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TEACH YOUR CHILDREN
ED. NOTE: This remarkable article appeared in the April, 2004 issue of WESTCHESTER FAMILY, about teaching compassion for animals to children:
by Nancy Bevilaqua
"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 the beach.
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 throwing 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 personality.
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."