This is The Story of Reuben The Butterfly…
When Reuben was a mature caterpillar, he crawled to the ceiling of the jar and suspended himself, like the others, as the letter J. Another, bigger, caterpillar came and knocked him to the floor. Reuben remained there – inert amongst the dirty, sticky caterpillar fras – and his skin hardened; he became a chrysalis.
When we transferred the chrysalides to the butterfly enclosure, the others wiggled frantically to scare us away. Reuben feebly waggled one tip, then lay still.
A few days later, the caterpillars emerged, transformed, from their chrysalides as vivacious butterflies, but Reuben stayed dormant. “Looks dead”, we said.
But, just as we were taking the butterfly enclosure out into the garden to release the others, he emerged!
The other butterflies had initially crawled to the mesh at the edge of their habitat – to recover, dry out and gently pump blood into their new, delicate, crumpled wings. Not Reuben.
Reuben tried to fly.
He landed on the feeding tray and got himself stuck to a banana. He flailed about on his back, but his wing was trapped. After a horrifying 3 minutes, he managed to free himself. Sadly, his wing was limp and bent.
The other butterflies all eventually flew away together, one sunny day, straight up into the blue – alighting on violet, nectar-laden hydrangeas for their first proper feed – then disappearing over a fence into the neighbour’s garden.
We let Reuben recover from his injury for 2 days then tried, for the next 3 days, to release him.
But Reuben couldn’t fly.
His unfortunate start in life had left him unable to do more than flutter in spirals then land, inevitably upside down, before struggling back to his tiny feet. Exhausting!
Tonight I tried again. I took him outside and this time I tipped the enclosure towards some flowers. He steadily crept out and onto a petal before probing a stamen with his proboscis. He eagerly crawled all over the plant then his wings vibrated frantically as he attempted again to launch himself into the air.
And, do you know what? He flew!
For about a meter, he flew…and landed upside down in some mud.
Apparently undeterred, he flipped himself over and clambered onto my proffered finger. I put him back on a different flower.
This is when my son discovered me – utterly absorbed in helicopter-parenting the little lepidoptera with additional needs – hovering anxiously by a plant in case the insect should lose its balance and fall to the floor or get eaten by the cat.
“Leave Reuben alone!” Snapped my small boy sternly, “He needs to explore on his own now.”
“But he can’t fly!” I replied, still on edge; biting my knuckle. “He can only flutter!”
“Well, if he CAN flutter, let him. He has to be by himself to learn about flowers.”
That told me!
We left Reuben to fend for himself and went inside to have dinner…
Now, you might be thinking, “What kind of bloody lunatic cares so much about one insect?!”
My friends, this is bigger than the butterfly!
I think one of the hardest skills to master in parenting and teaching is knowing when, and how, to withdraw support to foster independence. It’s the kind of thing that I wake up thinking about in the middle of the night…It’s especially tricky when the creature that you want to thrive and succeed has additional needs.
Remove the scaffolding too soon and they’re liable to fail – or much worse; neglect to remove it in the right way at the right time and you end up rendering them not only entirely reliant on external support – but often angry, frustrated, disengaged, depressed etc etc – largely because you have eroded their self-confidence.
I doubt anyone could get this right all the time, but I know I do too much – for my son; for my students. I do it, not because I’m a control-freak (at least not the malevolent megalomaniac dominatrix variety), but because I am really, really worried about bad things happening.
My thinking and behaviour have been shaped by the series of unfortunate events that comprised my childhood and teenage years. I know from experience that bad things do happen, but I’d very much like to avoid suffocating my young people in their cottonwool wrappings. I realise that I need to change my habits to help them develop independence and confidence.
The first time I was observed by an Ofsted inspector – back in 2007 – he summoned me to the back of my classroom and whispered, “Stop it! Stop running about. Stop clarifying. Stop helping them. Just stand here and let THEM struggle”.
Tonight, my 7-year-old son echoed that inspector. He was right…I couldn’t have kept Reuben caged forever, feeding him sugar water from a pipette. Nor could I have spent the rest of his short life following him around the garden nervously anticipating his next bumbling mishap.
I still feel like a terrible butterfly Mummy though because, just as we sat down to eat, the heavens opened…Anyone know what happens to butterflies in the rain?
Please tell me that they’re waterproof.