When I was about 9 years old, I walked down to the Crosby Nature Preserve with four or five other boys to look for snakes. Like many kids, I was fascinated by animals. I found myself daydreaming in school about birds, and remember begging my parents to get one, of course, in addition to a dog, a cat, a ferret, and heaven knows what else. Young people seem to have a natural affinity for animals, and I was no exception.
As we approached the water, one boy snatched a small garter snake from the shoreline before we walked out onto the dock.
What happened next has haunted me for decades.
Holding the snake by the tail, he began snapping his wrist as you would snap somebody in the butt with a towel in the locker room. I stood there in horror, silently begging the boy to stop, too timid to speak up. It wasn’t long before blood started oozing from the snake’s head, which thrilled the boys to no end. If you’ve ever been a young boy, you know that the last thing in the world you want is for people to see you cry, especially other boys.
But I couldn’t hold them back. The tears flowed as I looked away and stood back, too afraid to speak up.
The boy callously tossed the dying snake into the lake after his fun was over, as someone might flip a twig into the water without a second thought. On we went.
I cried inside the whole way home.
I don’t know when I vowed to never stay silent in the face of animal abuse. But that day remains etched in my memory, a prime reminder that we will regret our silence one day. And sometimes it will haunt us for the rest of our lives.
It’s hard to fault young kids for not knowing how to handle situations like that. Heck, it can be hard to know what to do as an adult when a situation takes us by surprise! But we can teach our kids by example — by speaking up when we see someone taking advantage of others or hurting animals. The more they see us handling situations head-on with firm, yet calm resolve, the better chance they’ll learn to do the same.
It’s not always easy confronting cruelty, but the benefits go beyond helping the immediate situation at hand. A kid who learns to speak up for others also learns to speak up for himself. At the same time, the practice can help cement the values we work to teach our children, because while conversations and concepts are often where we introduce values, putting them into action wears a deeper groove and begins to weave them into the fabric of our child’s character. That’s one reason the We’re All Animals series is so powerful; each card tells a story designed to help children think critically about a particular value, but then encourages them to apply that lesson in the real world with daily challenges.