Cruelty to animals or natural curiosity?

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  July 19, 2011 06:00 AM

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Barbara,
Can you give me some guidance about how you decide if your child needs professional help? Without getting into a lot of detail, I've noticed since school is out that my son has a mean streak with animals. I had never noticed it before (we don't have any pets) but I'll give you two examples: 1. I'm seeing it a lot with insects -- he doesn't just squash an ant or a moth on the sidewalk, he stomps on it and wants to see it "smushed." 2. We were visiting overnight with cousins who had goldfish. The little girl whose job it is to feed the fish made a big deal to say that if you give them too much food, they can die. That night as I was putting him to bed, he said he wanted to go see the goldfish. I thought it was sweet. He didn't want to say goodnight to them, though; he wanted to feed them. I reminded him that they ate already and what she had told us. He said, "I know, I want to see one die. "

Is this just a boy being a boy, or is it more worrisome? He's going into second grade.

From: MeLi, Detroit

Hi Meli,

I can't think of a boy I've known who didn't like to poke dead insects with sticks or squish them or cut them up. When curiosity turns into cruelty -- where a child goes out of his/her (yes, could be a girl) way to torment an animal and takes pleasure from it, it's cause for concern. Hard to say if wanting to over-feed the fish qualifies. Honestly? I can see how that might be just curiosity. I'm talking about dropping the cat out the second floor window.

Cruelty to animals is often cited as a red flag for mental health problems and perhaps that's what's prompted you to write. The topic of cruelty to animals isn't covered in the book, "The Parents' Guide to Psychological First Aid," but editors Gerald Koocher and Annette La Greca, both psychologists, offer general guidelines for when a behavior is more than something parents can or should try to fix themselves. They write:

"The decision to seek professional help should flow form the nature, intensity and duration [their italics] of the problem, and from whether or not the problem is seriously interfering with your child's day-to-day functioning."

Only you can judge if this describes your son. But, just for a hypothetical, I'd be concerned if all he wants to do, day after day, is go outside and look for dead insects, at the exclusion of other activities. Or if, when he plays with friends, he only wants to look for dead insects or find insects to kill, and the kids don't want to play anymore, or the parents are calling to mention this to you. Or if his conversation at home is fixated on hurting animals or if he goes in search of a neighbor's pet to irritate.

When trouble-some behaviors toward animals occur repeatedly, or appear to be intentionally cruel, a professional evaluation is advised, Koocher & La Greca write. And perhaps most importantly of all, if you are worried, I would say to be safe rather than sorry. Start with your pediatrician who presumably knows your child a bit, and go from there. This discussion by the ASPCA might help you talk to your son about this.

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14 comments so far...
  1. One thing that concerns me is that he's school age. This behavior is often seen in younger kids, but by school age, he should be past it right? And the LW doesn't mention what she says to him when he stomps insects and what her reply was when he said he wanted to see the goldfish die.

    Posted by JBar July 19, 11 08:51 AM
  1. JBar,
    You're absolutely right and I meant to address that issue in my answer. His age is a factor, MeLi, and I wonder if there's something going on in his life that has made him angry (a separation? a move?), preoccupied with death (a favorite teacher who is ill or dying or has died? a family member), or both.

    Posted by Barbara Meltz July 19, 11 09:39 AM
  1. Another thing about the fish issue is that maybe he's thinking about this big idea, "to die". I have no clue what is to be expected at different ages when thinking about and talking about death. But I do know that the kids in my life have had lots of questions when they first were exposed to a person or pet dying. (I am thinking about my nieces around the ages of 4-6.) He might want to know what it's all about and what it means if the fish dies, and his way of asking the questions is to want to see it happen. Just a thought. I don't know!

    Posted by Carrie July 19, 11 10:21 AM
  1. I agree that we're missing some pieces of the puzzle. Did Mom ask why he wanted to see the goldfish die? Did he have a reason? Communication on the subject would be a very good start to determining what his real motives are (curiosity or cruelty). He might say something as simple as "I want to see what it looks like." Or he might say something a little more concerning. It can't hurt to open the lines.

