A Dad’s Role in the Hobby
As I have noted several times in the past, for whatever reason this hobby is dominated by men. But in an attempt at equal and to promote the hobby to our fellow female hobbyists, on Mother’s Day I have tried to acknowledge and hopefully prod more women to get into the hobby and applaud those who were engaged in it. Since this is Father’s Day weekend I thought I would take a look at how my dad and some other fathers influenced my being in the hobby and how we fathers might encourage and help our kids get involved and share our interest with us.
I would love to be able to say that my children share my passion for this hobby, but in reality, at best they take a passing interest when I do something new or set up an old tank. However, having learned from my mistakes my younger cousins now all have taken an interest in the hobby so hopefully, this indicates that I have learned what I did wrong.
In my own case my love for the hobby began when I was 6 and brought home baby guppies from my neighbor’s house. My dad bought me a bowl and a book and that’s what got things started. My passion was then stoked further when I visited my Uncle Frank’s house. He had a wonderful 10-gallon tank in his dining room that was absolutely filled with colorful fish.
It is probably from watching his tank and learning from him that I have developed my style of overstocking my tanks. I wish there was a picture of it, but from my memory it had to house at least 40 fish including the nicest trio of Black Sailfin mollies that I have seen to this day. It looked awesome as it had black gravel, lots of plants and even a red treasure chest that moved up and down as air bubbles filled its lid.
To be honest, Uncle Frank and I had little in common and rarely spoke unless we chatted about this tank. Once I got him talking about it he would talk with me for hours going over the details of every fish he had, what he had new, and even how he was growing a new generation of mollies to replace his trio once they died. I thought it was incredibly fascinating and realize now that part of the reason was not just the fish he had or how the tank looked but more how he had a story for each and every fish and that is what got me hooked (no pun intended).
As my enjoyment of the hobby grew and I got a 10-gallon tank of my own, my dad and I would travel to the local fish stores to keep my (our) tank filled. There was Frank’s Aquarium, Tiny’s, Elmer’s and Bob’s. All of them owned by a kindly uncle type of guy. Over the years I became friends with not only them, but also with their children.
Half of the kids enjoyed the hobby as much as their dads and stayed and took over the business while the others never really showed much interest and moved on leaving their dad’s businesses to disappear with time. After talking with those that stayed it became clear that they shared their dad’s enjoyment of the hobby for a number of reasons. For them their dad did not make working in the shop a joyless job, but rather they tried to make it fun.
They said their dads always told them stories about the fish and other animals and made doing the chores a fish store requires fun. They shared how their dads told them stories that made the fish a lot more interesting. It could be about how the cardinal tetras were brought back deep from the Amazon rainforest and what the trip was like or how the killifish would spawn in the mud and then die once their pond dried up or how Discus babies lived off the slime of their parents.
These “kids” might not remember how dull it was to do water changes or mop the floor but they all remembered how interesting their dad’s stories of the fish were and how they felt a part of the hobby because of these stories. So that may be part of how, we as dads, can get and keep our kids interested in the hobby, not by just having them help up with the chores the hobby entails, but rather by telling them the stories about the inhabitants of our tanks. Let’s face it, Finding Nemo or Dory were not really Pulitzer worthy stories, but I can not tell you how many kids that come into my house recognize them either in my tanks or by the glass figurines I have of them from the movie.
And they all can pretty much tell you the entire story of each. What’s also funny is that if I ask them if they want to hear a story about them from my point of view, they all do. To my mind if you want to have your kids enjoy the hobby with you, which is an incredibly great feeling, I think you need to capture their interest and imagination before they find other things that capture it more.
As dads we try to always look out for the best interest of our kids and have them share things that we like to do, so to me what could be better than having them share our hobby? I realize that the hobby now competes with video games, computers and all the immediate gratification that is out there. And let’s face it, this hobby requires time and patience that not many kids are willing to put into it.
But as I said if we can make it interesting by having them use their imaginations when we tell them stories about fish and corals when they are young I think this might help to get more of them interested in the hobby from a young age as was the case with many of us. And as was the case with my dad, this allowed us to spend time together which now looking back, was some of the best time I had with my dad.
I also remember my dad fueling my interest by frequently taking my sister and I to the zoo and the aquarium. I even remember one Father’s Day when we made him breakfast in bed and he was so happy that he asked us what we would like to do with him on Father’s Day. I said first, “Let’s go to the zoo” and my sister, who rarely did this, agreed. So we spent the day together going to the zoo and aquarium and having a wonderful time. Seeing this public aquarium with them added to my enjoyment of my own fish.
I think since we had such a good time, my dad made a point that when we went on vacation or traveled he always took us to see the public aquariums wherever we were. We went to Mystic, the Miami Seaquarium, the Shedd and several at the Jersey Shore whose names I don’t remember.
Looking back, I realize now that back then these weren’t anything amazing, but getting to enjoy these with my family and having my dad take the time to take us undoubtedly added to my enjoyment of the hobby even from an early age. Now that there are more beautiful public aquaria out there it should be even easier now to make a day of it and visit these and make it special for our kids.
When I have taken my kids I always did a little pre-planning and looked at what exhibits were up before we went. In this way I could plan a few stories around what we were going to see before we got there. This I hoped would make it a little more interesting than just looking at fish in glass boxes.
