One of the most interesting things my dad ever said to me about being a parent was how watching your children develop their own interests forces you to learn things you might otherwise never choose to investigate. My parents are artists and ran their own gallery for 40 years. Thanks to them my brothers and I know more than the average person about art. But thanks to us, my parents now have a bank of knowledge about violins, martial arts, neuroscience, India, rain forests, and insects.
That last topic–insects–has an odd, far reaching effect on our whole family. None of us takes killing an insect lightly.
My brother, Barrett, is an entomologist. He does beautiful scientific illustrations and spent years working on a field guide of damselflies.
He’s incredibly engaging, and has even been considered for television
programs but he won’t go along with an ‘Aren’t Bugs Gross And Scary?!”
agenda because he thinks they are wonderful. Check out this audition
piece he did several years ago if you have a minute and want to learn
something cool about termites:
Termites and Bic Pens
Anyway, Barrett obviously sees no reason to be freaked out about insects, or related arthropods of any kind. Particularly
where I live in the Midwest, they pose almost no danger, so screaming
about ants or spiders looks ridiculous to him. And it is, when you stop
and think about it. When I watch him pick up a hissing cockroach and
let it crawl up into his sleeve it makes me twitch, but I wish I didn’t
have that reaction because it’s silly. However, thinking and feeling
are two different things, and I still don’t want to touch the roach.
I think the reason people react badly to things like insects and mice
is that they are small and fast and we don’t see them until they are
practically on top of us. I like mice, but even I have jumped in fear
when one ran unexpectedly across my kitchen floor. Years of being
startled by ants or spiders probably creates a negative knee jerk
reaction over time, so most of the people I know are not delighted when
they come across something small and leggy scuttling nearby.
But because in our family we have Barrett we don’t just take that as a
matter of course. We try to do better by our six, eight, and
multi-legged friends. I don’t feel guilty about swatting mosquitoes,
but I do feel bad if I harm a spider. Even though they make me
uncomfortable. I wish I didn’t react badly to them.
So we are trying to teach our own children to be better about this than we are. Our strategy? We name the spiders.
There is a small, pale spider that lives in our bathroom. We don’t
see it often, but every once in awhile there it will be in the middle of
the ceiling or on a wall. And my kids freak out and won’t go in
there. They call to us frantically that they can’t brush their teeth
because there is a spider in the bathroom, and we call back, “What’s its
name?” Then they stop and consider that for a moment, and usually come
up with something uninspired such as “Spidery.” But that’s enough most
nights to make doing something in the proximity of the spider
possible. Mona in particular will say something like, “Spidery makes me
nervous, but I don’t want anything to happen to her.”
Once the kids shrieked that there was a spider on the ceiling in
their room and Ian came and looked and said, “That’s just Steve, and I
think you’re scaring him. He’s very small.” Suddenly the kids were all
concerned for Steve.
It’s an approach that seems to be working. We hear the kids name the
spiders on their own now. A few weeks ago Ian told me he sent Mona and
her brother into the basement to switch the laundry and he heard them
pause at the bottom of the stairs because they spotted a spider. At
first they were alarmed, but then Mona told Quinn they should call it
something like “Fang Claw” and then they proceeded to go about their
business. On the way back up the stairs they even said, “Aw, look!
Fang Claw is moving!”
Naming the spiders doesn’t really help me. I’m still creeped out.
But that’s not something I want to pass along, so better to fake the
role of the brave mom who doesn’t fear arachnids. Because I think
raising kids who can see the beauty and worth in something like a spider
is a good goal. (And would make my brother proud.)