    Posted by Linney July 19, 11 11:35 AM
  1. Agree with the comments above - very curious about what was said / asked by the mom when the boy said he wanted to see the goldfish die? Also, I think there is a distinction between stepping on an insect and expressing a desire to see a cousin's pet die, whether it's a kitty or a goldfish; I am sure the little girl who is taking care of the animal would be pretty upset to find out her cousin deliberately killed it! The lack of empathy there concerns me, since by 2nd grade I would think the concept of sharing would be broad enough to include not deliberately breaking or killing the pets or playthings of a family member.

    Posted by Hannah July 19, 11 01:00 PM
  1. Kids will also play up any behavior that they see makes adults around them freak out--does it seem like he's trying to get attention and this works?

    Posted by di July 19, 11 03:51 PM
  1. what harm would have been done to have just advised the child be evaluated? Since this behavior could very well be a sign of some serious issues I don't understand the hesitation to seek a professional opinion....

    Posted by mini July 19, 11 10:35 PM
  1. Being a mom with a child who has mental health issues I would offer the LW this...what does your gut tell you? my son has lived with and been around animals his entire life, however little signs overlooked previously now have meaning. He has always been "over loving" to the dogs/cats and almost to the point that it was suffocating. As he has gotten a little older and more aggressive we no longer allow him to be outside with the dog alone. He has tried to suffocate the dog, pick her up and throw her against the fence, kicks her etc. The dog will now cower when he comes near her. There are tell tale signs that you will pick up on.
    No one wants to believe their child could possibly WANT to hurt an animal but it does happen. Something to watch and keep a close eye on. As others have asked, if there was a conversation between mom and child when he told her he wanted to see the fish die. Could be simply curiosity could be something more.


    Posted by EKM July 20, 11 08:02 AM
  1. It's disturbing that he is still preoccupied with trying to kill a fish, I assume hours after the girl told him about overfeeding. If he were still thinking about the goldfish at bedtime because he wants to own one himself, that would be fine. (Especially because he does not have any pets and this would be something new.) But to still be dwelling hours later on killing one, is a concern. Does this mean that he was thinking about killing one all that time? My brother had many fish during his childhood, and his concern was making sure that they stayed alive. I would have been shocked to hear that he wanted to try to kill one; that was not in his nature, and my parents would have been shocked too. I think that the notion that "boys will be boys" when it comes to harming animals is used to excuse behavior that needs to be dealt with right away, not brushed aside as a curiosity that will pass with age.
    I agree with Hannah's post too - I wonder whether he wanted to see the goldfish die because this would upset his cousin. Maybe he wants to hurt her through her pet. This opens up all kinds of concerns. Domestic abusers often torment their human family members by abusing the pets.

    Posted by Pitbullmom July 20, 11 03:06 PM
  1. It can't hurt to get a professional opinion on this, and when faced with a really difficult decision like this I always ask myself:

    Am I more likely to regret taking action? Or not taking action?

    I can't imagine a scenario where you'd look back and think, "OMG, I wish I'd never taken him to talk to someone back in 2nd grade," but I can easily imagine second guessing a decision to just wait it out or hope that it goes away. Please, get him some time with a qualified professional who can tell you how to best steer him toward the compassionate, caring behavior you'll want to see in your adult child 15 years from now.

    Posted by EngineerChic July 21, 11 06:52 AM
  1. I agree that squishing bugs is probably not that much of an issue. If it was my child, I would discourage it because I think it is unnecessary to kill any living thing, including bugs (unless they are in my house, then watch out!).
    With the fish thing, I would be more concerned if the boy say, snuck out of bed in the middle of the night, overfed the fish and then denied it was he who did it the next day. Saying that he wanted to do that directly to the mother seems more to me like he wants attention in some way. As other posters have mentioned, it wouldn't hurt to discuss it with his ped..

    Posted by Carla July 21, 11 12:50 PM
  1. The insects are not an issue. I agree that many children engage in this type of behavior toward insects - most do see adults kill insects and are likely influenced into considering insects as pests and something disposable. In my household we "free" any insects found indoors in the backyard.

    The child's wish to see a fish die would have been a great opportunity for a few questions to determine what he was thinking. If the child has not had any experience with death of a family member, or friend, or family pet, he may have been trying to figure out what it means to die. If the admonishment not to feed the fish was delivered with great drama it's likely he was intrigued, "what's going to happen to the fish"?

    This may be far fetched, but given all of the "special effects" children see in the media, perhaps he thought the fish would grow larger instantly or explode?

    I don't think, based on the information in the question, that this is a serious problem. I do think parents need to question / talk to their children when they say and do things that don't seem clear to us as adults.

