We’ve got a great playground in our backyard, a hand-me-down from friends who outgrew it. It’s far nicer than anything we could afford, and we love the chance for kids to work out their energy in a way that involves neither our couch nor the cats. Late in the day, the sun peeks through the trees and dances on my kids’ faces as they slide and swing and climb to their hearts’ content.
Last week, in the midst of play time, my daughter let out a shriek and exclaimed, “Eww! A bug!” My husband, who is our one-man bug patrol, was mowing the lawn with earphones in, so even when he was in view I couldn’t get his attention. (Well played, husband.) So I sauntered over, expecting an ant or spider. Two insanely ugly bugs were latched on to the underside of the platform. They were giant and gray with huge eyes and long, bent soul-crushing front legs. (They looked straight out of Starship Troopers, or what I think Starship Troopers bugs would look like. I didn’t see the movie because bugs are gross enough without Hollywood’s touch.) Inside I was saying “EWW! A bug!” but someone needed to be the grown-up, so I put on my best parent face. I said, “Wow! I wonder what kind of bugs they are? Now we have a science mystery to solve!” My daughter looked at me skeptically and said, “I think I’m just going to swing instead.”
I took photos (carefully, trying not to get too close) and shared them with a few friends online. One friend identified them as cicada exoskeletons. She told me the cicadas had already molted, and that the creepy things that looked so much like live bugs ready to devour us were actually empty shells. I was doubtful, but after doing some internet searches I realized she was probably correct. I found some cool molting videos and a coloring page of the life cycle of cicadas, and I showed my daughter. “Like a butterfly!” I cooed, which is true in the sense that I am like an Olympic athlete. But my kids were comforted by the fact that they weren’t alive, and my son was especially comforted by the fact that he could, with parental permission, whack something with a stick.
As soon as we got into the backyard, my kids dashed valiantly to the playground to knock down the cicada shells (which was a little scary, honestly, because I was only mostly sure they were just shells.) Sure enough, one gentle poke with a stick sent them falling down, empty and crumbling like paper. My daughter said, “I wasn’t afraid once I learned about ‘em.” And it felt like one of those “The More You Know” videos from the my youth, like maybe Tutti from Facts of Life would step out with the collar popped on her bedazzled jean jacket and say, “Cicada shells aren’t scary. They’re not even alive.” And then a star would shoot across the screen with a rainbow burst and a sprinkle of piano keys.
I think this is true: knowledge trumps fear. It was utterly ridiculous to avoid half of the playground because of bugs that were not even there. And I think of all the friends and opportunities my kids will miss if they grow into adults that let paper-tiger fears keep them from engaging the world. I hope I can teach them now that when they feel uncomfortable or afraid of something they don’t understand, they can ask and educate themselves and poke those fears with sticks until they crumble. And while some fears are valid, my kids don’t need to be shackled by those fears. They can rise, like stars. Like butterflies.
But not cicadas, because, ew.