For my daughter's 4th birthday, my dad presented her with a wild salamander he'd found under a rock and stuck in a terrarium. He thought it would provide my daughter with some amusement, and it sure did. First she pulled off its tail (salamanders can grow them back, but still!). She then poked and prodded the poor thing so much, I thought it would die of fear. When I finally insisted we set it free in the woods, she decided to chuck it into the middle of a lake. Can salamanders swim? Hope so.

Many kids are cruel to animals -- or so I've heard. This does not make it right, but it does give me some assurance that I probably don't have a budding psychopath on my hands. Of course, I do try to curb this habit of hers. For instance, my daughter is also a serial ant killer: She squishes them with her fingers, stomps on the sidewalk. I've tried to drive home that ants feel pain and really don't want to die, to cultivate a sense of empathy by asking, "How would you like it if someone stepped on you?" This just makes her laugh and stomp more.

I remind myself that I was just like her as a kid: that I, too, held wild salamanders captive in a terrarium. And mine actually died -- not from manhandling or drowning, but from starvation, since I wasn't sure what to feed them, but still wasn't willing to set them free. Was that any less cruel?

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And besides, torturing ants and salamanders isn't as egregious as, say, accosting cats and dogs -- that's real animal cruelty, right? Then, of course, the day arrived recently when my daughter took her tea party tray, removed the cups and teapot, and used it to smack our rat terrier Toby on his rump. She loves that dog ... so what was going on? I grabbed my daughter immediately, took away the tray, and said, "We DON'T. HIT. DOGS."

My daughter hasn't hit him since. Still, though, the fact that she would if I hadn't yelled at her makes me worry. First ants, then salamanders, now dogs. Are her torturous ways slowly inching up the food chain? Will she lash out at her friends next or me?

My husband, as a kid, killed ants by frying them with a magnifying glass. He then moved onto birds, shooting at them with a BB gun. Then one day, at the age of 14, he watched a bird he'd shot die ... and suddenly a light bulb went on. He was filled with remorse, hung up his BB gun, and vowed to never hurt another animal again.

Maybe that's what my daughter needs to do too: Figure out for herself that what she's doing is wrong. I can scold 'til the cows come home, and while she might alter her behavior (in front of me, at least), perhaps she'll have to come to her own realization that causing pain in living creatures just isn't cool. In the meantime, I let her stomp down the sidewalk and pray that if reincarnation is real, she doesn't come back in her next life as an ant.

Is your kid cruel to animals?


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