23 December 2010

On the Duties of Insects and Parents

I’ve been reading Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, which explains in much detail how this generation’s children has lost touch – through no fault of their own – with nature. And while at times Louv can be preachy and tends to over-generalize, he does have a point. Kids need time to just be. Time without beeping electronics, canned laughter from the TV, scheduled activities, and above all, without hovering parents.

We take our kids camping and hiking. They’ve explored creeks barefoot and paddled with us on lakes and rivers. Together we’ve visited more than a half-dozen national parks and many state and regional parks, and they’ve found easily more several hundred geocaches. They backpacked with us to the bottom of the Grand Canyon via a non-corridor trail before the age of ten. And they’ve even seen deer from their bedroom window, so I think that they – and we parents – are doing pretty darn well in the nature department.

But I have to confess something here. My name is Cathleen, and I hover over my children.

I think one of the most difficult decisions a parent has to make – and often on a daily (hourly?) basis – is when to step back. Way back. When to let your kids do whatever all by themselves and without parental supervision.

Now that my kids are a little older, it’s easier to let them go play outside. The potential neighborhood dangers are still there: cactus, rattlesnakes, rabid foxes, even a mountain lion. These are not things most parents worry about, I’m sure. Most parents probably worry more about dangers like child predators or access to drugs when their children play outdoors. In and near our neighborhood there really have been encounters with actual carnivores and poisonous reptiles. But those are few and far between, just like encounters with child predators and drug dealers – although the media would rather you believe that one or another lurks within every shadow.

In Last Child in the Woods, Louv gives accounts of how various creative people, including scientists, artists and writers of previous generations all convey stories of how they were allowed to play outdoors alone. In these moments when they were allowed to become absorbed in nature, they found stillness, excitement, inspiration, and a sense of connectedness to the world. He relays one anecdote about author Beatrix Potter, and how she and her brother would find dead animals in the woods near their home. They’d bring them home and boil the carcasses to release them from their bones, and then they’d reassemble the skeletons. I’m not sure Peter Rabbit would approve, and I couldn’t help but wonder if their mother did. I thought about what my reaction might be upon discovering that in my cookware. But ultimately, I decided that she must have encouraged their behavior – although a child who did that in today’s world would certainly be branded something much worse than creative.

And so, in spite of the current attitude towards children’s activities with dead animals, and thanks to Mr. Louv, I did not freak out when my daughters told me that they’d found a dead pack rat in the yard. They wanted to show it to me. They had a shovel and a rake from the garage – they’d been mucking out their imaginary horse stables – and they wanted to bury the rat.

But first, they wanted me to see its long yellow teeth. They wanted me to see how it didn’t have eyes anymore. They wanted me to smell the unmistakable odor of death that perfumed the air around this creature. And most of all, they wanted me to see how, beneath the fur, its stomach writhed and bubbled – this, above all, attracted and repulsed them simultaneously. What on earth, they wondered aloud, would make the stomach of a dead rat do that?

At that moment, a few bright white maggots emerged from the poor rat, the result of my daughters’ poking and lifting the creature. And as such, with a few explanations, their understanding of the finer points of the end (or is it the beginning?) of the life cycle became more complete, and they developed a new appreciation for the duties of insects. They buried the rat in the yard, a couple hundred yards from the house, with the intention of digging it up again in a few months to see what changes took place. I’m not sure if any of that would have happened without Louv’s message in my mind, reminding me that children have a natural curiosity about the natural world.

And, while I feel like I can pat myself on the back for not chastising them about messing around with dead critters, they did come and get me when they found it, something I’m not sure Louv would approve of, really. Honestly, I’m trying to shake my hovering habits. But I’m tempted to remind my girls that the rat’s probably still out there in the yard, and maybe, just maybe, it’s time to dig it up.

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