    Posted by portiaperu July 21, 11 01:02 PM
  1. The downplaying of this behavior is more worrisome to me than the child's actions. Squishing a bug is normal, stomping on it to kill it is not. The fact this child knew that overfeeding would kill the fish and then attempting to do so in order to see it die is disturbing and think this child should be evaluated, lest it escalate to hurting other children. Maybe the child is being bullied at school and is acting out. Curiosity about death is one thing, wanting to kill a living thing on purpose to watch it die is quite another story. Sorry but this is NOT normal and should not be fluffed off.

    Posted by Going Coastal July 21, 11 01:42 PM
  1. Mothers, your gut instinct tells you what to do. If you weren't concerned you wouldn't have written here.

    Your concern seems justified as there is a big difference between squishing a bug and watching a fish, or anything else for that matter, die. Healthy curiosity does not prompt visual gratification. The so-called 'intensity' and whether it 'interfers with his day to day functioning' is not necessarily the only qualifiers for seeking help. What's going to happen to the fish is not the same as stating, 'I want to see one die'!

    My grandson has asked me several questions about dying, where does one go, what's there, etc. But, he's never expressed an interest in seeing something or someone die.

    See professional help and get references.

    Posted by grandboysnana July 21, 11 06:18 PM
 
14 comments so far...
  1. One thing that concerns me is that he's school age. This behavior is often seen in younger kids, but by school age, he should be past it right? And the LW doesn't mention what she says to him when he stomps insects and what her reply was when he said he wanted to see the goldfish die.

    Posted by JBar July 19, 11 08:51 AM
  1. JBar,
    You're absolutely right and I meant to address that issue in my answer. His age is a factor, MeLi, and I wonder if there's something going on in his life that has made him angry (a separation? a move?), preoccupied with death (a favorite teacher who is ill or dying or has died? a family member), or both.

    Posted by Barbara Meltz July 19, 11 09:39 AM
  1. Another thing about the fish issue is that maybe he's thinking about this big idea, "to die". I have no clue what is to be expected at different ages when thinking about and talking about death. But I do know that the kids in my life have had lots of questions when they first were exposed to a person or pet dying. (I am thinking about my nieces around the ages of 4-6.) He might want to know what it's all about and what it means if the fish dies, and his way of asking the questions is to want to see it happen. Just a thought. I don't know!

    Posted by Carrie July 19, 11 10:21 AM
  1. I agree that we're missing some pieces of the puzzle. Did Mom ask why he wanted to see the goldfish die? Did he have a reason? Communication on the subject would be a very good start to determining what his real motives are (curiosity or cruelty). He might say something as simple as "I want to see what it looks like." Or he might say something a little more concerning. It can't hurt to open the lines.

    Posted by Linney July 19, 11 11:35 AM
  1. Agree with the comments above - very curious about what was said / asked by the mom when the boy said he wanted to see the goldfish die? Also, I think there is a distinction between stepping on an insect and expressing a desire to see a cousin's pet die, whether it's a kitty or a goldfish; I am sure the little girl who is taking care of the animal would be pretty upset to find out her cousin deliberately killed it! The lack of empathy there concerns me, since by 2nd grade I would think the concept of sharing would be broad enough to include not deliberately breaking or killing the pets or playthings of a family member.

    Posted by Hannah July 19, 11 01:00 PM
  1. Kids will also play up any behavior that they see makes adults around them freak out--does it seem like he's trying to get attention and this works?

    Posted by di July 19, 11 03:51 PM
  1. what harm would have been done to have just advised the child be evaluated? Since this behavior could very well be a sign of some serious issues I don't understand the hesitation to seek a professional opinion....

    Posted by mini July 19, 11 10:35 PM
  1. Being a mom with a child who has mental health issues I would offer the LW this...what does your gut tell you? my son has lived with and been around animals his entire life, however little signs overlooked previously now have meaning. He has always been "over loving" to the dogs/cats and almost to the point that it was suffocating. As he has gotten a little older and more aggressive we no longer allow him to be outside with the dog alone. He has tried to suffocate the dog, pick her up and throw her against the fence, kicks her etc. The dog will now cower when he comes near her. There are tell tale signs that you will pick up on.
    No one wants to believe their child could possibly WANT to hurt an animal but it does happen. Something to watch and keep a close eye on. As others have asked, if there was a conversation between mom and child when he told her he wanted to see the fish die. Could be simply curiosity could be something more.


