Ideas for raising compassionate children in a power-hungry world.
My oldest son, Izz, has always been an animal lover. By the age of 3, he could pick up almost any wild lizard without getting bitten or causing it to drop its tail. He’s the type of kid who will lie across from our dog and talk gently to him, sharing the sorts of things little boys only talk about with their dogs.
When he was about 4 years old, we had a playdate with another little boy at the park. We walked the perimeter of the grassy area, looking for lizards and snails. When Izz spotted a big snail crossing into the chaparral, he and his friend ran over to it. As Izz bent down to pick it up, his friend Calvin stomped on the snail and laughed at the sound of the crunching shell and the squish of the snail’s body.
Izz turned to me, trying not to cry. He’s always tried to be so tough. I hugged him and all he did was whisper, “Why would he stomp a snail, Mama?”
“I don’t know, Buddy, I don’t know.”
I told Calvin all the things I’d told Izz and his baby brother: that the park was the snail’s home and that it had every right to be there, and that it just isn’t right to hurt living animals for no good reason. Calvin looked at me and laughed. He just didn’t seem to get it.
I started to wonder if Calvin would grow up to be a serial killer, or if maybe his home was abusive. Why wasn’t he sad? Why wasn’t this sinking in? I also felt quite self-righteous about having raised my son the right way.
As most parents discover, the moment you are sure you’re doing everything right with your kids, a big shock awaits you around the next corner. A year later, while walking through the same park, my younger son, Bo, ran over to a group of kids looking at a snail. I expected him to gingerly pick up the little mollusk and show it around. Instead, he stomped on it…and laughed. I was horrified, sad, and frankly afraid for my son. I pulled him aside and told him the snail couldn’t come back and have a happy life now, that his life was over and that we should never hurt a creature again.
“Except Black Widows,” he said.
Earlier that spring we’d had some sort of Black Widow invasion in the yard. Being as my kids walk barefoot on the hillside in front of our house, when an inch-long black spider with a red hourglass on its belly appeared one day, it only took me a fraction of a second to turn from patient and compassionate Mommy into a wild-eyed and murderous bug-killer with a garden trowel. My kids looked on, half terrified and half inspired, as I repeatedly stabbed the ground where the little bastard disappeared, yelling “Die! Die! Die!”
Not my finest moment.
So the standing rule is that we don’t hit or hurt another person unless we’re trying to protect our bodies, and we don’t hurt animals unless they can kill us and are about to try—like Black Widows or Brown Recluses, or even Rattlesnakes if they end up in your yard. But how much spider-squishing and snail-stomping is normal for little kids? And how do we best teach them to have compassion for living creatures in such a harsh world?
All of this came into sharp focus last week when I read a story on Yahoo! News about the turtle population in North America being on the decline because of one major reason: automobiles. They have to cross roads to get from creeks to streams to ponds to find food and lay eggs and other turtle business. And one thing we all know about turtles is that they’re slow. Despite the old fable, slow and steady doesn’t win the race in a world full of SUVs and texting-while-driving.
But it’s not the accidental turtle-strikes that has me worried.
At Clemson University, a student named Nathan Weaver set out to see how many drivers struck a rubber turtle that he placed in the middle of a road. He expected it to be hit, but he wasn’t expecting to see person after person purposefully swerving to hit the turtle—mostly male drivers. Yahoo quotes an expert:
It takes a turtle seven or eight years to become mature enough to reproduce, and in that time, it might make several trips across the road to get from one pond to another, looking for food or a place to lay eggs. A female turtle that lives 50 years might lay over 100 eggs, but just two or three are likely to survive to reproduce, said Weaver’s professor, Rob Baldwin.
Snakes also get run over deliberately. Baldwin wishes that weren’t the case, but he understands, considering the widespread fear and loathing of snakes. But why anyone would want to run over turtles is a mystery to the professor.
The Yahoo! article cites the fact that running over turtles has become commonplace, particularly in the South.
Running over turtles even has a place in Southern lore.
In South Carolina author Pat Conroy’s semi-autobiographical novel “The Great Santini,” a fighter-pilot father squishes turtles during a late-night drive when he thinks his wife and kids are asleep. His wife confronts him, saying: “It takes a mighty brave man to run over turtles.”
The father denies it at first, then claims he hits them because they are a road hazard. “It’s my only sport when I’m traveling,” he says. “My only hobby.”
That hobby has been costly to turtles.
So what is it that makes boys and men, in particular, prone to needlessly hurting or killing animals? I asked Andrew Smiler, PhD, noted expert on teenage and adult masculine behavior, and author of the book Challenging Casanova for some insight. Basically, the way boys relate to animal violence is a part of the masculine notion of being tough, and the larger message that boys are not supposed to show emotion. He explained that in masculine culture, compassion for others is typically seen as being soft or caring—in other words, feminine.
Smiler explained that sometimes boys are pressured to take part in violence against animals as a part of showing that they are tough. I asked whether boys and girls may inherently have the same reactions to the things that are happening around them, particularly when it comes to animal violence, but are somehow conditioned to react differently. “At the grand scale,” he explained, “looking at these as two large groups, we certainly encourage girls to be caring of others, whether those are animals or other humans, and we encourage boys to not really care about others. Boys who play with dolls, even at a young age, get called sissies and are shunned, and we don’t have that pattern for girls. So boys get told directly and indirectly not to be compassionate, not to show that they care, and girls get rewarded and praised for showing they care.”
