Cicadas' arrival triggers weighty talks with kids

When the periodical cicadas emerged from the ground and began their march across Stoneleigh lawns and paths, Sarah Rhea and her 19-month-old daughter, Ellie, were forced into an early confrontation about life and death.

Ellie, seemingly the picture of innocence, was stomping on Brood X.


"She loves to step on them," sighed her mother. "We just say: 'No, no, no, Ellie. Be gentle like you are with your friends.'"

Childish curiosity has emerged along with the cicadas - and sometimes it takes a nasty form.


For parents, the creatures - slow-moving, blind and easy for even a young child to seize and destroy - can give rise to weighty questions: Will my bug stomper grow up to be a serial killer? How do I explain very public cicada sex? Does any of this matter, since within a few weeks, they'll all be dead anyway?

John T. Walkup, an associate professor of child psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says that because cicadas are large and a phenomenon seen only every 17 years, parents may have a hard time deciding how vigorously to defend them from children. "It's a complicated business about what our society decides is life with meaning," he said.

At the same time, Walkup said, parents need not worry that their bug-squashing progeny are headed for a life of violence.

"I think what parents get upset about is the joy and glee and the fact that a number of them can be killed at one time," he said. "Killing bugs is part of what we do."

Some schools have incorporated cicadas into their curricula, hoping to teach interesting lessons while helping students learn how to treat the creatures.

At the Church of the Redeemer's parish day school in Homeland, teachers made the bugs the theme of art projects and math problems. With her students' help, pre-first-grade teacher Missy Dudley composed a cicada poem, which said in part: "They're just harmless insects who have a short life. So, let's get along with our short-lived guests!"

For some at the school, the emphasis has worked. One child walked into a classroom wearing a cicada on his shirt and calling it "George."

Other kids continued to treat the bugs like bugs. Asked what he liked best about cicadas, 5-year-old Hunter O'Malley of Homeland said: "If you take off their heads, they're still moving!"


In Mount Washington, Rebecca Saybolt Bainum told her children - Julia, 4 1/2 , and Cora, 2 - not to poke sticks down the holes from which the cicadas would soon rise. The family has no pets, so she used it as an opportunity to teach respect for living things - even though Bainum herself has no love for cicadas.

"You might as well start with the little things," Bainum said. "Cicadas wouldn't necessarily be the thing I would choose, but it's what presents itself."

Across the street, Zachary Ruchkin, 6 1/2 , was unintentionally killing cicadas by collecting them by the hundreds in a jar. One night, he tore the wings off one - and got "a very reproachful look" from the neighbors, said his mother, Karen Ruchkin.

"I made it pretty clear that it took them 17 years to get out and we might as well give them a chance," Ruchkin said.

Even parents whose children aren't squashing cicadas or tearing them apart are confronting dilemmas they didn't anticipate.

Playing with her 21-month-old son Cole at the Rodgers Forge Tot Lot, buzzed by two cicadas at once, Leslie Mason tried to disguise her disgust. She didn't want to quash her boy's wide-eyed wonder.


"He loves them," she said. "I just think they're gross."

Kelly Klinefelter Lee of Ellicott City had to explain to her 3-year-old son Ethan why two cicadas were, um, "stuck" together on the sidewalk. Now he spots them in the act constantly, and insists on separating the pairs.

"When you're at the zoo and you encounter animals mating, you can always walk away or distract [kids]," Lee said. "But with the cicadas, you can't because they're just everywhere."

Sometimes, the most effective strategy can be to wait out a child's nasty impulse - until the tempting becomes the mundane.

That's what happened with little Ellie Rhea, who has since stopped stomping her winged neighbors.

Said her mother: "Her interest has waned."