To say you could catch a fish from the kiddie pool at our local Outdoor Festival several years ago is like saying you could turn a few heads if you backed your SUV into a Harley during the Sturgis Rally.
My oldest daughter had just turned seven, and the pool was literally brimming with farm-raised trout that would’ve just as quickly latched onto a Milkdud as Powerbait. Given a window of 15 minutes of fishing for every dollar, most kids old enough to hold their own poles were standing gawk-eyed with a fish in their sack after less than five minutes. So, when my daughter landed her seven-incher, I asked if she wanted to keep it or throw it back in — hoping against hope that she would opt for the throw-back.
I think my exact words were something along the lines of, “Sweetie, do you want to keep the baby trout until he runs out of air, or put him back in the water with his family?”
“I want to keep him,” she said firmly, then turned to her mother and asked for another dollar.
At this point, as a parent, you come to that critical moment where you must decide between the following:
1) Forgo the obvious teachable-moment opportunity and just settle for another hot dog.
2) Exert your “Dad” authority and forbid the action completely (after asking your wife, of course).
Or 3) Clearly state the consequences to your child and be prepared to follow through with the consequences and valuable life lesson.
Taking a breath, I chose number three and explained to my daughter that whatever fish she caught she would also have to carry, clean and — most importantly — eat.
And with that, she dipped her pole and reeled in what proved to be a crucial lesson.
* * * * *
“They’re not moving anymore, Dad.”
Driving back home, I looked at my daughter in the rear-view mirror as she peeked into both sacks.
I could build on this.
“That’s right, dear. If you take them out of the water, they can’t live.”
She met my eye, then checked the sacks again. “Oh.”
I remained silent, letting her process this unsettling development on her own as I prepared myself for her response, which would probably involve some tears.
She’s a very sensitive child.
After a few minutes, she looked up and found me in the mirror.
Her expression was clearly troubled as she leaned forward and asked, “How do you cook ‘em?”
* * * * * *
The guts would get her.
Wrapping an apron around my daughter, I had her stand next to me on a stepstool as I made a long, dramatic incision down the belly of her first fish. As I did, glossy, multicolored things spilled out onto the cutting board and settled into a runny heap. I sliced through the head and tail, and added them to the mix before starting on fish number two.
“Go ahead and scoop that stuff up and put it in this,” I said, and handed her a clear, plastic sack.
She did so without hesitation, except for the heads, which were staring slack-jawed at the both of us.
“What about those?” I asked.
“I don’t want to.”
Ah-HA! I nearly exclaimed, but managed to control myself. Finally, the lesson was about to be learned. A bit smugly, I asked, “You told me you’d help clean these fish.”
She twisted the sack-o-entrails nervously. “I know.”
“Well, then pick these up and throw them away,” I said, brushing the heads toward her with the back of my knife.
“I don’t want to.”
It was time.
The speech was ready, prepared slowly over the last hour in anticipation of this moment; a parent’s sweet victory. “You know, if you’re going to catch fish, you have to take responsibility for… ”
“Can I keep the heads, Dad?”
“… making the choice to — WHAT?”
She looked up at me, smiling. “Can I keep them?” she asked, then slipped them onto her fingers like olives at Thanksgiving. “I don’t want to throw them away.”
* * * * * *
When she helped season and broil the three-ounce fillets, then sat down to eat it, I knew I was beaten. My lesson — so carefully manipulated and contrived — was now being dipped in tarter sauce.
“How’s the fish?” I asked flatly.
I offered a cursory head nod and nibbled at a burger, which I was no longer hungry for. I shoved it aside and swirled my milk glass.
“Dad, where do hamburgers come from?”
“Cows,” I answered, watching as she forked another bite of trout into her mouth.
She then placed her fork on the table and crossed her arms, staring at me with no small amount of displeasure in her eyes.
“What’s with you?” I asked.
She reached over and slid my half-eaten burger back in front of me.
After a long pause, I picked up my burger and began finishing it, realizing that the important lesson I had been trying to teach about respecting and valuing life — especially when it lands on your plate — had actually been learned.
Mostly by me.