Just as taking them to public aquariums allows us more time with them and hopefully interest them in the hobby so too does taking them to frag swaps or shows. Since many of these have gotten bigger and more interesting, to me at least the enjoyment of them has gotten contagious and I think has spread to my kids at least a little. Now there are demonstrations of new equipment, displays of the newest fish and corals and usually lots of people having fun.
Bringing them to a swap or show also lets them see all the beautiful colored corals on display, and I know of few kids who don’t like the brightly colored corals that are on display at these shows. Taking a young budding hobbyist to these and showing them another aspect of what this hobby is all about will hopefully add to their interest in it.
Also when there have been other children there it gives them the opportunity to meet and talk with them. As those of us that have been in the hobby for a while know some of the friendships we have formed here have remained friendships for decades. So hopefully when our kids make friends in the hobby with other kids in it these friendships will show the same longevity.
Another way to keep our kids interested and involved in the hobby is to show them how unique the hobby is and to make it interesting for their friends. While to older kids it may not be cool to have your parent come to school to talk, when my kids were young I gave almost yearly talks to their classes on the hobby, coral reefs and the fish and corals and other inhabitants of the reefs.
As long as I didn’t embarrass them they all seemed to enjoy having me come in and give talks. Some years I did slide presentations, which they seemed to like as long as there were lots of colorful slides and pictures of interesting things. More importantly they seemed to again enjoy this more when there were short stories to accompany the slides. Some of the stories I told were about how coral reefs formed, or what exactly a coral is, why bleaching occurs or how symbiosis is important on the reef.
I also gave some talks where I brought in “props” for the kids to see and touch. I brought in dead coral skeletons, dried starfish and urchins and even clownfish in a host anemone. As much as the pictures and stories captured their imaginations, I think getting to see and touch a coral or urchin skeleton did more. Over time I built up quite a collection of things for the kids to touch and play with to get them interested in the reef and what occurs there.
These stories did not have to be completely scientifically accurate as long as they were interesting to make the kids want to know more. I have to assume that the kids in school liked these talks and presentations, as at least a few of them set up tanks of their own with their parents as a result. Once I got used to doing these presentations in front of the kids it actually got to be fun as many of them started asking questions.
Once this occurred I knew that I had at least gotten their attention and at worst they might appreciate a coral reef and what goes on there. So for all of you dads who are looking to shine in front of your kids doing a presentation in front of their class might just be the ticket to get some brownie points with your kids and add to their interest in the hobby.
In fact, a way to take this one step further is to have their class come over for a field trip to view your tank. From my teacher friends I have learned that they are always looking for new and interesting ways to teach kids about science. So what could be better to teach them about coral reefs than to get them to see a small one without getting wet? I have had at least 20 classes of kids come over and see my tanks through the years and while it was a bit stressful when I started doing it over time it got to be fun for me and I think for the kids as well.
When I had my 1200-gallon tank up it was kind of a showstopper for the kids especially once they understood that all of the colorful corals in it were alive. Most of the time the teachers wanted the talk to last about a period, which may seem like a long time to keep kids entertained. But I soon realized that I did not need to talk that long, I just talked about the basics for a few minutes, let the kids watch the tank and after a few minutes they would ask enough questions to fill the whole time.
I realize that giving talks or having classes of kids over isn’t for everyone, but as was the case with my dad, nurturing my enjoyment of the hobby took effort on his part as well as mine. If you want your kids to get involved in the hobby it will take time and effort on your part, which as least to me is well worth it.
Our hobby can at times take us away from our families, especially our kids, so getting them to share our enjoyment of it and be part of it, at least to me, can make it even more enjoyable. When my kids were young I used to sit with them for hours and watch my tank and tell them the names of every fish, no not Jim or Frank, but this is a percula clownfish or a flame angel or a powder blue tang. I never named my fish, but unbeknownst to me they did.
For some reason they named my Marine Betta their Buck fish. Amazingly this fish is now approaching 20 years in my tank and my kids still call it their Buck fish. So even though I did not get them to be as involved in the hobby as I am, at least they showed some interest. I just wish I had been able to nurture this interest more than I did.
While my father never had any interest in my hobby, I appreciate that through all the years I have been in the hobby he has always supported and encouraged my enjoyment of it. Hopefully you fathers out there will do the same with your kids if they too show interest when they are young. What is funny is throughout all the years my father, while he encouraged me, never took enough interest to notice even one fish I kept in my tanks.
I could have kept a mermaid and he never really paid any attention. Then a couple of years ago I set up a tank in my dining room and during dinner he looked up and said “wow that’s a great looking fish”. Unfortunately, the fish he picked was a really expensive peppermint hogfish. So now I always have to have this fish, otherwise I will feel like I have disappointed him by killing it. And like most of us fathers, I hate to disappoint.
Being a father, like being in this hobby, can be difficult and stressful at times. However, when you get to enjoy the time with your kids both are worth it. There are lots of things you can do to encourage your kids to enjoy this hobby with you.
From my own experience, I strongly urge you to do all you can to do this. And if you don’t have kids then bring your father over and share your enjoyment of your tank and this hobby with him. There really is nothing more fun that laughing with your dad and sharing stories about the hobby with him.
And if you’re good maybe he will even buy you a new fish. I hope all you lucky fathers out there get to enjoy our special day by doing something special with their kids, even if it is just doing a water change together.