Helping kids overcome their fear of sharks and other ‘scary’ animals

Animal experts weigh in on how to show children there’s nothing to be afraid of.

By Jason Bittel
Published 28 Jul 2020, 13:54 BST
Great white shark

Great white shark

Photograph by Jim Abernethy, National Geographic Image Collection

If a fin rising out of the water sends a chill down your spine, it’s likely that your kids might also find sharks a little scary—along with creatures like snakes, spiders, and bees. The good news is that experts say people have little to fear from these animals. Likewise, there’s a lot to be gained from getting your kids over such animal-related anxieties.

“If your kid is afraid of the water, they’re not going to experience all the other things that the oceans have to offer,” says Jasmin Graham, a marine biologist at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium in Florida. “The last thing you want to do is take that away from your kid.”

The earlier you can expose your kids to animals like sharks, the better chance they might have at experiencing fascination rather than fear.

“In my experience, when young kids see a shark for the first time, if it happens early on, then there’s no inherent fear,” says Graham, who’s also the project coordinator for the Marine Science Laboratory Alliance Centre of Excellence. “They’re interested, and they don’t freak out about it.”

Children also need to learn that if they give these “scary” animals space, the creatures will generally stay away. In fact, the creatures usually have more to fear from humans. For instance, scientists estimate that humans kill around 100 million sharks each year, either through targeted fishing or as bycatch. But sharks kill just four humans each year, on average. “So of the two animals in this situation,” Graham says, “one is definitely a bigger threat to the other.”

Scientists offer these other tips on how parents can change the narrative about “scary” animals for their kids. Who knows: You might just find them useful, too!

The animal: Sharks

Epaulette shark

Photograph by slomotiongli / Getty Images

Why they're awesome: Many species of shark are the top predators in their ecosystem, which keeps other, smaller predator populations in check. (Too many of those smaller predators might gobble up many of the fish species kids like to snack on.) And with more than 500 species, kids are sure to find a fave, from the largest fish in the world—the whale shark—to the banana-size dwarf lanternshark, which has pockets on either side of its face that can light up in the dark. (Learn more about shark sizes.) Some are downright cute, Graham says, like the puppy-dog-faced epaulette sharks (above), which sometimes walk on land.

Have no fear: “One of the things I like to tell kids is, there’s only about 16 shark encounters per year in the United States,” says Graham, who also co-created the outreach group Minorities in Shark Sciences. “And that usually results in a fatality about every other year.” For comparison, dogs bite 4.5 million people in the U.S. each year. “And we bring dogs into our houses and put them in cute outfits,” she says.

What parents can do: The best thing for warding off fear and misunderstanding is exposure. Trips to the zoo or aquarium can help show kids how peaceful sharks are, while books and nature documentaries can help them geek out about cool biology and evolution without becoming fixated on fear. Then play at the beach like you’d normally do, Graham says. “Every time you get in the water there are probably about 20 sharks in that area, and you don’t see them,” she says. “They’re staying out of your way. They’re just living their lives.”


The animal: Snakes

Corn snake

Photograph by Nathan Shepard / Getty Images

Why they're awesome: Many snake species prey upon mice and other small rodents, making them nature’s pest control squad. Research has even shown that snakes can reduce the number of ticks nearby, since ticks rely on rodents for part of their life cycle. What’s more, scientists have used snake venoms to create new medicines that control high blood pressure, break up blood clots, and lower the risk of heart attack.

Have no fear: “Humans are snakes’ predators, not the other way around,” says Earyn McGee, a herpetologist at the University of Arizona. “A snake is never going to chase you.” Snakes are sit-and-wait predators—and humans are not on the menu. “Even with venomous snakes, you can pass by really close to them and you will never know that they’re there, because they’re just being super still and hoping you won’t see them,” McGee says.

What parents can do: A great way to teach kids the value of snakes is to focus on docile, non-venomous species like garter snakes and corn snakes (above). These easy-to-handle species make great pets. (McGee recommends using a loose grip and not squeezing or confining the animal.)

The animal: Spiders

Bold jumping spider

Photograph by Rolf Nussbaumer, Npl, Minden Pictures

Why they’re awesome: Having spiders around is like having a bug zapper in the corner. One study estimated that all the world’s spiders eat nearly 900 million tons of insects and other small creatures each year. Kids will also be impressed with spiders’ “superpowers,” says Sebastian Echeverri, who studies jumping spiders at the University of Pittsburgh. Spiders can walk on walls and build their own traps; some species hunt fish underwater, and a few grow large enough to take down bats and birds. (Watch an orb-weaver spider in Belize prey upon an unlucky bat.)

Have no fear: Spiders just aren’t that into attacking humans. “You are a skyscraper to a spider,” Echeverri says. “When they’re dealing with something as big as us, the safest thing for spiders to do is run away.”

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO: The next time you find an arachnid in the house, Echeverri recommends slowly covering it with a glass and then sliding a piece of paper or cardboard beneath. This will allow you to get a closer look and show your kids there’s nothing to fear.

The animal: Bees

Honey bee

Photograph by Michael Durham, Minden Pictures

Why they're awesome: Of all the animals on this list, bees are probably the most likely to ruin your child’s day with an accidental sting. But they’re also wondrous little insects that pollinate more than a hundred kinds of crops, from almonds and apples to chocolate and pumpkins. Without bees and other pollinators, 80 percent of all flowering plants on Earth might disappear.

Have no fear: “Bees are generally very gentle creatures,” says Natalie Boyle, an entomologist at Pennsylvania State University. All bees really want are flowers and other sources of nutrients. And for some species, like the European honeybee, stinging a human can result in death for the bee—further motivation for both species to leave each other alone.

What parents can do: Sitting beside a flower patch and watching buzzers show up can be fun, says Boyle, who’s put together an at-home science lesson to observe pollinators. And if one of them gets too close, don’t panic. “She’s not looking for a fight,” Boyle says. “Just be patient, give it some space, and don’t swat!”

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