This third post in our Preserving Wildhood Series focuses on letting your kids interact with the crawling, creeping critters and insects around them, especially if your natural inclination is to scream or run away in fear when you see these types of critters.
Although the content below relates to my fear of these critters and my daughter’s dream of being covered in them, the larger theme is letting go of some of our natural inclinations and fears to hold our children back when they desire to engage, interact and explore in their natural world.
Note: We know that almost always it is best to leave creatures alone BUT education on the WHY and HOW (see below) is super important for naturally curious kids!
Where it All Started
Since my daughter was little she’s had a natural affinity for all things with three body parts and 6 legs. In addition to insects she is also fond of spiders, birds, small reptiles and rodents. She cannot decide whether she wants to be a bug catcher or small animal veterinarian when she grows up. I feel confident based on her current skillset that she could excel at either.
After catching numerous insects, toads, turtles, salamanders, she announced when she was 5 that she wanted to catch a bird, squirrel and rabbit. I thought that sounded like a great idea but warned her that it might take her a lifetime to catch those things so she should have lots of patience. Less than a year later she quickly proved me wrong. She caught two birds, helped a young squirrel that had been abandoned and discovered a bunny nest in our backyard.
I’ll be the first to admit I am not naturally inclined to play with and enjoy small, scurrying insects and critters. When I was young I remember the first time I saw a mouse run across the floor of my house. I avoided walking on the floor of the room where I saw the rodent for weeks. I would jump from couch to couch to get around if I needed to and was terrified of seeing another mouse. I was also not fond of reptiles or spiders and would scream if I came across one when I wasn’t expecting it.
So how have I learned to let go of some of my irrational fears and embrace my daughter’s love for exploring her natural world that is full of bugs and critters?
How We’ve Made it Work
I have had to learn to take a deep breath.
I still remember the day my daughter walked into our house holding a young squirrel. The reaction in my head was to shriek in fear. I took a second to breathe and calmly reminded her that we did not want to scare any animals by bringing them into an unfamiliar environment.
I have had to rely on that deep breath more than once. Over time, my daughter has learned to respect my space. And over time, taking a deep breath has helped me to have a calm reaction. The last thing I want to teach her is to fear something she has a natural interest in learning about.
I have tried to become more childlike.
One of my daughter and mine’s favorite shared experiences together was the first time we watched a monarch emerge from it’s chrysalis. We had been waiting days for the caterpillar to get to the quickening stage and had been staring at it’s little chrysalis for over an hour waiting for it to move. When I think back on that experience it is still something that fascinates me. So I have tried to see the world with her same wonder and curiosity. I’ll admit there is something magical about that childlike intrigue.
I have done my best to set some rules and boundaries about what is and is not ok to do with the creatures we find.
I have tried to find a balance of teaching her to be a good steward of her natural world without taking away her curiosity and opportunity for exploration. One rule we have that is “mostly” followed is that wild bugs, reptiles, and mammals belong outside. That’s where they are happiest so we do not bring them in our house.
Our exception to this rule was a harvester ant collection that we put on display in our living room. Even then those ants had a safe, contained space.
A follow up rule that we have is to remember that there is a short timeframe we can have these animals as our “pets” and then we must let them go. We learned this rule the hard way when some of the toads she caught died in spite of all her attempts to feed them and provide them with their “basic needs”. We buried them in our backyard and decided next time it would be better to enjoy them and observe them for a time but then let them go so they could live happy, fulfilling “toad” lives.
I have tried to engage in the conversation.
I have taken an interest in her questions, concerns and observations. I have not become an insect lover overnight, but I try to show a genuine interest in what she wants to learn about. Most of her questions I do not know the answer to (e.g. “what do worms look like when they’re about to have a baby?”, “how do you tell the difference between a female and male monarch?”). But thanks to google or our Bugopedia we are able to answer some of her most pressing questions and I have learned way more than I ever thought I would know about bug lifecycles and stages.
I’ve looked for opportunities to teach.
I have taught my daughter that some spiders and snakes can be dangerous and she knows some of the common signs to look for so she can make educated guesses about what she will and won’t pick up. For example, she knows that most venomous snakes have cat like pupils and triangular heads.
We’ve also gone over what a black widow and brown recluse look like and why we need to be mindful of them. When I came across a brown recluse once in our garage my first instinct was to quickly kill it but I decided to catch it and show it to her first so she would know how to identify that spider in the future.
We know from experience that carpenter bees buzzing around are nothing to worry about but wasps are not nearly as friendly. We’ve also had to learn about unfriendly bugs like ticks, chiggers, and mosquitos and how to manage their bites.
I have tried to provide her with a few little tools that encourage her to enjoy her surroundings.
She has several books on insects, a Missouri bird book, etc. Additionally, she has child binoculars, a magnifying class, a simple bug house, a butterfly house etc. Instead of picking out the milkweed from our yard we’ve allowed it to grow and spread.
We’ve planted other flowers that attract birds and butterflies and we always make sure we have our bird feeders full with wild bird seed and suet. None of these things were a big expense but they’ve made her experience that much more meaningful and allowed us plenty of opportunities to observe.
Hope for All the Moms
So for all the mothers out there who are easily alarmed with how much your kids love their backyard “pets” I encourage you to learn to embrace it. The more I have embraced it the more I have enjoyed the experience of learning along with my children.
I have way less fear than I once did and if I’m being honest I now think insects are pretty fascinating too. My own growing interest has allowed me to accept and appreciate our oftentimes slow pace on the trail. There are so many cool things to observe when you are out hiking and biking or even in your own backyard. I am normally a “destination” person but thankfully my girls’ love for all things moving in their natural world has helped me to enjoy the “journey”.
Stephanie is a South Idaho native but currently lives in Columbia, MO with her husband, Jayson, and gang of girls—Clara (6), Mckinlay (4), and Ruth (1). As a family of 5 they enjoy biking, hiking, skiing, camping, traveling, backpacking and being silly. Like many others they’re trying to balance the complexities of work and family life. They’ve found that time slows down when they’re outside adventuring together and appreciate the simplicity and beauty they find there. Find them on their brand new Instagram: @switchbacksandsingletracks
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