Practicing peace in the backyard: what children taught me when a wasp was on its back

French designer and author 
Life is precious, so I am determined to protect life--not only the lives of human beings but the lives of other species. -Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s a teal blue-sky day and we’re outside. I catch my breath after running laps around the schoolyard with Elijah and Maggie and the other three to five-year-olds. I hear a child yell, “Look, a wasp!” Children are huddled near the garden.

When I approach, five children are bent over an insect. It’s on its back, legs wiggling. One child gathers a handful of dirt and throws it on top of the insect, covering it almost completely. I hear, “A wasp. A wasp!” Fear grows as another child yells, “It will sting you. Kill it!” A second child flings more dirt.

I notice that it may not be a wasp. 

It looks like it’s in the beetle family. When the second handful of dirt is thrown, I think it is dead. I quietly walk away. (It hurts to admit this.)

John Paul did not walk away. He rescued the wasp.

Time passes. It is late afternoon.

I am sad and disappointed in myself.

I need to talk with the children. I wonder, "How do I approach a conversation about that wasp? How do I invite honest reflection on our behaviors?"

I know from experience that moralizing and lecturing interfere with an ability to gain learning skills to deal with life responsibly. I choose to take an attitude of curiosity to ask questions to see what we can learn.

I invite the children to gather in a circle and sit down.

I begin. 

“I want to talk to you about something I saw on the playground. There was an insect on its back. Does anyone remember this?”

“Yes! It was a wasp,” shouts a child.

“Maybe it wasn’t a wasp,” I wonder out loud. “Do you know for sure it was a wasp?”

“No,” says Maggie. “I don’t think it was.”

John Paul who is a teacher assistant says he saw a stinger, and asks, “Do other animals besides wasps have stingers?”

Brennan replies, “Hornets and bees.”

“I threw dirt on it,” a child easily admits. "Me, too," adds another child.

I say thank you for telling me. I wonder out loud and say, “This is a living creature who breathes like I do. If I was stuck on my back and trying to get up, would being covered with dirt help or hurt me?”

“Hurt you,” says a child.

“But it’s a wasp! Wasps sting,” says Jax.

“Wasps can sting,” I nod in agreement and curiously ask, “Can a wasp say, ‘I’m scared of you so go away?’”

“No, that’s silly. Wasps don’t talk,” says Elijah.

“That’s right,” I add. “If they could talk they might say that. Instead, they sting.”  I pause.

“Children, now I’m wondering what is good about a wasp.”

“Wasps eat mosquitoes,” says Brennan. “We'll have to Google and see if wasps eat mosquitoes but I did read that some wasps eat other insects. Some feed on carrion or fruit or nectar. What else is good about a wasp?”

“Wasps are pollinators,” says Ansel.

“Ansel, that is very important information. We need pollinators to help flowers and plants we eat grow. How else are wasps good?” There’s a pause. I ask, “What eats wasps?”

“Birds!” exclaims Maggie. "Why yes, I read that flycatchers eat wasps." 

“Frogs eat wasps,” adds Mason. “And dragonflies.”

“So wasps are food for other animals.” The children look thoughtful.

I tell them what I choose to do. “I don’t want to kill wasps so I need your help figuring out ways to respect and be kind to them.”

“Think of a wasp as a friend,” says Maggie, “and maybe you won’t get scared.”

“Look before crawling in the bushes so you don’t knock them down,” adds Jax.

“What can I do to be safe around a wasp that also helps the wasp be safe?”

“Walk away,” says Mason. “Slowly.”

“Tell an adult where the wasp is,” says Brennan.

“Watch with super power eyes,” adds Elijah, “then we know where they are and can leave them play.”

We end by making an agreement. 

I say, “I will not hurt insects. Does anyone else want to be part of the agreement?” The other children join in. I put my hand in the circle and they put their hands on top of mine in a group pinky-swear.

Circle ends.

The children hold a mirror up to me. I see how children are either harmed or benefit from our presence.  

I see that I joined in harming the bug (and the children) by walking away. My fear of being stung took precedent. I didn’t consider other choices. I also see how our conversation helped us see life from multiple perspectives— wasps, children, adults—and what we can do the next time we're afraid. We are better prepared to respond in ways that do not escalate the situation or harm any being.

This experience shows me that I can work with peace and kindness in my own life and backyard. 

*I volunteered at Starr's House, a neighborhood preschool (2012). We meditated, read, created art, played, and explored nature together.