In a couple of weeks, my daughter will turn into a dolphin. Right now, she's a fox. Last year, she was a cricket (1) .
That's just how it works at the Montessori school where she goes. Instead of "4-year-olds" and "5-year-olds," or even "preschoolers" and "kindergartners," each class is given an animal name and, at the end of every school year, the children graduate into being a different species entirely, shape-shifting like spirits in an aboriginal legend.
It can be a little alarming to step back and realize just how animal-centric the typical American preschool classroom is. Maybe the kids sing songs about baby belugas, or construction-paper songbirds fly across the walls. Maybe newborn ducklings nuzzle in an incubator in the corner. But the truth is, my daughter's world has overflowed with wild animals since it first came into focus.
Most parents won't be surprised to learn that when a Purdue University child psychologist pulled a random (2) sample of 100 children's books, she found only 11 that did not have animals in them.
But what's b affled (3) me most nights at bedtime is how rarely the animals in these books even have anything to do with nature. Usually, they're just arbitrary stand-ins for people, like the ungainly pig that yearns (4) to be a figure skater. And once I tuned in to that - into the startling (5) strangeness of how insistently our culture connects kids and wild creatures - all the animal paraphernalia in our house started to feel slightly insane. As Kieran Suckling, the executive director of the conservation group Center for Biological Diversity, pointed out to me, "Right when someone is learning to be human, we surround them with nonhumans."
Science has some explanations to offer. Almost from birth, children seem attracted to other creatures all on their own. In studies, babies as young as 6 months try to get closer to, and provoke more physical contact with, actual dogs and cats than they do with battery-operated imitations.
Infants will smile more at a living rabbit than at a toy rabbit. Even 2-day-old babies have been shown to pay closer attention to "a dozen spotlights representing the joints (6) and contours of a walking hen (7) " than to a similar, randomly generated pattern of lights.
It all provides evidence for what the Harvard entomologist Edward O. Wilson calls "biophilia" - his theory that human beings are inherently attuned to other life forms. It's as though we have a deep well (8) of attention set aside for animals, a powerful but uncategorized interest waiting to be channeled into more cogent feelings, like fascination or fear.
Young children have been shown to acquire fears of spiders and snakes more quickly than fears of guns and other human-manufactured dangers. And in this case, the researchers Judith H. Heerwagen and Gordon H. Orians offer one logical, evolutionary explanation: If you are an infant or toddler (9) spending a lot of time on the ground, it pays to learn quickly to fear snakes and spiders. Fear of big predators like bears and wolves, on the other hand, doesn't kick in until after age 4, around when the first human children would have begun roaming outside their camps.
Children also fixate on animals in their imaginative lives. In her book "Why the Wild Things Are," Gail F. Melson, a psychologist at Purdue, reports that kids see animals in the inkblots of the Rorschach test twice as often as adults do, and that, when a Tufts University psychologist went into a New Haven preschool decades ago and asked kids to tell her a story that they'd made up on the spot (10) , between 65 and 80 percent of them told her a story about animals. (The heartbreaking minimalism of one of these stories, by a boy named Bart, still haunts (11) me: "Once there was a lion. He ate everybody up. He ate himself up.")
The psychologist David Foulkes concluded that 61 percent of the dreams that children have between ages 3 and 5 are about animals. But as kids grow up, Foulkes found, the percentage of animal dreams goes down. By the time they are 12, it's only 20 percent. At age 16, it's 9 percent.
Similarly, fears of exotic beasts like lions and sharks peak during preschool, then are gradually replaced by more sociological terrors, like kidnapping and not fitting in at school. I found a melancholy subtext in this research - the way our grittier human world intrudes on, and then finally blots out (12) , even the wildlife in children's heads.
Still, it's also true that we foist (13) animals on our children. Adults have always tended to see kids and animals as vaguely equivalent, or at least more like each other than like us. "Children," Sigmund Freud wrote in 1913, "show no trace of the arrogance which urges adult civilized men to draw a hard-and-fast line between their own nature and that of all other animals." Kids begin life naked, unable to speak, and appear motivated only by instincts and urges. Like a pet dog, a baby needs to be fed, housebroken (14) , and taught to sleep through the night without howling.
