A couple of weeks ago, I paused while drawing the curtains in my daughter’s room and looked outside. The evening was just beginning to give way to night, and the fireflies were beginning to emerge. I thought about the hours I used to spend catching these little marvels, the countless jars filled with them and the inevitability that they would be dead in the morning. I thought about a girl I met on a picnic who showed me that disembodied firefly abdomens continue to glow. I stood somewhat horrified as she proceeded to press one onto my finger as a ring and then made a necklace for herself.
Then I thought, “What kind of a mother am I?” Firefly season is so short, yet my children had not yet been out to enjoy it. Dusk falls right at bedtime and for some reason, our relaxed schedule had become suddenly rigid as 9PM loomed. “Sorry, but it is bed time,” I answered as my children begged to go out. And there I stood. What kind of mother can’t find fifteen minutes to let the children go out and catch fireflies?
So I turned them loose. They bombarded me with questions, and I did my best to explain the mating rituals of fireflies and how they produced that eerie light. I opted not to tell them about how to make rings and necklaces.
“What do they eat, mommy?”
I didn’t know. I had actually wondered that all my life, but never thought about it when in a place to find out.
“I don’t know. Let’s go see,” I answered.
So we went in and asked Google what fireflies eat. “No one really knows,” came the answer. No one really knows? We know the composition of distant stars, the nesting behaviors of extinct dinosaurs and how to turn electric pulses into information, but not what the fireflies in my backyard eat? While I pondered, the children shrugged and went back to looking at their fireflies. But several times since, my daughter has come to me with theories. They seem to like crawling around on the mulberries she put in their jar. Maybe they eat mulberries. Her mind is working, seeking an answer. She has been observing them closely, forming her hypotheses and testing them on me. What do I think?
I think I’m glad that Google didn’t return a definitive answer. If we found out right then that they eat pollen, or nectar or other insects (or nothing at all), the question would have been over and the wonder extinguished. It would have added more to our growing bank of superficial, horizontal knowledge. There is certainly nothing wrong with facts and information, but when it is spoon-fed by a teacher, parent or even the ease of the internet it can take something away, as well.
I think I’m going to be more careful about answering my children’s questions in future. I think there may be benefit in letting them wrestle with their questions a little longer before providing an answer or the means of discovering that answer.
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