Monday, February 6, 2012

Explaining Death To A Toddler

Like most fathers, I want what is best for my daughters. I am trying to teach them the basics of life at an early age. It is in the early years that a persons fundamental way of thinking is formed. It is from this viewpoint that all of their decisions will be made. One fundamental attribute that I want my daughters to have is a respect for life. Life, all life, is beautiful and precious. For them to truly cherish life, they must understand death.

My oldest daughter, Lila, is two, almost three. This week we have had a few things happen that have led to a discussion about death. First, our yellow canary died after a long illness. It was a relief to see it go, I had been contemplating euthanizing it. I'm glad I didn't have to do that. I told Lila that the bird got sick and died, explaining that it fell asleep and would not wake up. She had no real reaction, although she has brought it up a few times. In retrospect, that was a really sucky explanation of death. It's no wonder she did not understand.

A few days after the canary died I showed Lila a video of me shooting a Starling in our back yard. I got a new gun-cam and was testing it out. Starlings are an invasive species that are decimating the blue bird and flicker population in the US. It is legal to kill them whenever and however you please. They are not only not protected, you are encouraged to kill them. I kill one or two a day. I've literally killed hundreds from my bird feeder. You can watch the video below. I just got the camera, so it is not very good.

Lila knows that I like to shoot Starlings. Whenever I grab my air rife she asks me "Going to shoot a Starling?!?" I showed her the video hoping that she would be sobered. I thought that her seeing the bird eating, and then not moving would help her understand exactly what was going on. I was taken back by her response.

She laughed hysterically and wanted to see it again. My wife and I were a little shocked. I decided to close the laptop and just address the issue later. Lila had different plans

She grabbed her flashlight, told me it was a pretend gun, and started asking if she could shoot stuff. First she wanted to shoot her baby doll. When I told her that we only shot Starlings, not toys. She replied by wanting to shoot the doggies. Then her sister. Then her mommy. I have a morbid sense of humor and found this amusing at first, but then the seriousness of it sank in.

Lila truly had no concept of what happenes when you shoot something. She is very familiar with guns. While she is not allowed to even touch daddies guns, she does have a toy gun of her own. She is not allowed to play with it unsupervised. I set up a target range and use the toy gun to teach her gun safety. We shoot at targets and "hunt" stuffed animals.

I decided that I needed to use this as a teaching opportunity. So, I took her by the hand and walked her outside to the body of the starling. It was not gory, but there was a little blood. This was good, Lila understands blood. I explained to her very candidly that when you shoot something you hurt it and it dies. Like most toddlers she is obsessed with booboos, so she understood the hurt part well. I explained that when something dies it will never play and have fun again. It will never eat yummy food or see its mommy and daddy again. I tried hard to bring it down to her level while maintaining an accurate, sober description of death.

I explained that the only reason I killed this Starling was because it was an invasive species and was taking over the habitat of local wildlife. This, of course, when right over her head. I ended up just telling her that it was a bad bird that hurt other birds. Not 100% accurate, that individual Starling was not inherently "bad", but the Starling population as a whole is "bad" for the environment.

When we were done I asked if she still wanted to shoot her doggies. She said "No! No want to hurt them!" It started to sprinkle, so we went back inside.

To my annoyance, she immediately grabbed her flashlight and started shooting at a statue of a bird I have on our mantle. It was not a statue of a Starling. I reiterated that we only shoot Starlings, reminding her that Starlings were black birds with long yellow beaks and a short tail. One step at a time.....

Why did I go through the pain of explaining death to my two year old while standing over a dead, bloody bird? Because I want her to appreciate life. I am convinced that hunting, specifically killing, has made me love and respect animals more. I am caring and compassionate with my pets and local wildlife. I appreciate the meat I eat more now that I understand that a real, breathing, feeling animal died so I could have it. I appreciate life.

Hopefully, my daughters will someday do the same.

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