For Freud, this animalness was problematic: Socializing children meant molding their wildness into humanity. But these days, it's easy to feel that society needs the taming - it's despoiling so much of the natural world. And so, unsettled (15) by the loss of wild things and places, and separated from those landscapes in the cities and suburbs that replaced them, we may be prone to romanticizing our wild children the same way we sometimes romanticize wild animals - as purer and gentler spirits than the society we've brought them into.
I'm not arguing that seeing a link between kids and animals is an exclusively modern phenomenon. The link has always been there. (Melson notes that many of the oldest, prehistoric toys discovered include animal-shaped rattles (16) and little wooden crocodiles.) But the meaning we take from that connection clearly changes over time. In short, maybe we keep giving animal stuff to kids because their imaginations are already full of animals. But maybe, now, it's also the other way around: Maybe we long to see children and animals together, as free creatures living in an innocence we've strayed (17) from.
There's really no way to know: Most psychology research about kids and animals dissects children's one-to-one relationships with pets, not their abstract feelings about wildlife or the many representations of it they encounter. The best investigation of those vicarious relationships I found dates from 1983. That was when Stephen R. Kellert, a social ecologist at Yale, and Miriam O. Westervelt, of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service interviewed kids at 22 schools in Connecticut, in grades 2 through 11, to gauge their attitudes toward wildlife. What they discovered is an obvious but deflating truth: Little kids are like animals, too necessarily consumed by their own interests to register much concern or compassion for other animals in the abstract.
Kids under the age of 6 especially "were found to be egocentric, domineering, and self-serving," Kellert later wrote, summarizing the study. "Young children reveal little recognition or appreciation of the autonomous feelings and independence of animals" and "also express the greatest fear of the natural world." It was the younger kids, not the 8th- or 11th-graders, who were more likely to believe that farmers should "kill all the foxes" if a particular fox ate their chickens; that it's OK to slaughter animals for fur coats (18) ; that most wild animals are "dangerous to people"; and that all poisonous animals, like rattlesnakes (19) , "should be gotten rid of." It was the younger kids who were more likely to agree with the statement "It's silly when people love animals as much as they love people," whereas virtually none of the teenagers believed it was silly. Most second-graders agreed with the statement "If they found oil where wild animals lived, we would have to get the oil, even if it harmed the animals." Eleventh-graders overwhelmingly (20) did not.
"Our society frequently romanticizes young children's attitudes toward animals," Kellert has written, "believing that they possess some special intuitive affinity for the natural world and that animals constitute for young people little friends or kindred spirits." But the data was clear: The younger the kids, the more "exploitative, harsh (21) and unfeeling" they were - the more their relationship to wildlife was based on the satisfaction of "short-term needs and anxiety toward the unknown." Older kids wanted to go camping in wildlife habitats; younger ones wanted "to stay where lots of other people were."
We like to imagine our children as miniature noble savages, moving peacefully and naked among the beasts. But they're more like the colonists: greedy, vindictive, wary and shortsighted (22) . It's not their fault. They are behaving like children.
And maybe, I've come to realize, that's exactly the point. It may not matter whether the connection between children and animals is real or imagined; if watching my daughter chase butterflies on a sunny day feels so good and life-affirming because she's fulfilling some innate impulse - momentarily finding her ecological niche - or only because she's fulfilling some pastoral fantasy of mine. Maybe it's a little of both. Maybe, as with so many parenting questions, the truth gets lost in that mysterious wilderness between our children's identities and the ones that we are urging them toward.
Ultimately, all these animals that we fill our children's lives with - the frustrated goats who learn to compromise, the worried skunk who makes it through her first day of school, the teddy bear that needs to be hugged and tucked in - are also just proxies. They are useful, adorable props, props that we sense command our kids' attention in some deep, biophilic way. And so we use them to teach our children basic lessons of kindness or self-possession or compassion - to show our kids what sort of animals we'd like them to grow up to be.