Transposons populate the landscape of all eukaryotic genomes. Often considered purely genomic parasites, transposons can also benefit their hosts, playing roles in gene regulation and in genome organization and evolution. Peaceful coexistence with mobile elements depends upon adaptive control mechanisms, since unchecked transposon activity can impact long-term fitness and acutely reduce the fertility of progeny. Here, we review the conserved roles played by small RNAs in the adaptation of eukaryotes to coexist with their genomic colonists. An understanding of transposon-defense pathways has uncovered recurring themes in the mechanisms by which genomes distinguish "self" from "non-self" and selectively silence the latter.