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."