends wherever they may be hiding. Zoe has unbelievably sharp eyes and can always find our tank’s inhabitants no matter where they may be. Regrettably, this has also meant she’s often the one to find our deceased aquarium members as well!
Colors, descriptions, stories.
The bright colors, constant movement and peaceful serenity of a large and vibrant aquarium like ours make for fabulous fish-watching fun. It’s been a great language-booster for Zoe as we talk about the colors, activities and inhabitants of our tank. We tell each other stories about the fish and what their lives are like – and sometimes we even daydream about becoming fish for a day and swimming around the tank ourselves. We talk about where we’d like to hide, which fish would be our best friends, and whether we would be top, bottom, fast or slow swimmers. It’s a great alternative to TV on cold or rainy days!
Being gentle, still and quiet.
As with the kindness message, we have also been able to show Zoe that the fish respond best when she is gentle, still and quiet. For example, if we sit quietly near the tank after feeding the fish, we can actually hear the gouramis “snapping” at the food – it makes an audible sound! This is great preparation for going on nature hikes and being around other types of living creatures. Being gentle, still and quiet isn’t always the easiest thing to do for a toddler, preschooler or young child, but fortunately we get plenty of practice with our own in-home aquarium.
Appreciation for all living things.
I’ve noticed that since we got our aquarium, Zoe shows even more interest in the fish at the Columbus Zoo aquarium – she’ll spend countless minutes intently looking into each tank there. Having them as pets and neighbors has taught her that fish have their own personalities and lives, just like little people – and I believe that has given her more respect and appreciation for all creatures. Don’t even get me started about her love affair with lady bugs, caterpillars and garden snails! But I am so glad she’s not afraid of bugs – even though we both agree spiders are as creepy as they are cool.
Fun places to visit.
We’ve also learned as a family that any pet store with a fish section is a great place to visit on a cold or rainy afternoon – especially the Holy Grail of all fish stores, Aquarium Adventure in Dublin, whose name I have borrowed for this blog post. This place is incredible – everyone should visit at least once. They probably have as many if not more fish than the aquarium at the zoo – and the variety of tanks and aquatic life are just amazing! We have spent many a happy and peaceful hour there browsing for our next aquarium inhabitants.
So, that’s what our aquarium has done for us so far – and I’m sure there are even more lessons yet to learn. What about you – have you had good luck with a fish tank in your home? What are your favorite types of fish, and what have they taught you? I’d love to hear in the comments below.