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June 24, 2024

Oort Cloud Oddities: Child rearing

By Alexandra Queen

They say that penguins can tell their own chicks out of the hundreds upon hundreds of nearly identical-looking fuzzy gray blobs huddled across a chilly arctic colony. People who don't have children ooooh and ahhhh as if that's some sort of tremendous feat, but after about 21 months of parenthood, I think I'm starting to figure it out. You see, there is an innate biological mechanism in child-rearing species that makes one's own young seem adorable.

This principle is most easily demonstrated in the human species. Proud parents will show off pictures and tell cute toddler stories for hours on end, oblivious to the comatose state they've reduced their conversation partners to. Nobody cares except for the parent. Snakes are not a child-rearing species. Have you ever seen a snake flip out its wallet and show off pictures of the last hatching? No. Whether the babies are born live or from eggs, the minute the little guys appear, the parents are out of there. You never see a snake couple cooing over an adorable baby serpent. If a parent-offspring snake encounter were subtitled so that humans could understand what was going on, the text would undoubtedly show the mother snake looking upon her infants for the first time and saying, "Oh my god, Harold, it's a bunch of snakes! Quick, let me out of here before they crawl up my pants leg!" Harold is meanwhile looking at all two dozen of his first-born and thinking, "Lunch."

Back to the penguins, the reason that they can tell their own young apart from the mob is that, to each individual penguin parent, their offspring is the only one in the whole hungry, ill-behaved crèche that is not annoying as spit. Baby penguins, seeing something black and white walk past, immediately jump up and squawk, "Gimme a fish! I wanna watch TV! Percival stole my rock!" Then the baby penguin begins jumping up and down, fouling the nest and trying to stick lemmings up its nose. The adult penguin threads its way through hundreds of nests, grumbling to itself about bratty kids and the lack of decent parenting nowadays up until the point that it reaches its own nest, where its own offspring is busy doing the same thing as all the other baby penguins. This time, however, the adult penguin's reaction is to say, "Quick, Harold, get the camera! Junior has a lemming up his nose!" This is what we call the miracle of nature.

My own daughter will be two in a few months, and as the weather has cleared up and grown warm, we've realized that what was, last summer, an immobile little lump whose interests consisted entirely of keeping tabs on where mommy was and attempting to crawl toward any exposed electrical outlet is now a inquisitive, active person, who is interested in the world around her. We decided to broaden her horizons by taking her to see things like snow and the ocean. In our travels this spring, we have discovered both the penguin principle and the fact that we were mistaken about our daughter. She isn't interested in the world around her. She is interested in flights of steps. So far we have taken her to see rivers, oceans, mountains, aquariums, circuses, and snow. At each location, she makes a beeline for the first flight of steps she sees and wants to spend the entire time walking up the steps... and then down the steps. Over and over again. Knights Ferry, Monterey, Reno have all found us clustered around stairwells with other parents trying to coax their toddlers to come see the mill/fish/acrobats, each of us calling to our spouses to get the camera while looking at the other toddlers on the stairs and thinking, "Brats."

We managed to get our daughter away from the stairs at Knights Ferry, luring her away to see the nature exhibits. She was passingly interested until she came to a case containing a taxidermied coyote. My daughter looked at the big yellow dog with pointy ears and bushy tail with a sudden and intense fascination and then crowed delightedly, "Howie!"

That's the name of our big, yellow dog with pointy ears and ... yeah. The one who is her constant companion at home. We spent at least half an hour trying to get her to look at the other fascinating exhibits, but all she wanted to do was try to get the Howie to come out of the case and come play. Worse still, she was getting visibly upset that there was something wrong with this Howie, because he wasn't moving at all. "Come look at the little fish!" we urged, trying to get her over to the live exhibits. "Oooh, a real gopher snake!"

"Mama, Howie!" my daughter insisted, scared and starting to get tears in her eyes.

"Honey, that's not a real dog. Well, it is but it's not alive. Not any more, it's..." I looked down at my daughter, stuck. At 21 months, she doesn't say much, but she understands surprisingly complex conversations. "Dead" was not a concept I wanted to introduce regarding something that looked like the beloved family pet. "Well, honey, once upon a time this coyote lived a very long and very happy life. And then he wanted his body donated to science so that all the children could learn about coyotes forever and ever. The end. Oooh, look over there! Steps!"

I figured she understood about a quarter of that, but most crucially, she picked up on the "happy" and the "steps". While she ran over to climb up and down the stairs, I walked past the terrarium where the gopher snake had been watching the whole proceeding.

"Child-rearing," I'm pretty sure I heard him scoff. "If you were smart, you'd eat that thing before it crawls up your pants leg."

Maybe I will. Right after I get my husband to take a picture of her climbing up and down those steps.

This article first appeared in the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.

Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-05-01
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