Getting kids to love not-so-cute critters

Teaching respect for insects, fish, and other non-mammals can have positive impacts on children’s development—and their love for the planet.

Published 4 Oct 2021, 12:57 BST
Frog - World Animal Day
What's not to love about this face? Teaching children to care about critters like the Pacific horned frog is just as important as empowering them to protect "cute" animals like giant pandas.
Photograph by Pete Oxford / Minden Pictures

“We don’t squish daddy longlegs!”

I have no idea how many times I’ve said these words to my three-year-old only to see him bring down a plastic bat on yet another noble arachnid. He’s never been harmed by one of these spider-cousins, and in fact, daddy longlegs have no way to hurt a human. And yet something about all those wispy legs invokes a fight-or-flight response for him in a way that kittens do not.  

Of course, lots of kids smash invertebrates. And plenty of adults don’t think twice before killing certain kinds of animals.

“There's some research that we may have evolved to have a fear response to some animals, like snakes and spiders,” says Gail Melson, a developmental psychologist and professor emeritus at Purdue University. (Read more about that data in the article “Are we born fearing spiders and snakes?”) At the same time, Melson says other evidence suggests animals who retain babyish features like big eyes, small noses, or chubby cheeks into adulthood—what scientists call neoteny—may encourage a positive evolutionary response in humans.

In other words, we want to take care of animals we think are “cute.” And everything else? Well, kids might begin to think they’re expendable.

This is not only bad news for many creatures who happen to share a space with humans but also for tons of animals facing extinction. But by helping kids reframe their biases and understand that all creatures have value, parents can create not only more nurturing and compassionate children, but also foster the next generation of scientists and conservationists.

“It might be a turtle that captures the child’s attention. It might be a trail of ants going across the ground,” Melson says. “This interest can be shaped in many forms. We can even pay attention to the animal because we’re terrified of it.”

Loving more than just mammals

Most kids know that tigers, elephants, and blue whales are threatened with extinction. And though these animals may range in size, colour, and habitat, they all have one thing in common—they’re mammals. And mammals tend to get most of the attention.  

“Invertebrates are roughly 95 percent of all animal life, and only 11 percent of conservation literature covers them,” says Simon Watt, a biologist and founder of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, an organisation with a tongue-in-cheek name that advocates for saving lesser known, not-quite-cute animals.

“When people think of the word ‘animal’, often they’re thinking of the pandas, and the cats, and the dogs. They're thinking about ‘mammals’—things that are warm, fuzzy, and cuddly,” says Jessica Honaker, an entomologist and co-creator of the Bug Chicks, a group focused on education and invertebrate advocacy. “And then they look at something like a beetle, and they see a smooth exoskeleton, with a face they don't recognise, and they’re a little intimidated.”

But insects need our help, too. According to some reports, as many as 40 percent of the world’s insect species are in danger of disappearing. Likewise, up to half of the amphibian species known to science may also be threatened with extinction. And so it goes with freshwater fish, as well as sharks and rays.

“Squids are animals. Corals are animals. You know, there are so many different kinds of animals,” says Kristie Reddick, an entomologist and the other half of the Bug Chicks.  

And just because an animal seems impossibly different from ourselves doesn’t mean it’s not important, Reddick says. In fact, those differences might just be a learning opportunity.

Turning fear into fascination

One of the core strategies the Bug Chicks use to help kids warm up to not-so-cute creatures is to model empathy.

For instance, if you happen upon a spider in its web, take the time to help your kiddo find common ground with the animal.

“You might say, ‘This is where the spider lives. If someone came into our home and wrecked it, that would be bad. So we’re going to name this spider and let it live here in its home,’” Reddick says.

Once you’ve found a bit of familiarity, you can then learn more about that animal’s life cycle, food preferences, or habitat requirements. This teaches the child to see a spider not just as a creepy-crawly, but perhaps as a mother or father, a builder, or a predator not all that different from those cute lions and polar bears.

“Learning turns fear to fascination,” Honaker says. (This article provides more tips on helping children overcome their fear of “scary” animals.)

The same approach can work with just about any creature, no matter how off-putting it may seem at first. For instance, despite being delicate as a flower, daddy longlegs are canny survivors that have been stilting it around this Earth for at least 400 million years.

“Every animal, regardless of what it looks like, is going to have a unique evolutionary story to tell,” says Watt, author of Ugly Animals: We Can’t All Be Pandas.

An animal’s weirdness can also inspire children to learn how such animals fit in the world, why they matter, and what would be lost if these species were to disappear.

“Like, what does a proboscis monkey do with its stupid nose?” jokes Watt. “What does a blobfish do with its stupid flesh?”

These aren’t rhetorical questions, by the way. The male proboscis monkey’s nose helps it woo a mate, and the blobfish’s frumpy frame actually allows these creatures to withstand the enormous amounts of pressure that exist at depths of around 4,000 feet. Questions like these can also show children the importance of “ugly” animals to the planet. For instance, rattlesnakes—which few kids or adults would classify as “cute”—help lower the number of disease-causing ticks in the woods simply by gobbling up mice and other small mammals. 

As a practical way to take this newfound interest further, the Bug Chicks recommend joining your child in a scavenger hunt to discover as many different kinds of creatures as you can in a set amount of time. On a smaller scale, you might simply sit and observe how many kinds of pollinators visit a single flower. Or close your eyes and count how many creatures you can identify using only your ears.

“The more you observe, the more you see it everywhere,” says Honaker, referring to the connections found between all living things, “the more you become part of the ecosystem that surrounds you.”

Adds Reddick: “We call it ‘putting your small eyes on.’”

Teaching compassion for animals and ourselves

Teaching kids to care about less appreciated animals can also help them with their own social-emotional development. For instance, Reddick says kids will offer words such as gross, disgusting, creepy, and weird to describe animals like arthropods. That’s when the educators to try to get the kids to shift from using negative-sounding words to ones that reflect something positive. After all, weird animals can also be interesting or cool.

“Then we turn it around on the students and say, ‘Are there words that you use about yourselves that are not very nice?’” Honaker says, noting that this builds yet another level of connection between kids and the oft-maligned animals, and teaches compassion for oneself.

“Every person can relate to these sorts of words, this negative self-speak.”

A respect for creepy-crawlies can also teach children confidence. Reddick says that when a child summons the courage to get near a tarantula or giant stick insect that they were afraid of only moments before, it shows them that they’re capable of conquering their fears. “Some students have said, ‘I feel like a superhero!’” she says.

The other handy thing about learning to view not-so-cute animals on par with giraffes and jaguars? It means you don’t have to go on a safari to practice empathy, learn about biology, or lay the groundwork for conservation. Every salamander under a rock, sparrow in a hedgerow, or spider in a basement corner is an opportunity.

Says Reddick, “No matter where you are on the planet, you can go outside and have an experience with wildlife.”

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