TEACH YOUR CHILDREN
by Nancy Bevilaqua
ED. NOTE: This remarkable
article appeared in the April, 2004 issue of WESTCHESTER FAMILY, about
teaching compassion for animals to children:
"The sky over Meschutt Beach is overcast, and the beach
is empty except for three or four families and a lot of seagulls. At the
water's edge, a small group of adults and children gather. They are looking
down at something in the sand, and I hear someone say something about a
jellyfish. I get a sick feeling in my stomach; I know what's coming next. A
boy of about 12 reaches down and picks up a rock, and I turn away as he
raises his arm. I don't hear the sound of the rock hitting the jellyfish,
but I hear the approving, mock- disgusted 'ohhhs' uttered by the adults as
the creature is crushed.
I'm glad, at least, that my son is busy shoveling sand
into his bucket, and isn't aware of what is happening.
A few minutes later, a man and his son walk up the
beach toward where we're sitting. The boy, who is about 9, is throwing rocks
at a pair of young seagulls swimming together just offshore. His father is
coaching him with regard to his aim, which is getting increasingly accurate.
'Don't throw rocks at birds!' I blurt out, disgusted. The father turns
toward me, angrily, but doesn't say anything. He and his son continue on up
I've been told that I'm too sensitive about such things
(personally, I don't consider this to be a problem), and that I should keep
my mouth shut because it will get me into trouble one day. Yet what I'm
about to write has little to do with my own feelings of disgust and sorrow
when I see something needlessly hurt or killed, or my personal beliefs about
how far up on the evolutionary ladder a creature needs to be in order to be
considered sentient enough to be spared being hit with a rock. But in my
lifetime I've seen and heard about too many of these parent-condoned random
acts of cruelty (in 'good neighborhoods', with 'educated' parents) to be
able to console myself that they are committed only by the occasional
miscreant. For example:
- My cousins used to amuse themselves behind their
nice, suburban-Connecticut home by putting firecrackers into frogs' mouths
and blowing them up. Their parents were fully aware of what they were doing.
- In the Hamptons, a father fished while his daughter
passed the time stomping on the (still-living) fish he'd already caught.
- Somewhere else on Long Island, a couple of boys found
an injured red-tailed hawk. They tied it to the back of a bike and dragged
it around for a while, then lit it on fire. The bird had to be euthanized.
(In this case, I don't know where the boys' parents were, but it's hard to
hide a beautiful bird with a 6 foot wingspan in a suburban neighborhood).
- In Florida, a toad made its way across a grocery
store parking lot. A teenager, on break from his job inside the store,
grabbed a broom and slammed it down on the toad, then went back to hanging
out with his friends. (They laughed about it; I cried all the way home, and
later called the manager to complain).
- Also in Florida, at a zoo at which children were
allowed to interact with some tortoises in an outdoor area, several of the
children took advantage of the opportunity to kick the tortoises in the
head. Neither their parents nor the zoo's staff said a word about it.
- As a child in Connecticut, I was playing with a
friend in the backyard. We caught a moth with my new butterfly net, and one
of us (I swear that I don't remember which one of us actually did it; such a
convenient lapse in memory can only mean that it was me) tore its wings off.
I must have been about 5 when we caught and killed the
moth. My friend, holding the wingless creature, remarked that it was dead.
'Good,' I said. At that point my mother, who was nearby, said something that
shaped my feelings about cruelty to living creatures for the rest of my
life. 'It's not good when something dies.' She didn't yell, and she didn't
punish me. But I never did anything like that again. (I only wish that she
had stopped us before we had killed the moth).
In raising my own son, I've made it a priority to teach
him that it's never OK (except in self-defense, when all else fails) to hurt
or kill a living thing, whether it's a worm, a bug, a dog or another person.
I rescue injured birds, and he helps me to care for them.
He has never intentionally stepped on an anthill, or
(unlike his mother at the same age) pulled the wings off a bug. He wouldn't
dream of thowing a rock at an animal, whether it's a jellyfish or a horse.
When he sees something that has been hurt, he wants to help.
What's most remarkable, though, is that Alessandro's
respect and concern for all living things has extended into his relations
with other children. At the playground, and in school, he has a reputation
for being kind and non-violent (yet never passive). I do believe that he was
born with a gentle disposition, but I'm also quite certain that his being
taught compassion and empathy from the beginning of his life has shaped his
Yes, I am self-righteous. I'm proud of my son, and I'm
horrified when I see parents stand by and watch, or even express approval,
as their children stomp on, pull at, chase, and throw stones at animals.
I've come to believe - to my great sorrow - that human beings are naturally
inclined to want to inflict harm on creatures more vulnerable than
themselves. But parents have a responsibility to curb and correct this
instinct just as much as they do to toilet-train their children (it's often
mentioned that cruelty to animals in childhood is a predictor of violence in
adulthood). Because, regardless of how you feel about jellyfish or insects
or frogs, it matters. Cruelty and compassion are the same in that, if
they're nurtured, they know no bounds.
Here's one more example: when Al-Qaeda wanted to test
the efficacy of the toxic gases they planned to use on Americans, they
gassed puppies. Clearly the transition from killing dogs to killing people
was pretty effortless for them. Yet, depraved as the terrorists are, they
are human, and at one time they were children."
Please thank editor Renee Cho for this awesome article,
the like of which frankly I never thought I'd see in WESTCHESTER PARENT.
Also politely suggest Ms. Cho consider removing the many WESTCHESTER PARENT
ads for traveling petting zoos, pony rides, and live-animal magic acts
offered for rent to birthday parties, which contribute to the kind of
cruelty and contempt for animals mentioned in this article. Email:
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