Monday, August 18, 2008

When boys torture insects, or Is my son a psychopath?

During a chat with Frost about a playdate yesterday, he admitted that he had played a game torturing ants. He described the game like this [X = playmate]:

We had these bits of sap from a tree and we dropped the ants in. In the beginning we took the ants out and let them go all sticky but then X had the idea of squashing them so we tortured the ants first and then killed them. We just squashed them.


I was very upset about this game. I immediately asked Frost to think about the ants and how they were just trying to survive and find food for the ant nest when some large animal captured and hurt them and then killed them. I noted that there were no ant hospitals for ants covered in tree sap or partially squished. That the ants were part of a nest and had wider ant community. How did that make him feel?

I think I labored the point a bit because he began to feel sad and ashamed and accused the other boy of having the idea and explained how he thought it wasn't good to actually kill them but he just gone along with it because it was his house.

I did not absolve him. I pointed out that I expected him to say "no" when someone did something he didn't like or feel right about. I suggested that he didn't need to make a big deal about it, but he could say he would like to play something else or start another game. It didn't matter whose idea it was, he was still responsible.

Frost then refused to come in the house. He sat under a bush in the street and acted sniffly and dejected and I felt self-righteous and guilty.

See, on reflection, my response is complicated. Since pre-adolescence I have been one of those kids who anthropomorphises animals. I think of the struggle to survive as a pretty self-aware thing in everything from the slug to the impala dragged down by lion and if you have followed my blog for a long while you may remember my trauma at viewing the lost-baby-elephant part of the Life on Earth series while strapped and anesthetized in the dentist's chair. I am a bit Janist in my concept of 'impact' but spineless because if someone else gives me tasty food on a plate I accept it as Food not the Bottom of an Animal that was Trying to Run Away.

I wasn't always this empathic. As a child I have been told that I ate a bit of living shongololo [South African millipede] and I vividly recall making flower-beetle pie out of red mud and beetles I captured from my Granny's rose garden. I was also party to a fund raising schemed in which I earned a cent for every snail I delivered to my other Granny's coffee tin death chamber - to be melted by salt. These may have been exercises in organic gardening but I didn't have any qualms at the time.

But I developed a sensitivity somewhere between this point and the time that my Dad tried to show us the transformation from chrysalis to butterfly. We kept a chrysalis in a bottle, dangling from a twig. The butterfly emerged when we were away and, lacking the space to fully expand its wings, they hardened as a crumpled mess. This experience of the cruelty of curiosity still pains me and I remember many incidents of trying to save an ant from the swimming pool or climbing a tree to restore a caterpillar to its supposed host but cannot account for the evolution of my feelings.

Meanwhile, there is Frost. He is a sensitive boy and generally surprises me with his empathy. He won't eat meat (except Teriyaki chicken and hot dogs which are classed as Tasty Exceptions) and was completely turned off jello after Alex told him that it had cow hoof in it [he thought Alex was lying and has not touched the jello since, saying "it tastes not so good now."] So why did he relish this game which he described with "death" and "torture"?

I did a bit of googling and found this is a common issue for parents of boys. After a women posted a question about her son who she found launching snails to birds from a catapault people seem to vary widely in their reaction from horror to appreciation.

Many feel that it is a moment for moral boundaries. The message is that we don't gratuitously hurt other beings but its OK to eat them. Supposedly that is necessary not gratuitous. Ie, you can boil a lobster to eat but not as an experiment. As a poster put it "Eating animals is not comparable to flinging them about for fun."

Of course, there are those who seek the high moral ground and lead me to fear Frost is a sociopath or worse. Edam writes in that discussion that she feels:

Horrified. Cruelty to living creatures is not big or clever. What will they do next, torture kittens? People who are later convicted of cruelty to animals generally started small and built up. And those eventually convicted of violence against human beings often started with animals.

Doesn't mean every child who is horrible to insects or molluscs will grow up to be a terrible human being, obviously, but it does mean it is worth putting a stop to NOW. Both because it is wrong and because not challenging it sends a very worrying message that may encourage the child to do worse things in future.



Yikes, I am glad I stood firm because I do not want to see the "worse things in future". Then there is the other view which is that this is a common stage for kids to go through:

I have to confess I spent half my childhood chopping worms in half, squashing mosquitos and trying to catch flies to feed to the spiders to see what would happen.
I have grown up an animal lover. It is NOT the first step to mass murder


In retrospect, I now favor the firm but less emotional response:

"I.. think these kinds of activities are a natural part of the developing curiosity of many children.

