By Jennifer Macke
After reaching adulthood, I learned a surprising thing about my mother: she was afraid of spiders and snakes. Lots of people are afraid of spiders and snakes, so why did this come as a surprise? Because when I was growing up, she never once showed that she was afraid of them. When we would see a bug or a spider or a snake, she would talk matter-of-factly about it, pointing out its interesting qualities. "Spiders have 8 legs, but insects have 6." "Snakes are good to have around the neighborhood because they eat mice." These were not sophisticated science lessons, but the message was clear: these are interesting creatures with an important place in nature. She taught me that even a slug is pretty if you look at it the right way!
The surprise to me as adult was the realization that for all those years, my mother's heart was racing every time she saw a spider or a snake. Yet she was able to put aside her own gut response in order to convey to me a different message: no reason to fear. She knew that a lack of fear is the first step to appreciating nature. She wanted to raise children who were not afraid of anything outdoors.
I'm not normally in the business of giving out parenting advice, but if I were to venture some, it might be this. Sometimes teaching children the right message about nature requires a little bit of acting. All of us do some acting as parents. We'd sometimes like to shriek at something our child just did, but we force ourselves to calmly confront the situation in a more appropriate way. Similarly, when we see something "creepy" out in the yard – a snake, a spider, a lizard, or that huge beetle ambling down the sidewalk – it's best to remain calm and go have a closer look. If it's something that may be dangerous, teach your child to back away calmly. If it's not dangerous, stop and investigate. Kids have a way of seeing little details you may have never noticed. You may both learn something new.
As an adult, is it possible to overcome those innate fears of snakes and bugs? The best way is by gradual exposure in safe, controlled situations. At PEEC, one of our goals in having live animal exhibits is to provide that safe environment where both adults and children can observe these animals up-close and come to know them better. We have local lizards, a snake, a scorpion, and a worm compost bin. By learning about some of the interesting features of these animals, we can all become less fearful of encountering them outdoors.
Was my mother's effort to overcome her own squeamishness worthwhile? I would say so. She did become less fearful of snakes and spiders later in her life. And she gave me a tremendous gift: the ability to look at any creature and say "wow" instead of "yuck"!
Stop by PEEC and pet our friendly snake or take a peek at our newest exhibit animal, a local scorpion (sorry, no petting allowed!). PEEC is a great place to bring children and teach them to appreciate some of nature's creepy-crawlies in a safe setting.
On August 22, PEEC will offer "Meet the PEEC Critters", a class for families about our exhibit animals. There will be plenty of opportunity to get up close with some of our local animals and learn more about how they live, both in the wild and in captivity.
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