The Teacher's Story

Earlier this week, I watched while six three-year-olds rode their tricycles in military formation, barely even slowing down for curves in the path. Kyle was in the lead, followed by five others, when all at once, he braked and leapt from the saddle. At first, I thought he was pretending to be a cowboy roping a calf. Then I realized he had spied a parade of, ants and was bent on destroying them. Kyle pounced mercilessly on the small creatures-killing dozens and destroying the products of their hard work. I must admit I was shocked, having thought of Kyle as a sweet boy. He has always been so cooperative and well-behaved, eager to please adults and much admired by his peers. I wouldn't have believed he would purposely be cruel to helpless little creatures. It was unsettling to witness the event. Of course, I had known he didn't like having insects in the classroom. But Kyle was only one of many children who had called for the removal of a pesky fly or two. And I never thought about whether Kyle was the one who called out for us to "kill it." Now Kyle's attitude toward small creatures is clear. A day or two after he had eliminated that colony of ants, I found him poking a worm with a stick. He said he wanted to kill it and bring it home along with a dead bird he had found nearby. While I don't want to make too much of what may be just a phase, I am in a quandary. Should I reprimand this otherwise warm, delightful child for cruelty so his behavior doesn't become a regrettable habit?

The Parent's Story

Sometimes I think I don't understand Kyle. My husband agrees that our youngest son is a bundle of contradictions: He is the sweetest, most affectionate of our boys, but lately he is cruel to little creatures. After a rain storm, he steps on worms with obvious gusto. When we found a dead baby squirrel in the yard last week, Kyle seemed fascinated-maybe even pleased. The older boys uttered things like, "Oooh, gross!" They were obviously troubled at the sight of a lost life. Not Kyle. It's all so strange, since Kyle has always been sympathetic to other children when they are sad, hurt, or in danger. And at a recent family gathering, when his cousins, who are brothers, got into a fight, Kyle came running for me to rescue the younger one. Also, on the first day of school, Kyle was the only child who put an arm around a crying little girl, Saying soothingly, "My mommy will take care of you." So what has happened to Kyle? I'd like to understand so we can do something about it.

Dr. Brodkin's Assessment

Kyle's behavior is typical of many children in the toddler and preschool years. Sometimes they demonstrate empathy, but at other times they seem indifferent to others' pain. All of this changes in time, but it can be unnerving to adults. So Kyle's seeming cruelty is likely to vanish; in the meantime, there are things that may help.

What the Teacher Can Do

The teacher should focus less on chastising Kyle and more on praising him for every kind act. When Kyle is generous and caring toward someone, there should be much public praise. The teacher should also have a friendly discussion with Kyle's parents, who probably need reassurance that this behavior is temporary. All of Kyle's fine qualities and caring acts should be praised. The teacher should gently divert him from unkind acts. For example, his behavior with the ants offers an opportunity to learn about the important jobs performed by ants. In time, the broader message that all creatures deserve respect will gradually get through. Above all, if the teacher consistently models kindness in the classroom, Kyle is likely to be more eager to see and do things her way.

What the Parents Can Do

Unconditional parental love and clear approval of Kyle's fine qualities are the best antidote for this behavior. Consistent modeling of kindness and consideration are especially important. Kyle will find pleasing his parents is a powerful inducement to change. In time, Kyle will grow to dislike cruelty. In fact, someday even this memory of those cruel acts will have vanished since they will seem so at odds with the boy he has become.

This article originally appeared in the April, 2000 issue of Early Childhood Today.