Big and Powerful

Frequently, I am in the yard with kids when we find a spider (or, they find a spider and come get me, the resident bug fan). The kids are interested in knowing if it may be a brown widow, a very common venomous spider to find in our yard. Together, we examine the spider, looking for clues. We look for the right body shape, we look for striped legs, and when we look at it through the bottom of a clear container, we can see a tiny hourglass. We go through the steps to identify the spider, and then we come to the big question: What should we do with it?

On the one hand, if it’s venomous, it could hurt us or other kids. Also, if we release it, it can go on to maybe make more baby spiders in our yard. On the other hand, it’s a living thing, and we are in its home, this yard that belongs to us and to the spider as well. We are big and powerful, and it is a tiny little creature, probably worried that we are hungry birds that eat spiders, I say. The kids answer, astounded and taken aback, that they would never eat a spider. I watch them consider the spider, powerless in their giant’s world.

If the creature is no danger to us, I never kill it. Usually, the kids determine that the animal should be returned to its home, if they find a ladybug, an earwig, a praying mantis, a lizard, or even a funnel web spider or a bee. After all the kids have had a chance to observe it, one of them takes charge and returns it to its home of our yard. If it’s a brown widow, however, I regretfully admit that I don’t think our yard is a good home for it. So many nooks and crannies for them to make a nest in, so many little children to protect and keep safe at school. I say some words to honor it, and then I usually kill it. It’s not that I don’t love them, but that I’m under the impression that people want me to try to keep those kids from getting bitten by brown widows, if possible.

This afternoon as I was driving my own kids home from school, my daughter suddenly screamed that a spider was in the car! I looked where she was pointing, and there was a teensy bright green spider hanging from a thread from the passenger side window. Quickly, I grabbed the thread, and rolled down my window with the other hand. Over the loud protest of my daughter, I tossed the little green guy out the window, toward the plants.

My daughter was on the verge of tears. I had thrown this innocent invertebrate out the window to an unknown fate. I scrambled to explain that there are no bugs to eat in the car, that I was trying to put the spider in the plants where it could be happy. She was barely consolable. And I heard myself saying that thing to her that I say to kids who are deciding the fate of a small living thing in our yard. That we are so big and powerful. That we have a responsibility to smaller, less powerful creatures to respect their place in our shared world and care for them. She was right. I was with her. We should care for that little stowaway spider.

I meant us humans. But I heard myself talking about adults in relation to children, and leaders in relationship to the people we serve and represent. I found myself in awe of the immense responsibility of being so big and powerful as a parent and teacher.

I’m so proud that my child is the kind of person who will consistently defend a spider’s right to exist, even though she’s a little scared of spiders. She takes her responsibility seriously as a powerful person in the world, both capable herself and able to direct others in her vision, while holding to the principles of compassion and shared space here in our environment. I’m thankful for her challenging me, in my adult expediency, to pause for reflection. I am big and powerful too, even if I don’t always feel like that’s so. 

Some children in the yard the other day were playing, and in their play, I heard an exploration of power. Some of them made rules they wanted other children to follow, and other children pushed to have their own ideas about the game honored. Some children changed the rules so that they would “win”, a race the other children had not been in until it was announced that they had lost. One child cheered on the other person they perceived to be on their team, saying nothing to the others. Another child kept picking up the exact thing this other child was about to use, making it suddenly unavailable.

Children are a mirror for adult interaction. They play out scenarios that are happening on a macro level. In our tiny community, we are often frustrated, or embarrassed, when our own kids demonstrate their curiosity about power. It’s only natural that they explore this mystery, this game adults play, and then deny playing, all the time. Some adults are, after all, in charge of decisions that affect all of us, and these kids hear about it in snippets and whispers. How does a child make sense of that? Like everything else, children process this understanding through play. Observing play is the best way to find out what a child is thinking about or working out.

So often in children’s play, I hear them assigning themselves extraordinary powers, as the characters they’re playing. They’re pretending to be superheroes, warriors armed to the teeth, lions, mothers, babies. Yes, listen for the power dynamics in a game of “family”, and you will hear that a mother is in charge of everybody, but a baby can change the game to its will anytime. There is nobody who knows that better than a three year old. That’s because power has to do both with the capability of doing something, and also the ability to direct someone else to do something.

I always want to empower those people around me, children and adults, on principle. I want to have my presence be a signal to those around me that I think they are capable, and that they can have a profound affect on their environment. I cast the kids as powerful giants in a land of vulnerable little creatures. We humans can dominate, when we so choose. I guess that’s what has me pause to appreciate a brown widow, even though I choose to wield this massive power over its very life. I talk out my reason. I talk out my respect for its strong web and its home here with us. I affirm my primary value of keeping this place safe for the kids, and the kids need to hear that, over and over again.

JocelynJocelyn Robertson