It is up to adults to explain that it is not kind or appropriate, but no need to make the child feel like they are evil or weird.

Because they aren't."

7 comments:

Our Family said...

Hi there. Totally new to your blog through Valerie B. As a teacher and a mom I have the same worries about how to handle situations. I think that this phase is TOTALLY normal, but it can still be a teaching point. With insects, I tell my students and my son that if they are not hurting us, we need to leave them be. A black widow or a hornet's nest is something that needs to be taken care of. I try to point out how "cool" certain things are about bugs, even though I am shaking in my shoes! They will probably still experiment anyway, but they will grow into the morals if you keep discussing it...I hope!

Shannon said...

Thanks for sharing your experience - teacher-mom's are also an interesting source of anecdotes and wisdom.

I don't have as many issues with removing or killing dangerous insects but sometimes we are driven by fear not information (hornets, Bwidows.. sure).

I have had my views challenged by the WHAT BUG IS THIS website. Its really very informative and amusing and you may enjoy it as a teacher. This page is introduced as:

Insects are prone to unnecessary slaughter, be it from an overzealous homemaker who doesn't want to see bugs, or from a strapping he-man who is a closet arachnophobe, or from a youngster who likes to torture. At any rate, we get a goodly amount of photos of poor arthropods whose lives ended prematurely. In an effort to educate, we present Unnecessary Carnage. This page is not intended for the squeemish.

http://www.whatsthatbug.com/unnecessary_carnage.html

flightstick said...

I am intrigued to read about how you deal with your child on treating creatures that are smaller, weaker than us. It reminded me of my mindless days when I would simply quash ants or cockroaches when I saw them, without a thought.

Now that I am trying to practise Vipassana meditation and am mindful in following Buddha's precepts, the wellbeing of every little harmless creature seems important to me. I simply couldn't understand my past callous behaviour.

My own son, who is now 25, loves animals from a very young age. He insists everyone in the family be vegetarians, like him!

Cheers

Anonymous said...

you are a little sickly with the insect empathy

Anonymous said...

Hi there. I read your article and felt compelled to post. I am a 24 year old male that is a vegetarian. Now this may be surprising to you but I take great pleasure in torturing insects. I do not eat meat on the grounds that the animals were bred for the sole purpose to be killed and consumed by humans. Many argue that these animals would have been hunted by us in the wild, but the fact is that we do not hunt them. They are slaves that exist only for ourselves and this is neither fair not correct in my eyes. What I find most offensive is people that are repulsed by meat that has visible blood, or people that do not wish to know about their meat while it is alive YET they will still consume this meat if the blood is not present or if they have not seen the animal alive. Personally I believe the killing and torture of insects and the like is very acceptable as we are hunting them ourselves and they are chosen by natural selection and many times are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I do not breed insects for the purpose of killing them, this would be immoral. I will not harm a dog,cat,animals that are regularly consumed, etc. You may be thinking that in other countries it is the norm to eat such insects, but there they are either caught wild which is acceptable or are bred for the purpose which is unacceptable. It is also worth mentioning that I will not bring harm upon certain insects, for example I would not harm a spider unless it attacked me first. I allow spiders to live amongst me and create their webs for feeding/breeding purposes. This post has gone on long enough, I just wished to open your mind to a different perception that is currently being experienced most probably not only by myself but by others around the world. May chaos and karma have their wrath upon yourself and your family. Namaste

alison said...

I not only tortured, but relished in torturing all sorts of insects as a child. I used to catch bugs for the sole purpose of killing them. It made me feel powerful, godlike even. I think it is also worth noting that I am and always have been the girliest of girls, so I don't think that this is at all exclusive to boys. Oh, and I didn't turn into a serial killer either. I'm currently in uni pursuing my lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian.

Anonymous said...

I can say that as a boy I experimented with ants and spiders. My brother and I would keep ant colonies and watch them develop in complexity, feeding them other insects as food. And occasionally catching spiders to watch them fight. Or pour water over wild nests to watch them scatter. It was experimental for the most part, but I do remember feeling 'god like' when pouring water over a fire ant (I think they were anyways) nest because I hated fire ants.

I haven't done anything like that in years though. So perhaps it's just a phase for most.