The Law of the Fleas: The Nature of Freedom
by Richard and Linda Eyre
Editor’s Note: Richard and Linda Eyre will be guest hosts along with Dr. Joseph Allen on a “Book of Mormon Symposium at Sea” leaving March 21. To learn more about this uplifting and exotic Caribbean cruise click here
Well, here is the ninth and final column in the “animal series”. We hope you have enjoyed the analogies from nature and the lessons they teach us. This final installment is, of all things, about fleas. Did you think the frogs we wrote about earlier were pretty amazing-broad-jumping 25 times their length? Then how about a flea high-jumping more than 200 times its height? Little 1/32-inch fleas can jump or hop seven inches, and they jump up and down so quickly and with such endurance that they can complete 1000 hops in an hour. They can pull an object weighing 100,000 times as much as they do. No wonder “flea circuses” became a popular form of entertainment in Europe in the nineteenth century.
As a small boy, when I (Richard) heard the term “flea circus,” I imagined flea clowns, flea trapeze artists, flea tightrope walkers. And indeed some of the turn-of-the-century European insect extravaganzas did include elaborate “acts” like this. But then one day I read, with some disappointment, that most common amateur flea circuses were nothing more than a cigar box where fleas become conditioned to jump only as high as the lid of the box. After a while, when the lid is lifted, the fleas still hop up only to the exact height where the lid used to be. The “circus” is watching the pantomime of these little creatures bouncing around in the air as though there was a piece of glass over the box.
While it’s not as cool as a flea on a tightrope, the phenomenon is still pretty interesting. The tiny fleas, with brains smaller than the point of a pin, nonetheless learn that they can only jump within the two- or three-inch vertical height of the inside of the cigar box. They develop the habit of confining their hops to exactly that level, and they hold to that habit and that perspective and that paradigm even long after the lid has been removed.
Children, unfortunately, often behave much the same. When there is a lid placed on their lives by parents who expose them only to one narrow slice of reality, they get used to that limited world, complete with its parochialism and prejudices, until it becomes a confining little box in which they live out the rest of their lives.
You might say, “Well, but there’s media in that restricted space . . . so there’s no way anyone today can grow up not knowing about the bigger world.” And it is true that with all its dangers and differences, media has shrunk our world and bridged wide gulfs of prejudice and propaganda. But it’s not just knowing about the world that frees our children to fly above the box-it’s knowing that they have the potential of incredible vertical leaps. It’s believing that the world and its possibilities are accessible to them.
The final law of nurturing is to let our children go, and to see that they go as high and as far as their true potential allows! There’s a time to nurture and to hold close and safe and secure, and there’s a time to take off the lid and encourage independent flight.
We didn’t do a chapter on eagles, but they provide an interesting counterpart to the confined fleas. Mother eagles feather their nest with downy materials to make it as comforting and soft as possible for the eaglets, but when it is time for the young eagles to fly, Mom strips out the soft padding, making the nest prickly and uncomfortable. Then she pushes them out and makes them fly.
The Law of the Fleas is: Don’t box them in for too long or to put the lid too low.
This might seem a rerun of the Law of the Crabs-boost a child up rather than pulling him back, praise instead of criticize, encourage his dreams, build his confidence and self-esteem. But that was about boosts; and this is about potential, perspective, and long-range vision. This is about faith. This is about thinking and believing “outside the box.” It involves little things like putting a world globe in a child’s room, or taking him to soup kitchens to feed the homeless, or subscribing to National Geographic, or taking him to the Holocaust Museum. It involves bigger things like taking him to visit a variety of colleges while he’s still a sophomore in high school, or going with him to talk to a guidance counselor about emerging new professions of the next decade, or taking a trip to a rural part of Mexico instead of to Disneyland. It involves ongoing and intensely important things like helping him discover his gifts and hidden potential and teaching him to think outside the box by being creative and doing things differently than everyone else is doing them.
This law might appear contrary to the Law of the Redwoods, which is to stay in your grove and to bloom where you’re planted. Actually, it’s the perfect companion law and corollary. We want our children to value and be protected by our home and our roots, but we also want them to grow tall enough to see out over the rest of the world and to sprout wings to get there.
There is also a harmony between this last law and the first one-the Law of the Geese. Become a citizen of the world so you can fly out far and away, with no limits and yet always come home.
The Law of the fleas is empowerment and freedom. None of us as parents know the full, individual, and unique potential of any one of our children, so it is our charge to do all we can to help each child discover who he is, what she can do, and where he can go. There is an “inner” and an “outer” aspect to this. We should help children look inside themselves and figure out what they’re good at, what they love, what they have passion for. And we should help them look outside themselves to notice both needs and opportunities, to see as big a picture as they can and to figure out where they fit into it.
Unlike the fleas, our children need to know that their childhood “box” was their temporary home, where they were nurtured not so they would stay, but so they could fly.
Unlike the fleas in the circus, our children should perceive no roof or ceiling, no artificial limits to their happiness or their potential.
Unlike the flea keeper, we should set no barriers or fences to their possibilities. (Behavioral limits-yes; barriers-no.)
Unlike the fleas, we don’t want our children to conform and follow the same pattern as all the others.
Unlike the fleas, we want them to think outside the box and to dream and to believe.
Unlike the flea keeper, we need to give them the awareness of options and opportunities and the wide perspective that good dreams are made of.
Please visit us at valuesparenting.com and join us for our upcoming column called “Politics and the Family: Why the Family must be the Basic Unit of Society.”
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.