A few mornings ago, I ventured into my teenage son’s room to once again turn off his window fan. As I pushed back the curtain, there was a funny brown shape wedged between the screen and the glass window pane. With a closer look, I realized the strange shape was a small bat. I immediately thought, “A BAT, YIKES! BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES!!” My maternal, protective gut instinct caused me to feel like shouting out to my husband or the exterminators but then I remembered an article I had recently read about a mother’s fear spreading like wildfire to her children. I paused, took a breath and feeling less reactive and more composed, realized that the furry little upside down guy was actually pretty cute. I went downstairs and announced the arrival of our tiny visitor and calmly presented this as a learning opportunity to the boys.
After observing him and assuring them that the bat could not enter our home, even though my more worrisome child kept insisting that these creatures were contortionists who could shape shift through teeny spaces while innocent victims slept nearby, they embraced our new friend. Each evening around dusk he would disappear and each morning we awoke to his presence in the window. He often dangled by what seemed to be a few long toenails. His pointy ears were almost see through. His face looked a bit like our dog. We were originally introduced to bats by Janell Cannon’s fantastic children’s picture book, Stellaluna, and we had seen a tiny specimen years ago at a California nature center but this was different. He was right here for us to see in our home. After sleeping on our bedroom floor the first night, my son who would normally be completely freaked out to have a bat setting up house in his window, began to speak about his nocturnal roommate affectionately.
It is obvious that we pass on many traits genetically to our children and we see much of ourselves in them as they grow older but what may not be so obvious is that we also pass on our fears. We have such power in what we teach our children about how to react to the world. They learn how to react by watching us react. If we are afraid, it is quite likely that they too will be afraid.
A friend who is squeemish toward most creatures without fur in the natural world has amazingly produced two daughters who are also not big fans of non-domesticated furless creatures. Unless of course they are safely locked up at the zoo. Another friend is extremely comfortable in nature, so much so that a tarantula crawled over the family’s outside southern California sleeping space and she did not react. Of course, her children also did not react. The only way this mother and her children react to nature is with reverence and curiosity, never fear.
We are conditioned to accept that some people are programmed to be uncomfortable with nature and its creatures while others are not, but I really think that we can choose what we fear and we can rid ourselves of fears that we no longer wish to have.
I was a child uncomfortable with nature, a bit afraid of being outside in the dark, completely freaked out by our basement, and terrified when my brother frequently chased me with a dead bug in a napkin. I dreaded stepping on beetles and roaches on humid summer southern nights while playing barefoot in our well-lit fenced backyard. Stepping on a slug was the worst and I was thrilled when my mother set out jar lids full of beer or sprinkled them with salt to end their menacing lives. The only thing I knew of bats was from the horror stories my grandmother told of the women in New Orleans who were foolish enough to go outside at dusk and get a bat stuck in their hair.
Then I grew up and gave birth to two boys and my learning truly began. My first son was also a little cautious around creatures although he loved to collect snails and capture tadpoles. He liked to observe the reptiles but was not interested in handling them, which for me was a good thing. A slow introduction.
When my second son came around, things changed. I changed. He loved the thrill of capturing lizards, frogs and snakes and still lectures people on the subject of the rights of ants and why we shouldn’t kill them. He loves touching and holding just about every creature known to man and one year most of his learning revolved around pulling all the inhabitants out of a creek on the property at our learning co-op. Because of this child, I spent my entire thirty-fourth birthday attempting to relocate a tiny turtle we named Timmy. Through this endeavor we learned much, especially about removing creatures from their natural habitat.
I never expressed disgust or fear about any living creatures in front of the boys, although I have to confess that I really did not desire to hold the black snake given to our family by one of my husband’s students. Over the years, I have become quite comfortable with the creatures that terrified me as a child because I have spent more time in their world.
Since becoming conscious of the idea of teaching fear to children, I have noticed how uncomfortable many kids are in the natural world. Recently on a Florida beach, I sent a child screaming to her mother when I mentioned that a creature was living in the beautiful shell she was holding. On a night walk with my son, we encountered a child at the water’s edge unwilling to touch wet sand and scoop it into her bucket for the sand crab someone had given her. When we squatted next to her and showed her how easy it was, she was still uncomfortable until we found a discarded shovel. Her mother stood next to us, watching but also not touching.
After two days away, our bat is back. We go about our daily business, stopping every now and then to marvel at his design. He has been a summer gift to us and reminded me that choosing not to fear is one of the many gifts that we can give our children.
Erin LaBelle believes that learning happens when you get out of the way. She describes herself as a learning activist, writer, photographer, Raw Food enthusiast and member of an nomadic unschooling tribe of four who currently call Kent, Ohio home. She loves taking long walks, reading good books and being inspired by the stories of others. She is way too curious and needs nine lives to try our all the different career paths that intrigue her.
This article was published in the January-February 2014 issue of HEM