It’s been quite a while since my last post, but life is life and it sometimes demands more attention than you feel willing to give.  I am back in Montreal, the girls are back in school and things are busy busy busy…

Well they are even busier now that I’ve found ihkwak in the hair of my youngest daughter and my partner’s two daughters.  My eldest thankfully seems to have been spared for now.  Ah ihkwak (lice)… how familiar and commonplace you have become!

I don’t think I ever had lice growing up.  There was a massive stigma surrounding lice though, and having lice was very often associated with being native.  I remember that well.  I remember being accused of having lice and how awful that felt.  I remember  when some of my friends actually did have it, and the fear that this caused me and my parents.  I remember hearing parents of classmates talking in disgusted tones about how “Indians” were always bringing lice to school and didn’t they wash their hair?

So it is interesting to me to see how the issue of lice is treated now and how different the attitudes seem to be.  This is not my first time battling the ihkwak either.  I casually stripped the bedlinens, I used the shampoo, and I spent the more important hours nitpicking each tiny translucent egg I could find from the three girls’ heads. ninihtâ-nitihkomâtêwak, I am good at lice hunting now.  But it wasn’t always so.

The first time lice came into my home, I thought I was going to have a complete meltdown.  By the way, feeling itchy yet?  Yes.  That is the worst part of it, the way you start obsessing about the little critters.

That first time, I had no idea what to do.  I wasn’t allowed to send my daughter back to school until it was dealt with.  I felt so alone and incapable of dealing with the problem!  I remembered hearing about drastic home remedies like kerosene, or vaseline which was supposed to smother the nymphs (live lice).  I went to the closest pharmacy and feeling a deep shame, I asked for help.  I did not understand at the time how the pharmacist could approach the issue so casually…I felt like it was one of the most awful shameful things ever!

I brought home a lice shampoo, Nix, and went to work.  I stripped all the beds, washed clothes like a fiend, vacuumed the carpets and seriously considered having them all steam cleaned.  I thought about throwing out the couches.  I combed my daughter’s hair with the lice comb and tossed and turned all night, obsessing.  It was truly awful.

What I didn’t understand then was that most of what I had been spending time doing, scouring the house and nearly boiling all our clothes, was really not an effective method of lice control.  Like some of my older relations told me when I started phoning around in a teary panic, the best thing you can do is spend your time nitpicking.

It took me a while to defeat that infestation and it was largely due to their father’s family who took that time and checked their hair over and over, finding the infinitesimally tiny little eggs I had missed.  I was a crappy nit hunter then!

Something else I quickly discovered is that my ultimate shame was… actually not a big deal.  The daycare centres and the schools are (unfortunately) very well acquainted with lice, and it has become such a wide-spread issue that it is almost impossible to maintain old prejudices about class, race and cleanliness in the face of the louse’s indiscriminate attitudes.  Oh, you will still find mothers and fathers recoiling in terror and acting like your kids are some sort of abominations if they hear they’ve ever had lice…but I guarantee you that after a few years of having kids in school, they’re going to get over it fast.

The schools educate the children about lice too.  Lice actually like clean hair.  Despite what your eco-friendly friends believe, there is no evidence that tea-tree oil repels them at all (so ditch the expensive shampoos and sprays). You can’t smother lice with creams or oils because the nits don’t breath anyway and the nymphs as so tiny that they can find pockets of air AND hold their breath for serious amounts of time.  Kerosene is an awful thing to put on a child’s head, and stupid dangerous to boot.  Go ahead and shave their heads if they think it’ll be cool, but don’t convince yourself that the easy route is the best one.

The shampoos are scary powerful, so I am cautious.  I did some research and found that pharmacists often suggest the less powerful shampoo first, then move you up the products until you’re putting some serious chemicals near the skin of your child.  I have come to the conclusion that this only becomes necessary if you aren’t nitpicking properly.  Believe me, no matter how many chemicals you put on your kids head, you are only going to at best kill the live lice.  You will still have to hunt out the eggs before they hatch or it’s all in vain.

So it was that when I found lice yesterday, I took it in stride.  Been there, done that, got the freaking t-shirt.  A good pinahihkwâkan (lice comb) is a boon, but won’t actually do the work for you.  Those nits are so tiny that you’ll think it’s just a speck of dandruff, and no lice comb has tines fine enough to scrape that sucker off the single strand of hair it is firmly glued to.  You use the shampoo to kill the live lice, but really they don’t die right away (and sometimes not at all).  They just become sluggish.  The lice comb will clear them out for you, but your bigger job is yet to come.

Get yourself a good source of light, give your child a book to read, and more methodically than you think possible or necessary, you sit down and go through literally every strand of hair.  At first you’re not going to know what you’re looking for, but I can spot a nit no problem now.  They are often the colour of amber, and they shine in a way that dandruff does not.  They will be near the root of the hair, at most a centimetre down the shaft and you are going to miss some.  Accept that and recognise that this long session of hair combing and examination is just the first in a series of bonding moments with you and your child. The lice comb often will simple allow the nit to pass between its teeth.  Grab that sucker with your nails and scrape it off, and dispose of it in a cup of water just so it doesn’t go flying somewhere else.  You’ll have a hard time seeing it at all once you’ve gotten it off, they are that small.

