I recently read something suggesting you don’t allow your kids to have pets. Now, in some ways I agree. Jess wants a dog, but I know that it’ll be me that ends up walking it, cleaning up after it and feeding it, so she’s not getting one – at least not until she’s old enough to take responsibility for it. I did however allow her to have a small fishtank for her birthday and she has half a dozen fish now. Sometimes she likes feeding them but more often than not, I do it; I don’t mind putting a pinch of food into a tank though.
However, one of the main reasons for not allowing pets (according to this particular piece) was because it meant you would have to lie to your kids. One submitter talked about how they’ve had three identical budgies; each time a bird dies, she slips out and buys another one to replace it so that her child doesn’t know it’s dead. Another talked about doing the same with fish, replacing one particular goldfish no less than 12 times!
I don’t understand. Why lie to your kids about that? We all tell lies sometimes, I can’t deny that; “Father Christmas comes down the chimney,” “eating your crusts will give you curly hair”, “eating carrots will make you see in the dark”. But why lie about a dead fish?
We are so protective of our children. We are so scared of upsetting them that we do everything we can to keep them happy. In some ways, that’s great: when a cuddle can fix a grazed knee or a child wants a bedtime story, there’s no harm in fulfilling their wishes. We all like to make our children smile. But we can’t protect them from everything, and we shouldn’t be trying to.
Sadly, at some point in their lives, our kids are going to have some experience of death. Whether that’s an elderly relative, a friend, or a neighbour’s dog, it’s going to happen. And although we want to put that experience off as long as possible, I’d much rather Jess’s first experience of death is a fish that she’s not too attached to than, say, a grandparent.
A friend’s mother died recently, and she had to explain to her three girls. They seemed to grasp it, but three months on, the youngest (aged 4) is still asking daily when grandma is coming back. When reminded that grandma had died, she just asks “yes, but when will she wake up again?” She also talks about ‘digging her back up’ so she can play. Even the eldest (aged 10) seems confused.
I don’t suggest for a second that dealing with a dead fish will make handling the death of a person any easier. But personally I’d rather be handling questions about the fish than the person. At least when the worst happens, hopefully Jess will understand that when someone goes, that’s it – they aren’t going to come home and play with them. She’ll be devastated, but she can grieve properly and hopefully when we do talk about the person, we can talk about the happier times we had with them rather than going around in the ‘when are they coming back?’ loop.
Inevitably, some of Jess’s fish died. She’s had them for three months and lost three in that time. Two of them went quickly, the third got stressed when we had to clean the tank. We’ve had a conversation about them each time, given them a ‘burial’ of sorts, and she’s asked questions. She hasn’t been particularly upset although she has had a couple of ‘Where’s fishy gone?’ moments. She has obviously taken it in though as pre-school informs me she spent an hour last week telling her key worker about her dead fish!
It never occurred to me to replace the fish before Jess realised. Pets die sometimes and if you have a pet, you have to deal with that whether you are forty or four.
I know that it will be much more traumatic when it’s something like a dog, an animal they have built up some sort of relationship with. But of course with an animal like that, you couldn’t secretly replace it anyway.
If you are animal lovers, get whatever pets you want. If you don’t want animals, then don’t. But don’t refuse to get them because it’ll mean lying to your kids when they die. We tell our kids not to lie, although we know that sometimes it’ll be necessary – but lying about the death of a pet isn’t necessary. It’s not protecting our kids in the long run. Our job as parents is to get our kids ready for ‘life’, and teaching them that everything in the world is perfect and bad things don’t happen is doing them a disservice. It’s lying just for the sake of it – and that’s never good.