Recently I stood at Taronga Zoo with my eight year old watching the chimps.
Ivy noticed one monkey carefully checking the fur of its friend. The monkey being checked surrendered to the process – in fact I would go as far as to say the two looked absolutely blissful.
There was this gentle intimacy between them that I recognised immediately. Ivy laughed and said, “That’s like you and me, Mum, doing my head lice.”
I said, “That’s exactly like you and me doing the head lice, only difference is we don’t do it in a public enclosure.”
You see, like the monkeys, I too am a nitpicker. I also know that simple monkey pleasure of searching for parasitic freeloaders. There’s a strange thrill when one locates aforementioned freeloader, lines up the louse between ones’ opposing thumb nails and cracks it. It’s a small but very satisfying pop!
It’s a bizarre confession, but I actually enjoy removing head lice from my children. I am hoping this doesn’t land me on an episode of My Strange Addiction where my cohort is a woman who likes eating dry wall and another one who’s fond of noshing down on deodorant sticks. They’re weird. Nitpicking is natural. There, I said it. It’s not just natural – it’s good for you. We only have to look to our monkey friends for proof. Nitpicking in the animal kingdom keeps you healthy.
In animals, nitpicking is called "social grooming" and basically it's a behaviour where you maintain another’s body or appearance. And guess what, social grooming, aka de-lousing one’s friend is also associated with evolutionary advantages like reducing stress, maintaining social structure and forging relationships through strong social connections. In some cases social grooming has been shown to lower the heart rate. How’s that?
Popular psychology is awash with terms like "reframing". That's a simple process of taking something that you previously considered negative or problematic and choosing to look at it in a way where you can see that it has benefits. I accept that head lice are itchy, uncomfortable and require vigiliant maintenance. No-one discovers head lice on themselves or their child and jumps for joy declaring "Hooray! I've scratched a winner!"
Discovering a community of head lice have set up residence on your scalp is a source of annoyance. There's a sense of outrage at this unwelcome colonisation. And then a tired resignation as one slumps off to the bathroom moaning "Here we go again". But are we missing something here? Is social grooming the key? Could head lice be teaching us something?
Head lice bring the family together. Literally. You’ll be all standing in the bathroom wearing the solution while the Head Nitpicker works their way through your hair. It’s a moment of family closeness. That's right, nits help us to connect. If you need some bonding time with your avoidant adolescents, perhaps you should give them an extra-long head cuddle so that in a week’s time you’ll be monkey grooming them in the bathroom. This could be the key time to have that 'talk' about your pressing concerns. Or it could be a time to quietly love your child silly while on a search and destroy nit kill mission.