How do you handle fear in nature study? Today we want to address a topic in nature study that we hear about quite often. And that topic is fear: being afraid of something in nature; one of the nature friends has become an enemy in your mind, whether that’s you or for one of your children.
Joining me in this discussion are Karen Smith and Laura Pitney. I think this is going to be a very helpful discussion. Now, Laura, I want to start with you because we’ve talked on previous podcasts about how you do have a nature fear.
Laura: A few probably.
Sonya: A few? Oh, more than one! Okay, I know about the one with snakes.
Laura: Just nature in general.
Sonya: Now, I know you’re afraid of snakes. Can you talk about that a little bit? How did that come about? What does it feel like? What’s going on in your head when you’re doing nature study?
Laura: When I reflect back about the fear, I can definitely say it has gotten better over the years, which I think is maturing in that fear through the years. I remember some instances as a young girl where I was being chased by an uncle who had a snake in his hands. That just terrified me. He was pestering me. He thought it was great. And to this day he denies it, but it happened. I remember those experiences really turned me off, and I just did not want to be around snakes. And then another thing was finding snake skins, after they shed, around our property at our house where I grew up. It really freaked me out, because that was another layer on the previous fear from my uncle. And I’m just thinking, “That means they’re growing and getting bigger.”
Sonya: That’s a good point.
Laura: “And they’re near me!” That added to it. That was the foundation. I’ve never touched one; I’ve never had a bad encounter with one. I have seen them in our yard or where I would flee from it. So I can honestly say I’ve never been in contact with one. But I’m really happy I can say that. I’m okay with that. That’s the background. It has definitely changed since I’ve had children because my heart is not to give them that fear of snakes. That’s been a challenge for me to give them the right perspective about all of God’s creatures and creation in general. I have tried more purposely to keep that fear at bay because of my children. That’s where I’m at now.
For a while I tried to hide it because I didn’t even want it to come up with the kids, because I was like, “They’re going to be little instigators or pester, just because kids are kids.” But we’ve all grown in that area to where now they’re really my protectors. They know I don’t like snakes. If they see one or they know even when it’s coming up in a movie or something, they’ll be like, “Mom, close your eyes” or “Let’s go this way, Mom.” That kind of thing. So I appreciate that, that they’ve taken on that role. Now when we go to the zoo or there’s a hiking trail near us that has a lobby that keeps the snake in… What’s this? It’s not an aquarium, what’s it called?
Laura: Yes, that thing. When they go into the restroom at this nature preserve, there’s one right there. So I always look the other way and have one guide me with my hand so I don’t have to look at it. So my point being, when we are around them on purpose, I let them enjoy it and I just keep my distance. So that’s where we’re at now with it.
Sonya: I think that’s a great idea, acknowledging it, but that your kids are going to help you with it. It’s almost like they’re taking up the mantle, and so they’re not going to be afraid of it because they’re protecting mom from it. That’s a great insight. Now, I’m assuming, Karen, you don’t have any nature fears yourself.
Sonya: But I know one of your children does. Are you free to talk about that?
Karen: Yes, I am. My daughter has a fear of yellow jackets and that extends to other wasps. And she has good reason for it, having been stung a couple of times unprovoked. And so she developed this fear. Now, Laura, your fear of snakes and my daughter’s fear of yellow jackets is irrational, really. But it’s very real to that person who has the fear.
Sonya: What do you mean by irrational? Like, it doesn’t make sense you should be afraid of something that you were chased around by or you were stung by?
Karen: It’s not the snake’s fault.
Laura: It could be, though. Just kidding.
Karen: There are many different kinds of snakes or many different kinds of wasps and other things that people are afraid of. And we project that fear, we carry that fear with us all the time. But your reason for being afraid of snakes is because you were teased with one, not because of anything about the snake.
Sonya: Laura, we’ve talked before about when you see a snake in a book. Even the picture causes that fear to rise. So the fear is real, but it’s irrational to think that a picture is going to hurt you. (To Karen) Is that where you’re going?
Karen: Yes. And so my daughter has had to learn strategies for herself, much like you have, Laura, having your children be your protectors and you were careful to make sure that they were not afraid of snakes also. And so my daughter has come up with strategies. And some of the things that she finds that helps her is if she doesn’t feel trapped, she has a way of escape, then she feels more comfortable if yellow jackets are around. If she can view them from a respectful distance, that is very helpful to her.
Many times when she was younger, we actually got her a special hat that had that netting like beekeepers would have to keep the bees off of them. So it came down over her face and had a little draw cord on it. And that helped her when we were on vacation one time to feel comfortable being out in nature where the yellow jackets might be. There are different things she’s been able to do. Now, like you, Laura, as she’s gotten older, she has become better at it. Some days are better than others, but she’s learned how to cope with it. Those are some of the things that you can do to address your fears, not give them to your children also, but deal with them too.
Sonya: I like the idea of giving her that hat just to give her that little boost. Laura, when we were talking earlier, you talked about gloves, because you have other fears besides the snakes.
Laura: I I love to garden, and I love to dig and plant and just make things in the dirt grow and be beautiful. With that there are slugs, there are earthworms, there are flipping over rocks or pulling up roots and there are all kinds of little things around. Having a good pair of gloves allows me to still enjoy that hobby without being fearful of all those kinds of things. Now I will say, I still don’t want to encounter a snake, whatever the size is. But if I’m reaching down, pulling over a rock and there is a baby snake there or whatever it is—
Sonya: Has that actually happened to you?
