A Fish Tank for a 4 Year Old

Gazing into the fish tank

DECEMBER 16, 2019

My daughter absolutely loves fish. She likes all animals, but she loves fish. When we go to the pet store to pick up supplies for our other animals, she makes a beeline for the tanks in the aquatic section. She’ll run back and forth along the rows, examining each tank and shouting “fish, fish, fish!” It always amuses the store employees to see such a small a kid so passionate about finned friends.

I have OCD, which I have spoken about on here before a few times. When I pick up a hobby, I get really into it, so perhaps she gets some of this from me. I also know that it’s common for autistic children like her to become really fascinated by specific topics. Her first obsession was outer space. It started pretty much at her birth, and for over four years now, I have watched Cosmos with her at least once per week, at her insistence. It wasn’t much long after that when her love of aquatic life took hold.

The Fish Obsession

I first noted her interest when she would stand and stare at my father’s 160 gallon tank, stocked with monster-sized fish. I miss that tank so much. It unfortunately sprung a leak, and multiple attempts to reseal it didn’t do the trick. He had a silver dollar in there that he had allowed me to put in (I had quite a few of them) that was over 17 years old when the disaster struck. Their lifespan is typically about 8-10 years.

A fish tank stocked with enormous fish

I can’t say that I’m surprised she became fascinated with fish. My family has had the water in our veins for centuries. We’ve kept genealogical records that trace us back to Vikings. Lord Admiral Nelson is one of my ancestors. My grandfather used to organize fishing excursions for family members while his wife nurtured her koi and goldfish pond. My cousin maintains it now.

As a child and teen, I used to refer to the “armada” my parents owned, which included a 36′ sail boat, a smaller-sized fishing boat, a couple dinghies, a canoe, and I don’t even know how many kayaks. Every nice weekend and family vacation we escaped to the ocean. At the age of twelve, I completed the US Power Squadrons course. A few years later, I got my scuba diving license. It was pretty much expected that my daughter would become a water fanatic too.

Making the Decision

When I took up the fishkeeping hobby again myself, which I had thoroughly enjoyed as a child, I saw how strong her fascination truly was. The tank was like a magnet for her, and she took every opportunity she could to make her way into my room to stare, wide-eyed at the graceful movements of my betta sorority. Seeing the way my child lit up like this is one of the great joys of parenthood.

The heavily-planted betta sorority I used to keep in my bedroom

Unfortunately, having her barge into my room whenever she got the whim was not ideal. For example, I try to keep my cats confined to one part of the house, away from the leather furniture. When Riley walks through the house and opens doors, she leaves them open. The cats are then free to get into all the places they know they aren’t supposed to.

I also wanted to bring her into the routine maintenance of fish keeping. If it’s something she is interested in doing, then she needs to understand the work and responsibility involved. It’s one thing to stare at a pretty tank. It’s quite another to take care of it. Of course, she’s not yet old enough to take on these chores herself, but she can be present and watch while I do what needs to be done. That way, she can begin to realize that the effort creates the reward, and the two parts of that equation cannot (and should not) be separated.

The Challenges Involved

I was worried that having a tank in her room would make it increasingly difficult to get her to sleep at night, if she kept getting out of bed to watch the fish. That turned out to be less difficult than expected. She stops paying attention to it when we turn the light off at night.

It was essential to make sure the tank was well-secured. I did not want her toppling it over onto herself. A 20-gallon tank weighs 225lbs when it’s full of water. It’s tall enough that she can’t get her hands into it right now. I also strapped the tank and its stand to the wall to keep it safe. Hopefully by the time she’s taller, I will have taught her why it’s a bad idea to stick her hands in. Right now, she keeps trying to throw her toys in so the fishies can play with her!

Riley gazing at her fishtank

Unexpected Benefits

When I first put the tank in her room, I was actually thrilled to have something blocking her access to her Neil DeGrasse Tyson poster. Previously, she had liked to yank it down off the wall so she could look more closely at it. Now we have it taped to the back of her tank so she can see it, but not reach it!

The other thing that’s really cool about keeping guppies is how varied they are. Yes, they’re low-maintenance fish, but so are a lot of other fish. I currently have lots of tetras in my tank. Those are easy. But guppies have so many different colors and tail types, and yet they’re all the same kind of fish. With a neurodiverse kid, I’ll take any opportunity to teach her that differences are what make things beautiful. Rainbows would be way less pretty in monochrome.

Riley is different, and that’s awesome. I love her all the more for it. I just want to encourage anything that lights her up.