Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

login / register  arrows

The Answer Blog

A Fish Story: A Metaphor of Sorts

“Grandma Susie, you have a tadpole in the fish pond.”

My six-year-old grandson Reed’s announcement begins this story.

“A tadpole, Reed,” I countered, “I thought that I only had goldfish in the pond. How do you suppose I landed up with a tadpole too?”

He shrugged and I answered my own question: “Well, I guess some frog jumped into the pond and laid her eggs.” Then I turned to my daughter and said, “We’ve had those goldfish for about three years and they must be of the same gender, because we’ve had no babies.”

Fast-forward a few hours. Steve, the man from the pond company who comes periodically to clean the pool, arrived. He told me that the pool was full of algae and perhaps it would be a good idea to have some tadpoles to help to clean it up. I assured him that if my grandson was right, we had at least one tadpole already, to help the cause.

“I’ll have to take off my shoes and get into the pond to clean the filter,” Steve told me, and he stripped off his shoes and socks and climbed in. I went back to my house chores and when I checked in some minutes later, Steve dropped the bomb. “You have about 50 baby goldfish in this pond, Mrs. Wilson, and not a tadpole among them.”

I felt like a woman who has just been told that she is pregnant with sextuplets: “Babies,” I choked, “but I always thought those fish must be of the same gender.  They’ve lived together for almost three years and have never reproduced.”

Steve did not give me the benefit of his thoughts. He gathered the flotsam and jetsam of his trade along with at least a pound of algae he had pulled out of the pond, and said he’d be back sometime with the tadpoles, leaving me frozen in place.

Steve may not have had any opinions as to the reasons why the goldfish had begun to reproduce, but my husband had plenty when he was told the news.

“The sex educator doesn’t understand why the fish in her pond are having babies?” he exclaimed. “That’s a hoot! What have you been telling teens and adults for the past 25 years you’ve been in business?”  I decided not to respond to his gallows-type humor.

I realized that I must look pretty foolish. Usually when I hear about unintended and unplanned pregnancies, certain rote responses come immediately to my mind: the schools are providing abstinence-only-until-marriage education for the students; the students are hearing only about the negatives associated with condom use and have never had a chance to realize their effectiveness; sex education programs are provided only in senior year of high school long after a great many of the students have become sexually active; and teen pregnancy is a complex issue requiring multiple solutions, particularly for young people growing up in urban and rural poverty.

But with fish? None of the above responses seem relevant. They had had no sex education—good, bad, or indifferent. All my years working as a sex educator had suddenly bumped up against the randomness of unplanned and unintended pregnancy. When I called my friend Polly to tell her about what was taking place in the pond in the garden, which she helps me tend, she laughed and laughed.

“Susie, they’ve become sexually mature,” she said. “They are no longer babies or preteens, which they probably were when you first bought them three years ago. They’ve reached sexual maturity. Get it?”

Yes, I did get it, though still in shock. “I guess we’re godmothers together,” I answered back.

“No, goldmothers,” she said still laughing, moving on to water the plants and leaving me with the 50 little goldfish growing up in my pond.

Surely in this story, there is a teachable moment for Reed and his mom to launch a conversation about gender and sex, but definitely not about the differences between the ways fish and humans reproduce. For educators who read this blog, there may be an embedded lesson starter about the suddenness, randomness, surprise, pleasure but inevitability of human reproduction, unless one uses protection or abstains from having sexual intercourse.

As for me, I stopped looking into the pond and began humming Cole Porter’s great song:

Birds do it,

Bees do it,

Even educated fleas do it,

Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.

Only when I sang the words, I substituted “fish” for “bees.”

Photo by Martha Rathgens

Add This


  • It’s a good idea to beat around the bush but it won’t be the most effective approach. There are videos of parenthood available. After all, it’s about understanding the reproduction system. The more they understand and know about it, the less curious they are about doing it.

    koi fish

  • I had the same experience with my fish pond too. It was how I started telling my 5 year old about babies in her own way.

  • The matter of fact approach is best. Understanding the bigger picture between primitive assexual reproduction to sexual reproduction and its purpose. That is, the sharing of genetic material from the parents to provide for future generations. OK it can be explained in simpler terms obviously, but if children understand the importance of sexual reproduction from a scientific perspective all the emotion and embarassment can be put in the right perspective for them - I think this helps a lot

  • That may have been intended to be a sex education post, but I saw it as a glimpse of life of an American family. There are two viewpoints when it comes to sexual education, one liberal and one conservative. I just saw the post as a conservative approach. We could probably argue all day as to which is the best approach when it comes to sex education, but the truth of the matter is, nobody really knows. You just have to do your best in the hopes that your best is good enough.

  • We can only do our best.
    It’s all we got.


Post a Comment

Comments are limited to 500 characters and will be reviewed by staff before they are posted. We do not accept comments that include personal identifying information, abusive language, or solicitations.

You must be a site member to leave comments. If you are already a member, please log in. If not, please click here to become a member.