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The Perfect Starter Fish

It's hardy, it's handsome, it's possibly the perfect starter fish for kids

Last year, our 5-year-old son, Ethan, became fascinated with fish. In our comings and goings to preschool, he would pause before the aquarium in the lobby, watching a fat Black Moor hide behind its favorite coral. At a Cape Cod pond, he and his sand shovel hunted minnows with the determination of Captain Ahab. It didn't surprise me, then, when Ethan asked, "Can we get some fish for our house?

It seemed a simple request, so Ethan, his older sister, Hannah, and I proceedd to the pet store. We assumed the goldfish was the perfect starter fish: Isn't it a classic pet of childhood? Was one not immortalized as the Cat in the Hat's outraged foil? Isn't there a snack cracker named in its honor? We selected one and excitedly brought it home.

Alas, the excitement was short-lived. The next day I found Ethan peering dubiously into the bowl. He asked, "Is he, uh, sleeping?" Motionless and blanched, the goldfish had indeed gone belly up — or at least belly sideways. "It's not alive anymore," I gave my grim diagnosis, then led our little funeral procession into the bathroom. "Do fish in the wild live such short lives?" Hannah asked me, ceremoniously flushing the toilet handle. (The answer: not usually.) I later learned from a neighbor who had buried her share of goldfish that we would need a full-scale aquarium with filters, pumps, and state-of-the-art life support.

Mo' Betta Blues
I was about to put the kibosh on any further fish-owning when I recalled the Betta fish I had long ago acquired as a wedding-guest favor which lived for at least a year on benign neglect. Back we trooped to the pet store.

There we spotted 30 Bettas, jewel-colored and flowing-finned, displayed in row after row in their own yogurt-sized containers. Hannah and Ethan both coveted the same blue one. "Is it a boy?" Ethan asked. "I want a boy." (I was hard pressed to judge this, but eventually learned that males are flashier and have much longer finsm, so are more commonly sold at commercial pet stores.) For less than $25, we purchased two Bettas, food, water conditioner, and a special divided Betta tank to prevent them from living up to their other name: Siamese fighting fish.

Almost immediately, our Bettas impressed us. Surface breathers native to decaying, oxygen-deficient swamps in Asia, they're not finicky about a pristine tank — no filters or pumps required. Our fish demonstrated their hardiness by, day after day, week after week, not dying. In the first few weeks after their homecoming, Ethan would pass by, study them, and report with happy surprise, "They're alive!" Unlike our goldfish, these lived long enough to acquire names: Hannah named hers Lyra (this was before we figured out it was a boy), and Ethan named his Ethan, which I think is a high compliment.

The kids have also found that Bettas make interesting viewing. In the first few weeks, our fish adopted dramatic tough-guy poses with their gill covers and fins when they caught sight of each other through the plastic tank divider. (These displays are how males defend their territory in the wild. I've been assured that this arrangement does not drive the fish insane.) "They look like superheroes!" said Ethan, impressed. My kids were also intrigued by the Bettas' practice of making elaborate bubble-nests on the water's surface. Intended to harbor fertilized eggs, males can make these nests even without a lady Betta around. As my husband said, "Hope springs eternal."

The Schools of Fish
While Bettas are charmingly low maintenance, they have given my kids an introduction to the responsibilities of pet ownership. Ethan and Hannah feed them every day, and need reminding that overfeeding can be dangerous. "But they still look hungry!" Ethan often protests, taken in by their greedy-looking upturned mouths. The kids also help me clean out the bowl once or twice a week (it's best to leave the fish in the bowl and replace about half of their water). There's a a reward for our efforts: Frequently changing water keeps fish healthier and more active, makes their colors bloom more vividly, and can encourage a new round of crowd-pleasing bubblenest building.

Almost a year and a half after we brought them home, I am pleased to report our Bettas are still going strong. Bettas may not be as cuddly as our two hamsters: They can not be dressed up in little toilet paper robes. But Ethan and Hannah both like to linger by the tank for a long look into their watery world. Head propped in hands, Hannah stares into the tank and muses, "What are they thinking about?" Good question.

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