By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT
I have found that one of the best ways to bond with my 2.5 year-old children is to share the things I love with them. The strongest example of this is my love of animals. I believe a love for animals is immensely valuable because it not only helps us learn and treat animals with respect, but it gives us an appreciation that we humans are not the only living beings on this earth. There are other animals, different from us, who also live here and share our world. It was something I started learning as a child and I hoped my children would feel the same way. I never considered that by sharing my love with them, we would build a stronger connection together.
One of my favorite things to do, when I had a free day all by myself, was to go to a zoo or aquarium and spend the day watching animals. I have learned and seen quite a bit about animals over the years, but every single time I visit a zoo, I always see or hear something special, something I have never experienced before, which always serves to increase my sense of awe at a world of animals we rarely get to experience firsthand.
Ironically, when my wife and I met she wasn’t really that interested in animals. But when I am talking about or looking at wild animals, I have a childlike enthusiasm that my wife found incredibly infectious. Now, in almost every room of our home, you’ll find figurines of animals such as birds or dolphins, and especially elephants – her favorite. When my wife got pregnant, I began to wonder what it would be like to share this passion of mine with my children.
Without even trying, almost from the moment of conception, our children became intertwined with our love of animals. Within a couple of weeks of finding out my wife was pregnant, we went to the Bronx Zoo with her family. Since we had found out, both my wife and I had been struggling with how to refer to the little being growing inside of her (yes, at the time we thought there was only one baby inside of her). We didn’t want to say “he” or “she” and certainly didn’t want to say “it.” Yet, since we didn’t know the gender, we hadn’t come up with a name for our baby.
With this problem percolating in our minds, we walked around the zoo. Every time we came across a four-legged deer-looking animal, my wife would call it an Okapi. Neither of us really knew what an Okapi looked like, but she liked the sound of the word and kept repeating it. At the time, the Bronx Zoo had recently opened up their Congo exhibit and we hadn’t seen it yet. For the first time the line wasn’t long and we got to go in. As we walked through, thoroughly enjoying the utterly different environment they created there, we suddenly found ourselves face-to-face with a real-life Okapi. We were absolutely amazed. I had never seen anything like it in my life. It is a large animal, about six feet tall at its body and another two-to-three feet taller to its head. Its hind legs are striped black-and-white like a zebra, but it has the head and tongue like a giraffe (it is actually a member of the giraffe family). It is a strange looking animal, but incredibly unique and beautiful. It just stood there, out in the open, staring at us as we stared at it, neither one of us wanting to be the first to move. Finally, it broke contact and hid itself in the bushes and trees as people walked behind us, with no idea what they had just missed. That night my wife started referring to our baby as “Okapi” and the name stuck.
Four weeks later when we saw the sonogram and learned it wasn’t a shadow, but another baby inside my wife, we started calling them Okapis and two-and-half years later we still do.
Because animals were a huge part of our lives we gave them a prominent role in the lives of our children. Their crib set was Noah’s Ark (they came two by two as our babies did). Their sippy cups had ducks and lions on them. We bought them clothes that had elephants and dinosaurs on them. We decorated their room with a giraffe mask and an elephant sketching.
The books we read our children at night almost always had some animals in them. Whether it was hippos going berserk, giving a mouse a cookie, the cow jumping over the moon, a mother bunny or explaining that our love is stronger than seven mighty lions, the message was clear; animals are a part of our daily life and we love them. By the time they were ready to talk, they had already heard us mention the names of so many animals multiple times. It was no surprise that the first word spoken by our little girl, Dorit, was “duck,” most likely because of the sippy cup with ducks she always drank from.
As their imagination began to develop, we bought them some animal figures and stuffed animals they could play with, interact with. A couple friend of ours even found two Okapi figurines and bought them for our children. This opened up a whole new way for them to experience animals, and for us to experience them together. This gave them control over what the animals did and how they interacted instead of just passively listening or watching. I realize now it helped both of my children develop a personal relationship with specific animals. Dorit became fascinated with the Panda stuffed animal and figurine. She would talk to it, cuddle with it, and for a couple of months even wanted it in her crib when she went to sleep at night. They began to feel a sense of comfort from their animals. When they each went through a difficult stretch going to sleep at night, we piled their favorite stuffed animals into their cribs and it seemed as if they felt less alone and more able to fall asleep.
Incredibly, after everything we had learned and experienced together about animals, I failed to understand one vital element that became crystal clear to me when we went to the Bronx Zoo last summer. It had been a rainy morning, but had turned into a pretty nice afternoon, and the zoo was relatively empty. We were having such a wonderful time. They had seen so many animals up close that they had only seen in books or on videos and they were in awe.
When we got to the giraffes, Dorit’s favorite animal, we were delighted to see four of them running around, something I had never even seen before. I was holding Dorit and pointing out the giraffes to her, commenting on how long their necks and legs were and how funny they looked while they were running. But she didn’t say anything. Normally, she is quite talkative, asking a lot of questions, but she remained still in my arms, watching. At first I thought something was wrong, that maybe she was scared of them or something. But there was an element to her expression that gave me pause. She actually looked overwhelmed, like her brain was working so hard to comprehend what she was seeing.
And then it hit me.
Every single animal she had ever seen in her life had been exactly what she thought it was, part of a book or a video or a toy. While I completely understood that those animals were representations of the real live animals, she, of course, never knew that. She never knew that a picture of a giraffe is not a giraffe. She thought that the picture was the giraffe. But sitting in my arms, seeing them run around in real life, her brain began the process of understanding that this was real and those pictures were not. I was watching her brain expand and process that thought and I was not only awed by the giraffes running, but by my little girl as well. I gave her a hug and when we separated she was smiling at me.
I found myself smiling, too, because once again while at the zoo, I got to experience something incredibly amazing.