Burton's BlogIn searching for educational gifts for children we often look for kits that supply everything the child needs to start what we believe is a worthwhile endeavor. In the past 10 to 15 years, manufacturers and marketers decided they could make more sales by building these all-in-one aquarium starter kits.

Once upon a time, people would come into stores with their children. They would learn what they needed to know in order to begin an adventure in the aquatic hobbies. And then manufacturers like Marineland and Tetra put beautiful pictures on a box with a whole gaggle of fish swimming in a small tank. Just another example of misleading packaging – lies through over-simplification.

The more fish you put into the aquarium, the less time before they expire – if you don’t know what to do. The kit will not show you how to manage your tank.

These starter kits are essentially saying, “Here’s the tank, this is where the fish go, enjoy.

These kits provide a container that holds water along with a few supplies like gravel, food samples, and a plastic plant or two. Due to their misleading photos people think that this is all they need to create an idyllic and sustainable aquatic setup.

The marketing is all about price point. Even the “deluxe model” kits come with insufferably cheap heaters. All of this is misleading. The aquarium kit has destroyed the aquatic hobbies by giving people a false sense of security, like it’s all so simple and there’s nothing that needs to be known about water chemistry or simple marine biology. “But the manufacturer said it was all I needed in one simple box!” People want to believe them. People want an easy solution.

Did you ever consider what the manufacturer gets out of this convenient setup?

They get to pass their bottom-barrel equipment off as a premium “starter” setup. It’s a simple twist of phrase that shifts consumer perception from skepticism to false confidence. Meanwhile the manufacturer makes more money on this cheap equipment than they would have made by selling them individually – if they even bothered selling these items on their own at all.

This is a shame. The aquatic hobby is the greatest hobby for a child curious about the world in which they live. As parents one of our jobs is to provide proper experience and guidance to help a child discover what they want to do with their lives in both avocation and vocation.

The aquatic hobby teaches us about ecology, water chemistry (what makes pollution), and animal behavior. It is a study in applied biology and science. Aquatics can teach us about amphibians, aquatic turtles, a myriad of plants, and thousands of fish species. Each animal is a different project unto themselves. Each animal has different needs. To give a child a hobby with live animals and no knowledge is to invite funeral services, heartache, and ultimately discouragement.

Nothing will kill a child’s enthusiasm for a hobby faster than literally flushing it down the toilet.

In past decades – before the Internet, before mass manufacturing – people would come to a store to talk with real people who lived the hobby. They could get you started in the right direction, with the right equipment, to minimize the avoidable casualties that almost always arise with kits sold by store clerks and websites just trying to make a buck.

Take a look around. There are so very few aquatics professionals or aquatic stores left. Let’s not just stop there. Let’s reconsider the scope of the argument. There are so few true professionals of any variety left in the retail sector. To work in stores today, you don’t need to know anything. The big national chains like Petco, PetSmart, Pet Value and Pet Supplies Plus have deemed information about the products they sell irrelevant. They want you to buy something and as long as you walk out of the store with a purchase, they’ve done their job.

What does this specifically mean for the aquatics hobby and industry?

Inevitably people and children fail to succeed in their new hobby – they fail to learn and they fail to experience the rewards of maintaining the basic needs of an animal. Parents get disgusted. Children experience the trauma of watching their brand new beloved pet die. And after all that, adults tend not to blame the stores that blindly sold them a pile of crap. They’re quicker to blame the children for not trying. How backwards is that? Fewer people seriously enter the hobby. Soon the hobby ceases to exist.

Any animal sold to a child as a hobby requires parental guidance. It’s become cliché at this point – parents telling their children that “pets are a big responsibility.” Most definitely. Pets are for people with responsibility, but kids are still kids. We need to show children how to do things and teach this responsibility – not just say that responsibility has to happen. The animal doesn’t teach responsibility. Either the parent knows the hobby or he/she works with their children and they learn together. The parent is involved with the child’s learning process. I had many such hobbies as a child, and my parents were with me all the way. As I progressed through high school I far surpassed their knowledge of the hobbies, and that investment in learning led me to my vocation and avocations.

My whole career in animal husbandry and animal behavior was rooted in my parents’ participation in my early-age hobbies.

My parents were children of poor, depression-era families. They didn’t have more than high school educations but they encouraged me at every step of my life to pursue knowledge. I am just as interested today as I was at eight years old about what makes animals tick.

One of my projects in which my father was particularly involved was hydroponics. That hobby resulted in a high school science project that took me to the finals in the Illinois State Science Fair in Chicago. We loaded up 10 basins with about 150 gallons of water and I hauled those basins and the tomatoes that I grew hydroponically to the fair at the Illinois Institute of Technology. My father made the basins out of sheet metal that were perfect for the experiment. In 1961 very little was known about hydroponics. It was a brand new horizon for agriculture. I got into it because I found nothing more than a definition of this new method and developed a hobby where there was none at the time.

The point of this discussion is that we need to talk to professionals that know their product. There’s a big different between knowing a product and selling a product. You won’t find that in most retail environments in 2018 and you definitely won’t find it on an Internet e-tailer. How does that change?

It changes with each of us. It changes when we as a community respect the notion that knowledge and experience have value.

Corporate stores hire people at minimum wage and just hope they show up. People with passion come to work and hope to inspire positive change. They want to work with you and guide you to the right thing even if it is not what you want to hear – even when it’s not the easy answer. Animal care cannot be an industry in which we just sell stuff. These are living creatures that require our care and our attention and our knowledge to keep them happy and healthy. It is about selling a hobby that can become a lifetime passion or even an occupation. I harbor nothing but disdain for marketers that sell pet products without care or concern for the welfare of the animals. False marketing and careless retailers lead unsuspecting customers to the cash register and ultimately failure – to the detriment of our pets and the enthusiasm of our children.

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