If you came here thinking you were going to get a “We love every living creature equally and we don’t even eat jello because I heard it contains horse hooves,” rant, well sorry but you’re out of luck. Truthfully, I feel a little strange even writing this. That’s mostly because I’m a hypocrite and when I see a creepy looking spider on the ceiling in my bedroom, or one of those damn weevils that tries to make a home in my whole wheat pasta, you can bet I’m crushing it with a paper towel. Yup, I’ll squish that little critter without a second glance and toss it straight in the trash. So, I guess I do squash bugs.
But when we’re outside, I’m teaching my boys not to. Here’s why.
The Worm Hunt
It started innocently enough. Last spring it was mud season and the boys were worm hunting. They were having so much fun. Junior came trotting up to me with a worm in his hands that had been somewhat crushed and ripped into a few pieces.
“Look mama,” he said. “Sadly he is missing his head.”
It was a weird way to put it, and I knew that Junior had ripped the worm in half so I agreed with him, “Yes, that is sad. We need to be gentle with worms.” I was winging it here.
“Why?” he asked, unceremoniously dumping the evidence and wiping the brown guts on his pants.
“Because worms are good for our garden. We want them here. They will help our vegetables to grow big and yummy.”
Junior nodded and went back to looking for worms. I gave myself a little pat on the back- good parenting, Mama; go me!
Fast forward a few months and Junior had a friend over. They were in the backyard tipping over stumps, looking for bugs. Junior loves bugs and just about any other kind of critter that he can practice his catch and release skills on. He has a little bug kit with a magnifying glass for “examining” them. He routinely captures toads, hermit crabs, worms, ants, and just about anything else he finds, proudly displaying them to me and his brother before gently depositing them back to their homes. He even convinced Little Bear to have a bug-themed birthday party last spring. Junior loves all creatures big and small.
So what happened next caught me off guard. Suddenly, after moving a large log from the wood pile, I saw him start stomping with the heel of his rain boot. “Kill it!! Kill it! Kill it!!” he was shrieking.
Now, keep in mind, this is a child who tells me I look beautiful when I put on something other than sweatpants. He tells his brother not to push the dog. He points out birds by name, and watches quietly for squirrels and chipmunks. He is a gentle, caring soul. And there he was, crushing ants, chanting “Kill it!”
I morphed into another mom. The kind of mom who gets angry and yells without thinking and probably has a kid who enjoys killing bugs and chanting about it. “STOP IT!!” I shouted, lunging across the yard and scooping him up, away from the ants. I put him down. I had saved the ants. I was a hero. I turned back into myself.
He looked up at me. “What?” he asked. He was completely bewildered.
“We do NOT squash bugs!” I said firmly, wagging a finger for emphasis.
“Why?” he asked.
I didn’t know. I had to think about it, and even then I could only say, “Because it’s not nice.”
Parenting is so unpredictable. Try as I might, I never know what my kids are going to do next. It’s one surprise after another, and most of the time I have to go with my knee jerk reaction and figure out why as we go along. So since then, I have thought about it. A lot. I want to be prepared for next time.
At first, a few murky reasons floated around in my head. It was true that it wasn’t nice, but so what? Why do we have to be nice to bugs? For me, it had more to do with the blind aggression, the loss of control, the same look in his eyes that he gets before he runs full blast through his brother’s carefully built block towers and laughs maniacally.
And there was something about respect there too. Respect for nature and respect for leaving things the way we found them. I couldn’t pinpoint it. I wanted him to be an observer. I wanted him to be gentle. I wanted him to appreciate how things are naturally.
All these vague reasons were swirling around my head and though I knew they were somehow connected, I couldn’t decide how. I even googled it and found a lot of other concerned moms wondering if this was a phase, some part of normal development, or if their precious little one was destined to torture animals and turn into a psychopath. But I didn’t find the answer to why this sat so uncomfortably with me.
And then, just like that, it clicked. We were in the backyard and I saw Little Bear gleefully rip a snapdragon up by the roots and wave it around. It was all the same.
“We don’t ruin something just because it’s fun.”
We don’t rip up flowers just for fun. We don’t break tree branches just for fun. We don’t knock over block towers, or scribble on someone’s drawing, or dig up the freshly planted sod just for fun. Self control is a tricky thing, but it is so important, both indoors and out.
I want my boys to know that we don’t ruin something that others appreciate just because the act of ruining it brings us excitement.
It’s true that sometimes we do ruin things, but we do it with a cause. We pick flowers to make our home more joyful, or trim hedges that are growing into a walkway. We cut tree branches that otherwise might fall on our garden or our home. And we kill bugs if they endanger us, like termites in our deck or the bees who had a hive outside our front door. We slap mosquitos that bite us, or try to bite us. We do these things with purpose, to make our lives safer or more beautiful. But there is nothing beautiful about ruining something just because it’s exciting.
Raising kids is a constant balancing act. I want my boys to be all sorts of things. I want them to be gentle and I want them to be strong. I want them to be both observers and leaders, and know when it’s time for each. I want them to find joy and adventure and beauty outside, and I want them to leave it alone when they stare at it in wonder. I want all these contradictions at the same time. My boys are still learning what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Most of the time, I’m learning right along with them. And we’re starting by not squashing bugs.