Help! My Son’s Fish Has Died 3 Times but He Has No Idea. Am I a Terrible Parent?

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My son desperately wanted a goldfish for his fifth birthday and—parents of the year—we said yes! We got the tank, the air pump, all the required accoutrements to become fish parents, then finally, the goldfish. But it died on day one. My son was so serious about taking proper care of his first pet that we couldn’t tell him. Instead, at 39 cents a fish, we quickly replaced it. A week later, it died again. An express bus to the pet store later, a new goldfish joined our aquarium. (We used the tank’s leafy decor as our cover and told our son the fish was hiding, then swapped a new one in.)

Fast forward a few weeks and another dead goldfish. FWIW, we have five tetras in the tank, too, and they’re doing just fine. This time, we haven’t replaced it, but my son hasn’t commented on it either. (He’s pretty enamored with those playful tetras.) Now, we’re doing anything and everything to troubleshoot the problem before picking up another fish. My question for you: Are we horrible parents? Is it bad that we can’t just tell him his fish died? — Rachel, New York

First and foremost, you are not a bad mom! Take that thought out of your head. Most parents would be tempted to do just that: Replace the fish.

It’s important to note that children’s understanding of death changes with age and it’s not until they’re nine years old that they can really grasp that death is permanent and personally relevant. When they’re 3 and 4, they do sometimes feel scared when it comes to death related imagery—like the Grim Reaper—but they don’t really get it. For younger, grade school children, like your son, they likely understand that death is permanent and that all living things die, but they still don’t believe it will happen to them.

Back to the fish and your punted conversation on grief: All deaths are not created equal. For example, whacking and killing a mosquito is different than losing a parent. I’m not convinced that the death of a fish prepares a kid for anything, but you know your child and your family situation best. If you surface a conversation about what happened, will he be sad about the loss? Maybe, maybe not.

As parents, we’re always making calculations about what we can deal with and what our kids can deal with at that current moment. The reality is that there will be lots of opportunities for them to learn about the cycle of life.

Most important, if you do choose to discuss it, you can never go wrong by following your child’s lead. Still, just like with body parts, I think it’s good to use the real vocabulary: “They died” or “they’re dead” rather than something more euphemistic. Otherwise, you’re sending the message that this is something you’re not comfortable talking about.

There’s also an important concept in psychology that comes into play here called social referencing. It’s the idea that when a kid sees a dog for the first time, they look at the dog, but they also look up to the grownup to see if they should be scared. If the grownup is matter of fact about it, it’s easier for the child to approach the dog. All this is to say, in general, a good strategy as parents is that we want to empathize, but we also want to share our confidence that our kids can cope with things that are a natural part of life.

Back to your original question: Is it bad that you can’t just tell your son his fish died? The problem with protecting him from everything is saying, ‘Oh, I don’t think he can handle this.’ You don’t want to over-protect. Whether this was a good week for you to be dealing with it? That’s for you to determine. There are going to be dead bugs, dead worms, dead flowers. You’ll be dealing with the topic at some point.

Meet the Expert

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore is a mom of four, psychologist and a trusted expert on parenting and child development. She’s also the author of Kid Confidence: Help Your Child Make Friends, Build Resilience and Develop Real Self-Esteem and hosts a weekly podcast called Dr. Friendtastic about making and keeping friends.

Deep Breaths: Here’s How to Explain Death to a Child

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Psychologist and Childhood Development Expert

Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore is a mom of four, psychologist and a trusted expert on parenting and...