My 4 year old wanted a dog. I told him that I need to see him take responsibility first for a small pet before getting him a dog - Plus, my yard is not exactly animal friendly right now.

We got him a small beta fish, the tank, the food, and all the cool stuff. I took careful instructions from the pet store expert, and had my son do all the feeding every day, under my supervision. This morning, Bob (the fish) was laying sideways in his tank, not moving.

I believe quite firmly that it was not my son's fault - he did everything I told him - but Bob is officially dead this morning. While I want to ensure he learns some lesson from this, the fish died in only a few days. My son knows he's dead, but he doesn't seem fazed by it yet.

Is there a teachable moment here, even if I believe the fish died of natural causes and not by my son's actions?

  • I would definitely have a look at this article whish may explain the sudden death of the fish. This one might help also. As a side remark, if you really care about you son being mature enough to handle a dog (without you getting all of the disadvantages), maybe another kind of pet would suit better ? When time comes to walk the dog and take care of the little "gifts" it drops on its way, a fish has nothing as demanding as this.
    – Laurent S.
    Aug 21, 2015 at 12:29
  • I learned a lot more from the fish expert at the store. But I really agree with your comment, but due to the house we're in, it's not very animal friendly. I also don't want rodents for pets, as I remember them stinking, a lot, when in the home. Do you have other suggestions, @laurents? Aug 21, 2015 at 12:50
  • Owning a dog is very demanding and I can totally imagine why you don't want your kid to get one (as it appears his maturity isn't the only issue). I was actually a "dog guy" until I lived on my own. I hated cats. Then the girlfriend arrived in the picture, she was a "cat girl", we got cats, and I realized how much more convenient cats were over dogs. First you usually don't have to pay for it, secondly they're much more clean than any dog (they quickly find the litter and if you can afford a cat flap you won't need any litter at all, which is good cause it can smell very awfull...).
    – Laurent S.
    Aug 21, 2015 at 13:19
  • Finally, while awful stories of dogs biting kids are quite common, I must say I never heard (ok, maybe 1 time) of huge wounds due to an agressive cat. Therefore, and although this is very different from a dog, my advise would be to get a cat instead, assuming this would be a solution for you though...
    – Laurent S.
    Aug 21, 2015 at 13:19
  • When my first fish died (I was about 6), I found out after coming home one evening. My first, and only, reaction was to ask my parents if I could have another one after we flushed that one.
    – warren
    Aug 27, 2015 at 20:19

3 Answers 3


But which exactly greatly depends on your child and his experiences so far.

Some suggestions:

  • Death is final
    Really. If you are four you haven't necessarily made that experience yet. Families are smaller and live apart, neighbourhoods less connected than a few generations ago. First-hand experience with death is rare even for adults.
  • Death is inevitable
    Every living thing will eventually die. Some creatures have only a few weeks, some will live for hundreds of years. But in the end, they will die. Even if you take great care and make no mistake. Sometimes death can be anticipated, sometimes it's sudden. In the end, what counts it's what you made of your time.
  • Death is not the end of the world
    Life goes on for those still living. We are sad, but we carry on. (You could include some concept of afterlife here depending on your belief and whether you are willing to include pets in it.)
  • Death has its social customs and traditions
    We respect our dead and celebrate their life with a funeral or similar. (I would suggest not throwing the fish in the trash.)
  • ...

And, if in the end your son really doesn't care, let it go. You might have to live up to your promise of a dog, though...

  • I like these lessons, and will try explaining the custom/traditions part tonight; I told him the rest already. As for the promise for the dog... He had to keep a fish alive and healthy for 3 years. The pet store said it was not our fault the fish died, as the water was where it was expected to be. Aug 20, 2015 at 19:40

Your son wasn't as connected to the fish (who he couldn't touch) as he would be a puppy (who would have personality and follow your son around), so it's not surprising that he isn't upset.

I would use this as a moment to teach the following:

  • Small animals are delicate and have shorter life spans than dogs or humans. It's natural and no ones fault when it's time for them to pass.
  • If he gets upset stress that you both took care of the fish carefully and together. He could also do something to "remember" the fish like draw a picture. This would alow him to feel like he's doing something to help instead of being powerless in the situation.
  • I wouldn't do this now but if you decide to get more fish you should do a little research on water quality and make sure there wasn't something off that did kill the fish. I say don't do this now because you don't want your son to think you did something wrong, but you do want to double check before getting another fish under the same conditions. Fish are so sensitive.

Many pet stores have a guarantee period. In my town they all offer 7 days; if I take the fish back to the store, along with a sample of the water from the tank, they test it, determine whether the death was caused by water conditions, improper handling, or possibly a condition the fish had before purchase (and in the latter case, they offer a replacement). Check your receipt or contact the store to determine their policy. (Do keep the water sample for testing separate from the fish, please!)

The teachable moment here would be either:

  • If the fish had some disease from the pet store, confirmation that it wasn't his fault, and an opportunity to try again, if that's something he wants to do.
  • If water conditions or handling were the cause, then he'll have the opportunity to learn what was done wrong, how to seek answers from knowledgeable experts, and hopefully gain a deeper appreciation of the responsibility one takes on by being a pet owner.
  • One teachable moment is how to deal patiently, kindly, and yet assertively in issues which involve possible conflicts of interest. Aug 20, 2015 at 5:46
  • While a good practical approach: OP asked about teachable moments... Are you essentially saying "teach him to claim the warranty"?
    – Stephie
    Aug 20, 2015 at 5:47
  • @Stephie I was more focusing on determining the cause of death and learning what to do differently. But, also, if there was indeed nothing OP could have done differently, then it'd be good to get that reassurance. The fish replacement is only mentioned for completeness. Aug 20, 2015 at 5:52
  • Also, I just realized this post is on parenting.SE, not pets.SE. I'll see if I can reword to further direct the focus on causality rather than remedy. Aug 20, 2015 at 5:54
  • @DanHenderson That explains it... Would be a good post over at pets SE.
    – Stephie
    Aug 20, 2015 at 6:03

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