Sunday, January 15, 2012

Naming the Spiders (Babble)

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.)

(My kids and their cousin greeting a caterpillar on the wall in the subway in New York)

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