Normally, I would try to teach my kids to be gentle with living things, starting with the idea that we don’t step on bugs on the sidewalk. Now that Philadelphia is full of spotted lanternflies, my kids are getting positive reinforcement from teachers, friends and neighbors for killing them. How do I explain to them why it’s fine to kill one bug but not another, and how do I make sure this doesn’t warp their general understanding of right and wrong?
You probably expected a column from me today about how to contextualize the passing of an American hero who is also Jewish, or how to explain the “who shall live and who shall die” themes of Rosh Hashanah to kids who overheard it on Zoom over the weekend. In order to think about any other questions about life, though, at some level, we have to understand the first time kids encounter death, which is usually with a bug on the sidewalk.
For those of you who don’t know, spotted lanternflies are an invasive species that are a scourge on the experience of living in Philly. They are destroying local plants, they are everywhere and they are large, stupid and very squishable.
There have been many public campaigns letting people know how to destroy their eggs, what they look like at different stages of development and, that if you see them, you should kill them. There are apps for tracking how many you get, and it’s become a competition among COVID-isolated children to see who can stomp on the most.
I’m not saying it’s not awful watching kids bug stomping, but it is, in fact, better than having all our plants killed. During this time of fragility, both for the natural world and for the humans who inhabit it, killing spotted lanternflies, honestly, seems like the most 2020 activity imaginable.
As a parent, surely you already know that every rule you establish pretty much immediately has an exception, and this, alas, is no exception. You know what values you want to teach your children, and you know that sometimes there are extenuating circumstances. The more you discuss the importance of respecting living things, the more opportunities you have to explain all the varied ways that plays out in nature. The more you supervise and nurture their questions, the more opportunities you have to guide their understanding of the world and shape their values.
Life is full of subtlety, and learning that is a huge stage of childhood development.
When you’re able to say to children, “We are killing these bugs because otherwise they will destroy our trees,” you’re teaching about ecosystems. When you say, “These bugs came from another country and don’t have any natural predators here,” you’re teaching about interconnectedness. When you say, “By reducing the number of spotted lanternflies, we’re helping to protect our environment and, at the same time, we have to protect bugs that are native to Pennsylvania,” you’re teaching about nuance and responsibility and that life is complicated all at once.