The other day as I buckled Si into his carseat, he declared, “I like ‘pidahs!” This surprised me; of late, anything that evokes a mere suggestion of 8 legs or skittery movement–things that could represent “spider” only to my son and to Joan Miró–tends to elicit screams and frantic hops from my toddler.
I accept as part of my daily ration of mommy guilt that I somehow Did This. Confined spaces, public speaking, and spiders; I regard these things with equal parts horror and awe, and in the last example I can only assume I have transmitted those feelings to my child. In fact, spiders frighten me so much that I have overcome my aversion to killing them. Psychologically, it feels much, much worse to have seen one and wonder where it has gone (and when it might come back to crawl on me) than to simply grab a tissue, take a deep breath and have done with it. In my semi-conscious worldview, spiders are to be respected but never trusted, and must die or accept voluntary repatriation to the outside if I see them. So, perhaps it should not have come as a shock that the next statement out of Si’s mouth was, “I like to ‘mash them and ‘tomp on them.”
It was a surprise, though–the cavalier brutality of preschoolers (or is it that of little boys?) always is. I climbed plenty of trees growing up, but I also liked dresses and dolls and playing quietly with my sister; my two boys, despite my having carried and birthed them and regarded them each day in wonder, remain something entirely Other. Parenting them is not unlike a hostile takeover: I look around what formerly was simply my house–my life–and discover that things have been retitled and repurposed, as have I. And I continue to wait for the inevitable adjustment: does their play need to be this wild? Must their voices be so loud? Need my every possession become a direct object of verbs so active I worry that our walls may not survive them? They will change, or I will, or we will continue our mutual wearing-down of one another until college (them) or medication (me), or both. In the meantime, they–particularly my younger son–manifest a delight in destruction that is a bit unsettling.
Where those destructive urges are applied to other living things, I feel I must draw a line, one that takes into account not just behavior, but ethics. And sometimes–now I wonder just how often–I use off-the-shelf Parent Theology to do it. “Are you taking good care of God’s creatures?” I ask my two-year-old. I am not sure how it started, but I continue to ask this particular question in large part because it’s highly effective. Five-year-old Ren invariably looks abashed and then calibrates his movements oh-so-carefully, lest he further disturb part of the Lord’s menagerie. (I have to say, I love this reaction. Actual worry about other living things, whether it’s motivated by concern for the creatures’ lives or out of fear that God might be looking down and frowning, seems to lessen the odds that the children are on the road to sociopathy. Which . . . well . . . sometimes we wonder.) There are evidently limits to the question’s power, however. My wily toddler regards me seriously for a moment, then announces, “Imma tell God not to put ‘pidahs in our garage!”
Fair enough. And this statement addresses a conflict that I have a hard time reconciling myself: how should we deal with the place where my space and someone (something) else’s overlap? As Unitarians, we believe in a just allocation of resources, which we sometimes explain to our children as, “one for you, and one for me.” When we’re talking about people and cans of food, this makes perfect sense. When we’re talking about my house and the ravenous colony of sugar ants that invades it every spring, it makes no sense at all . . . except that, sometimes, I still feel like it should. I put off calling the exterminators until everything sweet has been thrown away or banished to the freezer, and when Dmitri finally comes, I feel terrible. “You have to get the eggs,” he explains. He has a friendly smile, a slight accent, and two kids my own children’s age, and I forget for a moment that we are talking about poisoning things. “We’ll just spray the colonies under the downspouts–they won’t be able to save the eggs.” Eggs? They’re going to try in vain to save their eggs? I must look horrified; Dmitri puts a hand on my arm and says, “You do not have to give to them the house. They have other places to be living. This is yours.”
And so it is. And sometimes maintaining this place of ours involves poisoning other living things. (Of course, this is true, and it’s not limited to ants and the clear chain of events between my calling the exterminator and their deaths–how many of the things we use, enjoy, or do in and around our home involve a cost in lives of other creatures?) That I know this and sometimes think about it doesn’t mean that I believe we indeed ought to give our house to the ants. Nor are we vegetarians, and there is plenty in our home that is neither free-trade nor fair-trade, possibly in the most damaging sense of that phrase. We accept tradeoffs each day, and we try to educate ourselves and to do better when we know better. Thinking about the ants, however, brings an awareness that it’s hard to answer my children’s questions around the choices that we make in this area while simultaneously trying to instill in them a code of ethics based on concern for others, and for the interdependent web of all life (that would be UU principle number 7, for those following along at home).
The larger problem then, where moralizing to my offspring is concerned, is that this “caring for God’s creatures” standard is either arbitrarily applied or impossible to meet. It’s easy enough to trot it out when I feel concerned by my children’s behavior, but try living by it yourself. Ren has his own version of the question, though his tends to be voiced as an exclamation: “That was a LIVING. THING!” This phrase–generally howled by a small person laid prostrate at the murder of one or more members of phylum Arthropoda–is the bane of Montessori parents everywhere. I mean, we love that they teach respect for all living things–but do we really have to mean “all?” Literally, all of them? What would that sort of respect look like? And how do we balance it with the other realities of our lives, for example the desire to eat bananas unsullied by fruit fly eggs or to shower in the basement bathroom without reenacting scenes from Arachnophobia?
Clearly, I do not have answers for these questions. For the time being, we do the best we can in each moment to reason clearly, and to talk with Si and Ren in a way that makes our reasoning plain. Or we do, sometimes. In other moments, it seems so much simpler to borrow the voice of God and issue proclamations–Take Care of My Creatures–that are rule and explanation both.
Perhaps our real religious commitment is not to reach a particular conclusion about ants or spiders, but to continue to wrestle with the questions, and to do it in front of and alongside our children. This is a struggle, to be sure, but perhaps in our children themselves we have the best equipment possible. Mine can spot spiderwebs, and hypocrisy, from 100 paces.