Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Greg Jordan

March 6, 2014

Conversations with kids: Sometimes a little white lie is best

— — I have lost track of all the people I’ve interviewed and just plain chatted with during my years in the newspaper business. They fit into categories ranging from celebrity to criminal. Many of these conversations have been enlightening while others have ranged from frustrating to heartbreaking.

The conversations that have contained the most figurative land mines have been with children, especially the little kids. Child logic doesn’t lend itself to adult interviewing techniques, so you have to be careful about what you say. You also have to listen very carefully to the answers they give you.

For instance, explaining something new to children isn’t always easy. One day I was talking to some children at a local elementary school; I think they were in second grade. I brought some tarantulas and shed tarantula skins for them to see. I talked to them about taking care of these pets and why I liked them.

Then one boy asked me what would happen if one of the big spiders bit me. Would it hurt?

How to illustrate this? I had a pair of long needle-nose tweezers with me. Talking with my hands, I told him a bite would hurt a lot.

“It would be as if I stabbed myself in the hand with these tweezers!” I said.

A little girl looked up at me with big, sad eyes. “Why would you do that?” she inquired.

I had to assure her that I wasn’t into self-mutilation. I was just giving an example.

Be careful about the examples you give kids when you’re trying to explain a concept. Just last week, a dear friend of mine, Amanda, and I were talking on the phone. The conversation drifted to the days when she worked at Gibson Woods, a nature reserve near Chicago. The reserve hosted a lot of field trips, so she had plenty of opportunities to tell little kids about the wonders of nature.

Well, one day she was showing children the bird feeders and how to make those pine cone feeders full of birdseed and peanut butter. Gibson Woods sometimes helped rescue injured wildlife, and one example was a pair of Peregrine Falcons they had nursed back to health. One falcon, the male, was still hanging around the reserve.

Unfortunately, he chose that day to demonstrate the predator/prey relationship. He swooped out of nowhere and nailed a red bird while the children looked on. Amanda said the falcon went behind some bushes before decapitating his lunch.

One girl, about 4 years old, was especially upset about the “mean bird” that snatched away the pretty red bird. Her dad tried to comfort her, but I don’t think that reminding her how much she liked fried chicken was the right idea.

“But honey, you love the wings!” he said, driving his point home.

Amanda described the little girl’s reaction. I think the term “total meltdown” covers it pretty well. A vegetarian was born.

I hope I never find myself in a similar situation. I’m sure I would have found some way to traumatize that poor kid, too. Little pitfalls like the one I just described go through my head when I get a mouse for my king snake, Alice.

Never being particularly fond of rodents has made feeding Alice easy. She quickly and very efficiently retires mice and swallows them whole. It’s a pretty amazing process to see.

Of course, I know children might not share my feelings. I’m sure there are boys and girls who would find Alice’s dinner routine cool, but others might not be so enthusiastic. I’m sure little girls who were given teddy bears, bunnies and other toys wouldn’t react so well to Alice’s dining habits. Mice can look really cute, especially the younger ones.

I keep this in mind when I visit the pet shop. How can I explain the upcoming fate of a sweet little mouse I’m taking home if a little kid notices me grabbing one by the tail and dropping it into my “mouse box,” the plastic critter carrier I keep for just that purpose? I don’t use cardboard boxes for fear of escapes. One lady forgot about the mouse she was taking home to her critter. It chewed its way out of the box, chewed up some dashboard wiring and set her car on fire.

When kids are at the shop, I hang back from the rodent room and wait until they move on. They’re usually too engrossed with the fish and other pets to notice me, thank goodness. I pay at the counter and leave. And I keep the mouse box in a shopping bag so nobody can see the rodent being carried to its doom.

Some day my luck will run out. A cute little kid will ask me why I’m buying a mouse. What will I do? Well, I’ll be nice and tell a total lie. If I’m unfortunate to run into this child again, I’ll say the mouse died if the subject comes up. Hey, it will be the truth.

It will be better than saying: “I gave that mouse to my snake, Alice. She squeezed it, and then swallowed it whole!”

Kids after my own heart will want a snake of their own. Others will freak out completely and consider me a fiend just short of Hitler. I’ll avoid breaking a little heart, and lie.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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