    Posted by EKM July 20, 11 08:02 AM
  1. It's disturbing that he is still preoccupied with trying to kill a fish, I assume hours after the girl told him about overfeeding. If he were still thinking about the goldfish at bedtime because he wants to own one himself, that would be fine. (Especially because he does not have any pets and this would be something new.) But to still be dwelling hours later on killing one, is a concern. Does this mean that he was thinking about killing one all that time? My brother had many fish during his childhood, and his concern was making sure that they stayed alive. I would have been shocked to hear that he wanted to try to kill one; that was not in his nature, and my parents would have been shocked too. I think that the notion that "boys will be boys" when it comes to harming animals is used to excuse behavior that needs to be dealt with right away, not brushed aside as a curiosity that will pass with age.
    I agree with Hannah's post too - I wonder whether he wanted to see the goldfish die because this would upset his cousin. Maybe he wants to hurt her through her pet. This opens up all kinds of concerns. Domestic abusers often torment their human family members by abusing the pets.

    Posted by Pitbullmom July 20, 11 03:06 PM
  1. It can't hurt to get a professional opinion on this, and when faced with a really difficult decision like this I always ask myself:

    Am I more likely to regret taking action? Or not taking action?

    I can't imagine a scenario where you'd look back and think, "OMG, I wish I'd never taken him to talk to someone back in 2nd grade," but I can easily imagine second guessing a decision to just wait it out or hope that it goes away. Please, get him some time with a qualified professional who can tell you how to best steer him toward the compassionate, caring behavior you'll want to see in your adult child 15 years from now.

    Posted by EngineerChic July 21, 11 06:52 AM
  1. I agree that squishing bugs is probably not that much of an issue. If it was my child, I would discourage it because I think it is unnecessary to kill any living thing, including bugs (unless they are in my house, then watch out!).
    With the fish thing, I would be more concerned if the boy say, snuck out of bed in the middle of the night, overfed the fish and then denied it was he who did it the next day. Saying that he wanted to do that directly to the mother seems more to me like he wants attention in some way. As other posters have mentioned, it wouldn't hurt to discuss it with his ped..

    Posted by Carla July 21, 11 12:50 PM
  1. The insects are not an issue. I agree that many children engage in this type of behavior toward insects - most do see adults kill insects and are likely influenced into considering insects as pests and something disposable. In my household we "free" any insects found indoors in the backyard.

    The child's wish to see a fish die would have been a great opportunity for a few questions to determine what he was thinking. If the child has not had any experience with death of a family member, or friend, or family pet, he may have been trying to figure out what it means to die. If the admonishment not to feed the fish was delivered with great drama it's likely he was intrigued, "what's going to happen to the fish"?

    This may be far fetched, but given all of the "special effects" children see in the media, perhaps he thought the fish would grow larger instantly or explode?

    I don't think, based on the information in the question, that this is a serious problem. I do think parents need to question / talk to their children when they say and do things that don't seem clear to us as adults.

    Posted by portiaperu July 21, 11 01:02 PM
  1. The downplaying of this behavior is more worrisome to me than the child's actions. Squishing a bug is normal, stomping on it to kill it is not. The fact this child knew that overfeeding would kill the fish and then attempting to do so in order to see it die is disturbing and think this child should be evaluated, lest it escalate to hurting other children. Maybe the child is being bullied at school and is acting out. Curiosity about death is one thing, wanting to kill a living thing on purpose to watch it die is quite another story. Sorry but this is NOT normal and should not be fluffed off.

    Posted by Going Coastal July 21, 11 01:42 PM
  1. Mothers, your gut instinct tells you what to do. If you weren't concerned you wouldn't have written here.

    Your concern seems justified as there is a big difference between squishing a bug and watching a fish, or anything else for that matter, die. Healthy curiosity does not prompt visual gratification. The so-called 'intensity' and whether it 'interfers with his day to day functioning' is not necessarily the only qualifiers for seeking help. What's going to happen to the fish is not the same as stating, 'I want to see one die'!

    My grandson has asked me several questions about dying, where does one go, what's there, etc. But, he's never expressed an interest in seeing something or someone die.

    See professional help and get references.

    Posted by grandboysnana July 21, 11 06:18 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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