Laura: It has.
Sonya: Oh wow.
Laura: So that’s why I use that as an example. It was a couple of years ago, so I want to pat myself on the back that I reacted better than I thought I would in that scenario. I flipped over the stone, and there was a snake coiled up. And I took a deep breath and just walked backwards and then went and got one of the older kids to come make sure it got out of my way and I could finish working. But I had those gloves on, and I felt protected. So when the surprise came, I at least was able just to step out of the situation. The gloves are a big tool for me. I feel more confident.
So my son, he wanted a leopard gecko lizard. And I was like, “There is no way.” There is no way I was getting a lizard at my house because it reminded me too much of a snake: the feel of it, even the way it looks at you. Too many similarities. He was very adamant about it. And we had a friend who helped us figure out what kind to get, the cage—I had worms in my fridge. Come on, who does that?
Sonya: To feed the lizard, yes.
Laura: Crickets and worms. That was not my comfort zone at all. But then the lizard was okay. Anytime we had to clean out the cage and get everything fresh again, I would leave the bedroom, my son would get it out of the cage and walk to the opposite side of the house and hold it so that I could go near the cage and clean it up and help. We had to tag team that. It should have been . . . no one else wanted to hold it, so he was the only one that could hold it while we cleaned the cage. But I’m just saying, the way that it would shed, the way that it would move its nasty little tail, all those things. But I had it in my house, because I love my son. I wanted him to have that experience of taking care of it and those things.
Sonya: That was a huge step for you.
Laura: It was, but I didn’t touch it, and I didn’t look at it when I didn’t have to. And we always made sure that lid was secure. That was a big deal, but we did it. And then I said, “Why don’t we get rid of that lizard? I’ll get you a puppy, any puppy you want” and “That’s right, I will get you that dog.” I really wanted it out of my house. But we did it for a while. No more worms in my fridge, or crickets.
Sonya: Karen, so what recommendations would you give? You’ve talked about some ideas, but go ahead and recap what encouragement would you give to parents who either have a fear themselves or who have a child with a fear of nature? What are some do’s and don’ts you would like to emphasize?
Karen: First of all, acknowledge the fear, because that’s the first step in being able to come up with coping strategies for yourself or your child. Second, know your limits. If you can’t even hold a book that has pictures of snakes in it, let your child hold the book. You know that’s a limit of yours. With my daughter, she knows that being in a crowded situation where there might be yellow jackets, that’s beyond her limit, she needs a way to escape. So knowing your limits, whatever those are with that. Laura, do you have any others that you use?
Laura: I think the biggest thing that helped me is, like you said, not just acknowledging it but talking about it. I know there was a lot of conversations between my husband and me about my limitations with my fear and then situations possibly with my kids. So acknowledging it in the game plan, but for me it was also talking through it and having a good sounding board of “Okay, yes, I am being irrational” or “Okay, that makes sense. Let’s see what we can do to tweak that.” Talking it through is the only other encouragement that I have.
Another idea would be, have a good friend who really likes your fear, and she can encourage your kids. We did that when we would go to the zoo a lot. My friend Jenn would take the kids to see the snakes, and I would wait outside with the babies. We tag teamed the different things. Maybe you can have a friend who doesn’t have your fear, or maybe you can help her with her fear and y’all can tag team, giving the kids the positive experience.
Karen: That’s a good idea. If it’s your child, you also want to be careful not to force that child to face his fear, because that’s only going to make that fear stronger. Teach your child how to react in those situations. Like for my daughter, a yellow jacket, or for Laura, snakes, you never know when they’re going to show up. And so you need to help your child come up with strategies for coping with a situation that is not ideal for him.
Sonya: What kind of strategies do you mean?
Karen: For my daughter, we learned that restraining her and making her face her fear was not good, which is why I say don’t do that. But having that escape, where she doesn’t feel like she’s crowded, helps. She can go to flowers now and stay a respectful distance away and watch the wasps around that. But if she sees a yellow jacket, she knows she’s going to move away quickly and try and get away. It’s almost like—
Sonya: It’s respecting your child.
Karen: Just like you would for anything else, but also helping them just like you would for anything else.
Sonya: So you’re not pandering to the weakness, but you are respectful of it and helping them learn from it.
Laura: Yes, I was just going to say, it’s training, helping. Once they acknowledge it, or once they’re old enough to have the conversation about it, it’s more really helping train them with that procedure. Setting them up for success.
Sonya: Practicing those safeguards.
Laura: Yes, little baby steps to where then they’re confident, when they can handle it.
Karen: Right, and like my daughter with her special hat and you with gloves when you’re gardening, those are ways that you could help your child. Whatever the fear is, if there is something that you can come up with that makes him more comfortable to be able to do what you want him to do or just being out in the open. A picnic can be a very scary thing for my daughter. She needs to have some ways to deal with her fear. And helping your child find those ways is important.
Sonya: So what I’m hearing is, the goal is not to eradicate the fear. That’s probably not possible to do.
Laura: Yes, I would agree with that.
Sonya: But we can help our children learn how to deal with it, how to cope with it, and have strategies so they can still enjoy so much of nature. Even with that one little—I’m not going to say little—that one fear that’s out there. Not letting that paralyze them.