The first time my daughter had lice, she was a wreck because I was a wreck.  This time, she knows she did nothing wrong.  She knows that the child she got it from isn’t a dirty, poor kid either.  This stuff spreads around fast and easy and it’s hell to get rid of.  I think more parents need to understand this.  Honestly, I think the schools should be giving parents nitpicking lessons at the beginning of every year.

In a way I think it’s rather interesting that with all our antibacterial soaps and chemicals and industry focused on cleaning products that we are no further along with this problem than we ever really have been.  Mothers have been scraping lice eggs out of their children’s hair for thousands upon thousands of years and no amount of technology has improved upon this method.  It’s not a pleasant thing to be sure, but I’ll tell you from experience that the stress level declines dramatically when you don’t take it to heart.  Categorise this as something you have to do when your kids aren’t confined to their rooms for their entire childhood.  It’s just One Of Those Things You Do.

About âpihtawikosisân

Métis from Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. Currently living in Montreal, Quebec. Passions: education, Aboriginal law, the Cree language, and roller derby. Education: BEd, LLB, working on a BCL
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7 Responses to ihkwak

  1. Emo says:

    Meanwhile, nits = cîkinâhkwak.
    Hypothetically, I think I’d prefer to shave my kid’s head (the non-violent option), and if I needed to offer a single justification… well, insecticide shampoo can’t be good for anyone’s health (neither the parent’s nor child’s). These days, he or she is unlikely to be the only bald kid in the classroom… but if it makes him/her feel better, the parents could shave their heads out of sympathy, too… and everyone would assume you were either going through chemotherapy, or starting a new cult group… and that would make the experience of having lice all the more educational for the whole family.

    • I’m definitely not a fan of the shampoos. However there is one I know of that doesn’t use pesticides and has an excellent success rate when it comes to killing the nymphs. It is called “Resultz” and doesn’t do anything that would cause the lice to become resistant to it. It dissolves the wax coating that surrounds the lice which causes them to become desiccated and die.

      I have no problem shaving my own head, but one of my daughters has very thick, long hair and would be devastated if it were cut. Not to mention that for many native kids, cutting your hair is associated with mourning and isn’t something done lightly.

      A lot of schools have started calling in parent volunteers to be lice checkers throughout the year so that when there is an outbreak, it’s caught early and treated right away. Anyway, it’s very unfun.

  2. Anat says:

    Just read this. Whilst living in the Netherlands, I noticed that lice was treated without stigma. It’s VERY commonplace there. I even got them twice. It was a pain in the a$$. In the international school that I worked in, we had a volunteer parent committee who checked the kids monthly. If there was lice, they picked as much out of the hair as possible and the parents were informed and given materials to clean the hair at home. People were aware that lice is attracted to clean hair. They just dealt with it in a very matter of fact manner. Loved it. Their attitudes. Not the lice.

    • The stigma is still strong among older people here I notice, but the kids are pretty nonchalant about it so you can see that the overall attitude is going to change massively. Parent volunteer groups are becoming more common and it’s great, because trying to deal with lice in an isolated manner is so vexing and inefficient. If everyone doesn’t keep up the nitpicking, then it just comes back again and again. I went through my youngest’s hair against last night and found six nits I’d missed and I’m going to have to keep at it. The physical work required is bad enough without adding shaming to it, so when I do encounter loud-mouthed adults making assumptions I make a point of talking to my kids about the foolishness of such stereotypes. I love how logic appeals to children…do adults lose this I wonder? 😀

  3. carms says:

    Hey i just stumbled on to your blog and had to laugh about the nits. I’m originally from Canada and remember the stigma days. My parents were teachers up on a reserve in Cross Lake and we had nits regularly, as all kids up there seemed to. Down south it was less commonplace but it still happened and there was definitely a stigma. So now I’m living in Australia and my oh my. The nits here are HUGE! and so is the problem! lol.
    My Aboriginal friends call them munyas or buffalos if they are really big. There are super common for younger kids in primary school, but almost non existent in high school, perhaps because the style of playing involves less head to head contact (playing in a sand pit vs. standing around looking cool)
    Anyway, we often use a bottle of cheap conditioner and comb comb comb comb. Then in seven days when the babies hatch, you do it again. We put tea tree or eucalyptus oil in the hair, but basically just get a cheap bottle and mix it with water or light oil and spray it in the hair. I sometimes do it at night and even send the kids to school like that in the am. Smells nice and seems to look fine too. Every now and then if the kids are over run (the oldest got them something terrible!) well, then bring out the Ban Lice Mousse.
    But conditioner works pretty good at helping to grab the nits on the comb cos they slide out easy. it also seems to loosen the eggs. The life cycle of the nits makes it seem that if you do it every seven days you should stay ahead of the ones you initially killed and the nymphs that have hatched!
    I really enjoyed your blog and thought your story about ihkwak was relevant even here on the other side of the planet!

    • Wow, now I’m wondering how big they get ‘down under’! I think if they were larger, it would be easier to comb them out. I’ve tried every nit comb on the market and none of them have tines small enough to scrape off the nits here. They’d have to be spaced a hair width apart, which would make it nearly impossible to comb more than one strand at a time anyway. It’s interesting to hear about how lice are viewed in other countries!

  4. Deb says:

    My oldest isn’t in school yet but will be next year always appreciate the heads up. Just wanted to say that I really enjoy your blog and look forward to reading more.

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