A couple came in to tour our program the other day, thinking that it may be a good fit for their new baby. They sat down on one side of the room with my supervisor to talk about things like tuition and policies while also observing the life of our program carrying on around them. The young mom was looking around eagerly, taking in the environment, when her eyes fell upon one of the aquariums on the counter, home to our resident tarantula. She gasped. “A tarantula?” she exclaimed, “That can’t be safe!” My supervisor shrugged a little helplessly and glanced at me. I explained that the tarantula doesn’t roam around the room on the floor with the babies (hence the aquarium) because, “That wouldn’t be very safe for her. They’re shy animals and she prefers to be left alone. The infants love to check in with her each day though. One day she climbed the side of the tank and it prompted one child to do the Itsy-Bitsy Spider fingerplay.”
Now, I’m biased. I think this is all pretty amazing — on the part of the child and on the part of the tarantula, who heaved her terrestrial body to such heights as to inspire music. This young mom, though, she wasn’t impressed. She was mildly horrified. She went on to tell her husband and my supervisor in great detail about a dream she had had which featured a black widow spider. She ended with, “I don’t want any spiders around my baby.” I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that they determined our program was not the right fit. It didn’t seem like the right time to detail the differences between black widow spiders being near babies and tarantulas (not really spiders, if we’re going to be specific about taxonomy) being in a tank near babies, so I just kept my thoughts to myself. I’m not in the business of putting children in harm’s way and I do a sweep of our yard each day for spiders, snakes, bees, and general choking hazards, but I do believe in exposing children to a wide variety of experiences and creatures right from the start.
Over a year ago, another family was in our room while transitioning their infant into the program (we have families spend several hours with us over the course of a few days before their infant starts in the program, so we’ve had some time to get to know them and they us), when a medium-sized spider (not a tarantula, black widow, or brown recluse) scurried across the floor. We all noticed it, although no one screamed or pointed. I quickly collected it in a tissue and transported it out the door. “Goodbye, Spider,” I said to the young toddlers who had clustered to watch, “Go be free!” One of the parents laughed a bit and I explained that our classroom is a no-kill environment. While it may sound strange or amusing, I’m pretty serious about this philosophy. I want to model the way that we take care of one another and our planet, and that includes even the smallest things. When I see the preschoolers smashing ants or spiders or even the plants in the garden, I say, “Oh no! That hurts them. How can we help them?” When we find an insect or spider inside the room, we relocate them out the back door or into our garden.
I myself have two powerful insect-related fears. One: I’m afraid of bees (I’m allergic). Two: I’m afraid of crickets (they’re creepy). These are insects that we encounter fairly regularly. Bees love to spend time in the blossoms of the trees in our yard, and they’ll often circle low, perhaps attracted to a little applesauce residue on the hands or face of an infant in the yard. I try to keep my cool when this happens. Sometimes I am more successful than other times. Infants are so intuitive that I think they always know when I’m scared, even before I’m fully cognizant of it. If I’m holding a baby when a bee buzzes by and it startles me, I’ll acknowledge it to them: “Did you hear that bee pass by? That surprised me. It was buzzing!” One year we had a nest of yellow jackets on our school property and when the nest got disturbed, they got angry. I had to rush the infants inside and my fear was conquering me. Heart racing, palms sweating, I noted one infant looking at me with wide eyes. I told her: “I’m scared of these bees because they’re feeling mad. We’re going to go inside to get away from them. Will you come with me?” She came, we sat together inside, and she pointed to one circling yellow jacket through the window. “Yes,” I said, “there is the bee. He wanted us to walk away, so we came inside.”
A few studies have indicated that some fears are learned, often passed to children via parents and educators. Some fears are legitimate. Where I currently live, rattlesnakes and black widow spiders can be a real concern in some areas where children play. It is certainly not irrational to worry about what would happen if your children encountered either one, but it seems to me that fear and her cousin panic are not the best antidotes. Instead, parents and caregivers must be diligent about checking the environment to ensure safety. We can model caution in how we approach areas where these animals may be spending their time, and we can talk this through calmly. “I’m checking under the slide to make sure no spiders are there before you go and play.” As children grow, they can learn that dangers should be met with caution, not blind fear. Having felt flooded with that kind of fear in my own lifetime, I want to be conscious of what I influence in others.
The other day, two of the toddlers who were outside a classroom were standing at a window, pointing and talking excitedly about something on the other side of the glass. There was a praying mantis, trapped inside the room, climbing the windowpane. “It’s a mantis,” I said, “He’s trapped inside!” One of the toddlers grinned and repeated, “Man-tis!” (What a fun word!) “Where do you think the mantis would like to be?” I asked. One child held up their hands helplessly (“I don’t know,”) but the other declared, “Garden.” I told them I would put the mantis in a cup and we could carry it to the garden. I went inside to capture the mantis and when I got close to it, it took me by surprise to note how large it was. Large and feisty — it did not wish to be relocated. The first time I tried to usher it into a cup, it flew at my face and I immediately dropped the cup and jumped. The toddlers, watching through the window, dissolved into peals of laughter. “Wow!” I cried, “Did you see that? He decided to fly and it surprised me!” The second time I went to catch him, my hands were shaking and I realized I was a little scared. I reminded myself that all this mantis could do was to be unpredictable. It wasn’t going to hurt me or anyone else (except perhaps the smaller insects it would encounter in the garden). I caught it in the cup, carried it outside to show the children, and lowered it onto a leaf in the garden. The children spent twenty minutes watching it as it re-acclimated to life outside the classroom. As we watched, we talked about what it was doing, what it was going to do, where its family might be, where it would sleep, what it likes to eat, what we like to eat, and what else we noticed in the garden. What a rich, engaging learning time!
As adults, we can generally recognize which of our fears are legitimate concerns and which are irrational. I think children, especially young children, so attuned to body language and undercurrents of emotion, will always recognize our fears. I do my best not to deny them or dismiss them, but to confront them head-on. For example, I’m flooded with fear during thunderstorms (I was once struck by lightning). When thunderstorms happen during the time I’m at work, with the infants and toddlers, I’m hit with a double dose of panic — fear of the lightning itself and panic over transmitting my fear to the children. I’ve talked about my fear with my co-workers, so I have a support network. My classroom aide will often say things aloud like, “We’re moving away from the windows. We’re safe inside,” for my benefit. This grounds me and brings me back to the tasks at hand. If I’m holding a baby who will feel my fear, I talk about it with them, “That loud noise startled me! We’re safe inside.”
Over half of children between the ages of two and six will develop fears on their own — a fear of the dark, of monsters, of loud noises, of automatic-flush toilets… We’ve all been there. Many of us still carry our childhood fears inside. We can help children conquer their own fears with confidence and tender reassurances. We can be supportive as they face their fears up close. We can do the same for ourselves, becoming cognizant of our language surrounding the things we fear (as adults, we often express our fear of something by declaring our hatred of it) and using logic to assess situations that seem fearsome. We can support one another in talking through our fears without judgment and we can be honest with children about the things that scare us without passing on the fear — simply by recognizing that its there, but we’re safe.