Death and destruction at the hands of a child: Our connection with living critters.

GrasshopperThe other day I was teaching an after school science lab at our local elementary school. My students hadn’t come to my classroom yet, so while I waited I watched the fourth and fifth graders playing outside. Soccer balls bounced on the field, girls hung from the bars, and two little boys squatted over an insect that had emerged too early and was struggling to deal with mud and snow. They poked at it with a stick for a minute—and then skewered it.

I winced for some reason, and then watched as they, fascinated, lifted the part of the skewered bug that stuck to their stick and examined its legs up close. One reached out to touch the hard exoskeleton. Then the other grabbed the stick and started chasing the girls with it.

Boys will by boys, I thought.

But what is it about boys that leads them to skewer animals, tie strings to flies, stomp on ants with wild abandon, and eventually ask dad if they can try out the beebee gun on the birds in the backyard? And is it bad?

I’m not saying all boys do this, nor am I saying that girls don’t.  All the same, at some point all kids realize that they can kill another creature—how does an nature-loving parent deal with their critter-killing youngster? Truth be told, I’d rather put up with the chipmunks that nest in my roof than pull out the pellet gun. But if there’s a spider on my living room floor? Well: RIP, spider. Sorry dude: wrong place, wrong time.

My husband hunts elk in the fall. He’s hunted since he was 12—white tail deer on the farm back in Illinois, robins that ate his mom’s grapes, squirrels in the forest (which he would bring home and ask mom to throw on the grill). He doesn’t seem like a monster to me. In fact, he’s perfectly respectful of nature and appreciates wild animals more than anyone I know: he understands their movements, their behaviors, and respects their wily ways. Nearly every weekend he and I are outside oohing over birds and aahing over rocks. He’s all about wildlife management and realizes the role of the hunter is important, and that the role of the hunter has been integral to ecosystem health for millenia (don’t get him started). And the elk meat adds substantially to our dinners all winter long.

On the other hand, my mother is vegetarian and lets spiders be when she sees them on the living room floor—she thinks the cobwebs are good for keeping the ants down without having to use pesticides.  She doesn’t seem to mind if a horrific eight-legged monster passes through her hallway now and again. She’s never hunted (not that she’s against hunters, but it’s not for her), she’s seldom fished, and yet she has a profound appreciation for the natural world. Some of us dream of trips to the Bahamas—her idea of ‘getting away’ is exploring some forgotten area of the Great Basin with the dogs. She teaches young kids about owls, and respecting wildlife, and how humans can help preserve ecosystems.

Which makes me think that the key isn’t whether or not you choose to kill other creatures (big or small) but whether you choose to respect those creatures–either as you leave them be or while you hunt/kill them.

The key is recognizing their place on the planet, and your place in their world. The key is getting outside and seeing the world around you—seeing yourself in that world. Recognizing that the sloppy joe you ate for dinner last night came from an actual animal; that the carrots in your lunch came from the ground; that your water started out as snow on those peaks up there.

Skewering a bug on the playground can teach a kid all about exoskeletons and the wonders of entomology (somehow I think when I teach about insects in a few weeks, that little boy will be describing to me in detail the one he saw just last week “right out there”).

Hunting can teach patience, the art of holding still, and can help a kid see the world in a way he never will otherwise. And letting the spiders waltz across the living room floor might cut down on the number of flies in the summer.

Next time your windows are full of Box Elder Bugs, and eradication is inevitable, think about what to say to your son or daughter as you squish them with Kleenex and throw them in the toilet. They’re beautiful hemipterans.

But the population for this ecosystem has reached a critical mass and it’s time for some wildlife management.


4 Comments so far

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  1. Hi Lindsey — I remember moments like those — acts of callous cruelty when I was a boy. I was exploring my world…and myself. I’m not proud of those acts, but you’ve helped put them into perspective for me. Thanks — I feel a little better!

    • Jeff: I think we all had those moments–they’re inevitable and perhaps a necessary part of growing up. But the fact that we look back on them and pass some sort of judgement (whether we’re ashamed, or vindicated) suggests we learned something from them… something our kids will hopefully learn too!

  2. Andree Walker

    Thank you! I talk with and will continue the conversation with my daughter about the box elder bugs (and other critters). About respect and inquiry. She’s little, so doesn’t completely get it yet, but we’ll always continue talking about it. I believe in wildlife/integrated pest management, but its hard to look past the passion with which they stomp bugs! We need to purchase a microscope. Or remember to pull out the hand lens (but no burning of bugs!).
    You ladies are wonderful – keep up the great posts.

  3. […] creatures, or a plastic cage for terrestrial catches.  This is a great way to teach children how to respect small creatures. Check out our post on catching aquatic macroinvertebrates for more […]


    I'm Lindsey. I'm an environmental educator, my husband's a biologist. The outdoors is infused into everything we do; which explains why I'm better at mud pies than home decorating. More About Me

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