We Can Teach Our Children How to Interact with Nature One Squirrel, Earthworm and Ladybug at a Time
OR Teaching Our Children How to Appreciate Nature Using the Peter Parker Principle. I was in earshot of a neighbor’s young child, who was looking at a squirrel, ask his nanny if squirrels had teeth and could bite. Shockingly, the nanny took out her phone and had to look up whether squirrels had teeth as she watched one eating a nut with its teeth!
This interaction is worrisome in so many ways beyond the nanny’s ignorance. She gets a pass because like so many people, she obviously has nature deficit disorder. The child’s real question was whether a squirrel was dangerous. He was processing the worry in a question form; if the squirrel had teeth it could harm him. More upsetting was hearing the nanny with her newfound knowledge about squirrels tell the boy that yes, the squirrel had teeth so it could in fact bite him!
As a former preschool teacher and special needs school founder I had to practically bite my tongue off not to jump in and emphatically tell both that squirrels only eat seeds and nuts and are afraid of people, so there was no need to worry about one attacking or biting them! I wanted to tell the young child fun facts about squirrels and invite him to my yard to show him how captivating nature can be.
This impressionable young boy undoubtedly lives with one of the wealthy young families who have moved into our semi-urban neighborhood and were raised to save the rainforest and recycle plastic, but are environmental vandals in their own yards. Homes where homeowners once mowed the lawn every few weeks and trimmed the bushes a couple times a year are now being replaced by professional crews who intensely manicure chemically soaked monoculture lawns with non-native landscaping and drench everything in pesticides. My neighborhood is now filled with insect killing machines such as backpack mosquito sprayers and oversized Dyotrap bug lures designed to indiscriminately exterminate insects well beyond the small lifeless yards they're in. Wildlife removal services put down rodenticide, “humane” traps, or medieval looking contraptions to make sure nothing burrows under or makes holes in perfect lawns.
This child has sadly learned that anything living outside his home is dangerous unless he goes to “the country”, or “the beach” where his family rents a cabin or condo and marvels at “nature”.
I watched a young neighborhood child gleefully stomp on a worm and tell his parents about it in upspeak to gauge their reaction. When they nonchalantly just mirrored his statement back to him (“you just stepped on a worm?”) as if he just announced that he stepped in a puddle, he learned it’s okay to destroy wildlife. It was such a missed opportunity to foster a connection and create interest in easily found animals such as earthworms.
When I watched this situation unfold, I had a flashback to a tender moment when my grown son was about the same age as this boy and he impulsively squished a ladybug then realized what he did and started sobbing in my arms in a fit of remorse. I comforted him without excusing the action. We took some time to mourn the ladybug, bury it and say some kind words. I was relieved he felt connected enough to our natural world to feel something when he first internalized the power he had over living things at such a young age. For a nature-loving parent, it was a memorable day.
I’m sure he would have learned the same lesson from my husband who might have invoked the Peter Parker principle and quoted Spider Man’s Uncle Ben by telling him that “with great power comes great responsibility”. I fear that unless we make the connection for our children that nature is in our own backyard, we will again raise a generation of globally minded kids who will advocate to save far-off rainforests (which btw is not an unworthy goal) but will stomp on earthworms and be afraid of biting squirrels.