Smiler also cites a tradition in movies and literature where superhero-types, like Superman or Batman, are almost always explicitly orphaned young or endure some sort of tragedy that leaves them all alone in the world. This narrative seems to be necessary in the formation of a hero, because having attachments to anyone implies that people will be in danger as a result. “There’s this not-exactly-subtle message that if you want to be that kind of big and strong and powerful man, you can’t afford to be emotional.”
Joel and the pigeon, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Growing up, we probably all knew kids who did bad things to animals. I asked around, and all my colleagues had some horrible story to share about the guilt they felt after they shot a bird off a wire with a BB gun, burned ants with a magnifying glass, or when the school bully would throw giant rocks at squirrels. Tom Matlack remembers the neighborhood boys hurting frogs while he sat in a corner crying, not knowing what to do, all of 5 years old.
In the mindblowing Charlie Kaufman film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Joel (played by Jim Carrey at his very best) has to reach back into his memories to find the most horrible, shameful, embarrassing moments of his life. Suddenly, we find ourselves looking at Joel as a little boy, kneeling in front of a dead pigeon splayed out in a red Radio Flyer wagon, ball peen hammer in hand.
Joel’s friends chant for him to smash the bird to smithereens: “Hit it! Hit it! Hit it!” Joel eventually gives in to the peer pressure, smashing the bird until he’s racked with sobs. Grown-up Joel emerges, but he’s still riddled with shame. The bird may have been dead, but Joel knew that it deserved some sanctity, and that smashing its corpse was wrong.
The scene is artfully resonant to almost all grown-ups. Joel is bullied, he is pressured into doing something he doesn’t want to do, and he feels shame over it.
As parents, we need to not only teach our sons that hurting living creatures just for the thrill of it is deeply wrong, but we also need to give them the language and social skills to speak up for others—regardless of whether they’re animals or people.
I reached out to Dr. Vicki Panaccione of the Better Parenting Institute for help. Dr. Vicki had a lot of thoughts on the subject, including the insight that often kids will be encouraged by friends to engage in destructive behaviors, and that group behavior can cause a kid to move away from empathy—they disassociate from the turtle or other animal being a living, breathing and feeling creature.
She also points out that cruelty toward animals can be a major symptom that predicts development of psychopathic behavior.
But certainly not all 3 year-olds who stomp on a snail are going to be psychopaths. There are things that we, as parents, can do to help our children develop empathy toward living creatures.
Dr. Vicki has a few suggestions:
- Start teaching children very early to be kind and respect people with differences and all living creatures.
- Parents and teachers must set a good example by treating animals and other living creatures kindly.
- Adults should not demean animals by calling them “stupid mutts” or hitting them—particularly out of frustration or anger.
- Kindness is the first step toward empathy—talk to the kids about the feelings of others.
- Let your kids know that every living thing is important in the circle of life, and should only be killed for food (if you are a meat-eater.)
- Kids like to exert their power over smaller creatures—because they are usually the smallest creatures a round. Teach them that being bigger means they have a responsibility to be kind to smaller things—just like parents have that responsibility to their kids.
- Teach that animals/bugs have feelings and help them think about how they would feel if someone tried to pull off their arm or run over them with a car. Once kids can put themselves in the shoes/paws, etc of others, they are experiencing empathy.
- Get a pet for the family and have the kids be involved in its care.
- Avoid having games, movies or stories where animals or bugs are killed or mistreated. Engage in animal-friendly activities.
- If there is something on the news or in a game/movie/book then talk about it. Have the kids share their feelings about how that animal must feel and what they think of the people who are mistreating the animal. Have them relate the story to their own pets.
- One of my favorite quotes in this area: “Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child as it is to the caterpillar.”~ Bradley Miller
- Teach kids to marvel at the things in nature—the colors on a butterfly, all the legs on a caterpillar, the hard shell of a turtle, etc. If they spend their time finding the amazing things about all living things, they’ll surely not feel compelled to destroy them.
All of these suggestions are really good, but something really struck me about this one: Kids like to exert their power over smaller creatures—because they are usually the smallest creatures around. Teach them that being bigger means they have a responsibility to be kind to smaller things—just like parents have that responsibility to their kids.
With my kids, it seems like they flourish when given important jobs. I think it also speaks to a deeper theme in parenting. As parents, we have to model for our kids the people we want them to become. Speak out for what we believe is right, even when it’s uncomfortable or challenging.
And to Andrew Smiler’s points about the qualities usually associated with masculinity, that shows a way in which we can nurture in our boys. It’s crucial we never tell our boys that crying is weak. Instead, we can teach them that part of being a good man is caring about others. We can find examples in real life to show our kids the ways in which men can be strong and emotional at the same time. Most dads today are actively and emotionally engaged with their kids, and that’s a perfect way to exemplify a big strong guy taking care of someone smaller. But there are other great ones—think of a firefighter rescuing kittens from a burning house, or even President Obama shedding tears at the Newtown school shooting press conference (if your children are old enough for that context).
There are examples of strong, compassionate men everywhere around us, and it’s our duty as parents to make clear that caring and respect for animals and other people is part of being a good person, regardless of gender.
Also, check out Andrew Smiler’s new book, Challening Cassanova, available below.
Image courtesy of the author