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Children And Combating Cruelty

( Originally Published 1916 )



HAROLD caught a butterfly and ran with it joyously, to show his mother. It was very pretty, and everyone admired it. As the insect made struggles to escape, the child handled it rather gingerly. " How tender he is," mused the mother and went on with her sewing. Presently the butterfly stopped struggling; perhaps it was exhausted. In the course of the exhibition the scales were rubbed from its wings, and it was no longer so pretty to behold. As attention wandered from the butterfly and the child, the boy sought new diversions, and soon he was observed sitting in a corner of the porch, deliberately pulling off one wing after another, and proceeding to the legs. Mother was shocked, as any person of feeling would be. " How cruel he is," she thought, and scolded him roundly for being so unkind to the pretty little butterfly.

Whenever a child proceeds to dismember an insect or to throw a stone at a bird, he should be stopped. No child should be allowed to acquire the habit of inflicting pain on lower animals, or to cultivate delight in the sufferings of others. But neither should any parent condemn Harold for his cruelty just because he pulled a butterfly apart. You do not think your child is cruel because he is over-anxious to open every parcel that comes into the house, or because he once cut a doll open to see what the stuffing was made of. A child with a certain amount of initiative and curiosity will investigate the structure and insides of everything that he can possibly take apart. While he is still young and inexperienced, he makes no discrimination between dissecting a toy dog and a live insect. It is therefore not necessarily his cruelty that makes him do such shocking things, but a combination of his curiosity and his ignorance, and these are the factors we have to deal with.

Now the curiosity is in no way objectionable. It is an instinct to be cultivated. The child will need to be trained to satisfy his curiosity in certain directions, and in effective ways. But his, ignorance has to be overcome, and that is the end of much of the experience that we deliberately put in his way under the name of " education." There is a suspicion of cruelty only when the child is old enough to have a clear idea what suffering means, and to realize that other beings can suffer as he can, and from the same causes as those that make him suffer.

Moreover, we must distinguish between the brutality that is a rather negative callousness or indifference to suffering, and the positive cruelty that derives satisfacfition from the suffering of others. There are very few children who manifest cruelty in the latter sense. It would be obviously unwise to treat such acts of cruelty by means of whippings or other punishments that are in their way as cruel as what the child does. To give a child a pet dog or cat or bird, to let the child learn to love the pet, will do more to cultivate his sympathy than a whole year of daily sermons on being kind.

There is so much evidence of unkindness and cruelty all about us that we should really not be astonished when the child manifests the same kinds of hardness. Everywhere he may witness whippings—whipping of children and of horses and of dogs. He is hardly to be blamed if he becomes indifferent to the sight of such acts, and grows up to take part in them himself, as the aggressor. Indeed, the prevailing cruelty among adults is a sort of self-perpetuating affair ; adults are cruel because they became so as children, and the children acquire the habit because they see so much of it in the adults.

We are parts of a vicious circle from which escape is very difficult, and for many impossible. Children see chickens killed, they hear of war, perhaps take part in hunting expeditions, and are constantly admonished to " swat the fly." Now no sensible person would for a moment try to cultivate the sentiments of the children on behalf of the poor little fly. The thoughtless sentifimentalism behind the adage " Live and let live " is as pernicious as the doctrine " Each for himself." But it is fair to question whether young children should be engaged in any kind of killing campaign. We may teach the children to hate the fly and the mosquito, without reserve; but it would be wiser to, teach them how to prevent the birth of the flies and the mosquitoes than to let the animals come to maturity and then give our children practice in killing without compunction. Older children should learn that it is sometimes necessary to inflict pain, or even to kill. They should, how so ever, come to have the same abhorrence of wanton injury to other human beings or to lower animals, as they have of the most noxious animals that call for slaughter.

In large part the attitude of children towards pain and suffering is a reflection of the attitude that prevails about them. In some homes the mention of hunting calls up thoughts of the chase, the excitement of stalking, the steady aim, the effective shot. In others it calls up the harrying of the beasts, their struggles, and their sufferings when wounded. In some homes, the army and navy are discussed in terms of the handsome appearance on parade, the excellent discipline, the ad-ventures in traveling, and so on. In other homes war always means hell. It means fathers and sons and brothers going away from their dear ones to be shot and sometimes killed. It means suffering from wounds and thirst and separation—not brass buttons and brass bands. To some, the trophies of war are stripes and medals; to others, empty sleeves or widows' weeds.

In combating cruelty, as in combating lying, the atmosphere of the environment is more important than the wisdom of the precepts. Children learn to be kind by doing kind things; they learn to be cruel by doing the brutal things, thinking the indifferent thoughts.



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