My oldest son is an old pro when it comes to fish guts. Last year my brother took him fishing and then showed him how to clean and cook the fish. I was sure it would flip him out, but he did remarkably well and was even thrilled that he knows how to do it now.
I think we picked the right age -- maybe 7 or 8. He's old enough to understand where food comes from and we've had discussions about hunting and fishing and how, in our family, it's not a "sport". The rule in our house is if you kill an animal it's a guarantee you'll be eating it.
So, having been through this with one boy, I was a little bit lax on planning for the second. We'd been fishing with our youngest before and somehow in my mind I just assumed he already knew the drill. He doesn't like fish, doesn't like meat much at all. We call him "our vegetarian child", although his one big exception is hot dogs which he likes straight out of the fridge and with no bun.
Saturday Rob took the boys fishing with another Scout dad and his son. They caught a ton of fish, most of which were too small to keep. They brought home one catfish which Rob filleted outside his workshop on a nifty portable fish cleaning station he'd rigged up.
I was inside working on the computer and little while later the door opened and Tristan slowly walked in and closed the door behind him. I knew something was up because when he comes in usually the door flies open and he enters the room with gale force and slams it behind him hard enough to shake the windows.
I turned to look at him and he walked slowly across the room, head down. I could see his bottom lip pooching out.
"What's wrong, buddy." I held out my arms, inviting him in for a hug.
"Tell me all about why you're sad."
He pulled away and sat down on a short stepstool at the coffee table where he sits to eat his snacks or draw pictures.
"I'm sad because of the fish. They cut his head off."
Oh dear, I thought, how could I not have planned that out better. Duh.
He kept looking down at his feet and swinging them up and down. His legs were filthy, no socks, ragged tennis shoes. He looked like an abandoned, hopeless child.
He continued, "I just feel so bad for that lil guy..."
I reached out again and motioned for him to come to me and wrapped my arms around him. "I feel bad for that little guy, too. I'm sorry you feel bad, but that's what happens when you eat a fish."
"I don't wanna eat a fish. I want that lil guy to still be swimming in the water!"
I half-smiled grimly and sympathetically. "I know, I'm sorry. You don't have to eat fish."
He eyeballed me accusingly. "YOU eat fish." That was the first time I'd ever heard him state a personal and deep criticism of who I am and what I do. His mother, the Fish Eater. I've gone through the standard, "You're mean!" or "I'm never gonna be your friend anymore!" during those moments when he was mad because I made him eat what was on his plate or made him clean his room or wouldn't let him wear pajamas to school. But this was something entirely different.
He wasn't going to understand if I said, "I'm a Southernor. I'm obligated by my culture to have corn-battered catfish at LEAST once a month with liberal amounts of greasy, deep-fried hush puppies on the side. I'm sorry, but I can't help myself."
So, I did all I could -- admitted my faults, that I'm a rampaging fish killer. "I do eat fish, honey."
"But I don't want you to do it. I just feel so sad for that lil guy."
I pulled him onto my lap. He smelled like a gamey little boy of summer, a boy who had been out on a boat getting sweaty and wet and now was covered in a film of dirt. He nuzzled his face into my neck and I said, "Hey, how about I draw you up a nice bath? That will be fun." He nodded against my neck.
Deep, cool bath, lots of bubbles, a big toy boat. He stayed in there for nearly an hour and when he was out there was no further mention of fish or being sad. I guess we'll cross our fingers and wait for the next time one of the boys wants to go fishing and see what happens. We may be headed for vegetarianism one of these days.