In Parenting

Educating Children About Cruelty

As children grow up, they often see parental guidance merely as a set list of rules and limitations that demarcate certain things and behaviors as off-limit.  How exactly does a parent describe and define cruelty to a child so that, rather than seeing it only as another rule, the child understands the harmful consequences of cruelty to others and themselves?

How can I teach my child to avoid cruelty?

Cruelty is getting some feeling of satisfaction out of others’ pain, giving the abuser the desire to do it again and again. When children are merely indifferent toward the pain of others, it is important to teach them the value of empathy. Children need to understand that others have feelings and experiences, just like they do, and that they are just as important as their own.

This is difficult for children, especially because they typically do not develop a Theory of Mind until they are three or four years old. Developing a Theory of Mind means understanding that there are minds in the world apart from your own, and that this is what informs other people’s behaviors.


Understanding the Theory of Mind

According to his research, Simon Baron-Cohen described Theory of Mind as, “being able to infer the full range of mental state (beliefs, desires, intentions, imaginations, emotions, etc.) that cause action”. Researchers test this by having a child and another person or a puppet watch as the researcher hides something somewhere and ask the child if the other person knows where the hidden object is. Then the other person or puppet leaves the room, and the object is hidden in another place. Then, researchers ask the child if the other person knows where the hidden object is. Children without Theory of Mind, the ability to put themselves in another perspective, will assume that ‘yes’ they do know, simply because the child does and cannot differentiate minds. Even if your child does have the signs of a Theory of Mind, this empathy game is successful at rationalizing empathy for a young child.

If your child is under the age of four and does not understand empathy, it could simply mean that their understanding of reality is developing a little slower than most children’s. However, to kid’s with a Theory of Mind understanding intact, this ignorance of the other turns into cruelty: a willful neglect of the feelings of others. They know if they can ignore the other person’s feelings, they can do what they have to in order to get what they want.

Cruelty at School

In fact, cruelty takes on social terms from fourth to ninth grade, where instead of stealing toys, boys and girls try to hurt the self-esteem or social status of others to make themselves feel better, cruelty and social aggression can become a form of satisfaction and control to the bully, without he or she ever having to be physical. Kirk Lorie, a teacher, describes the pervasiveness of this type of action at his school:

“Despite posters and reminders to be nice, the bullying is not so much physical, but more verbal abuse: name-calling and relentless taunting targeted at anyone different–smaller, smarter, less athletic.” Here, it’s evident, the ‘normal’ kids use words to demean the social value of others for their own pleasure and social status.

As a parent, you should see this types of subtle or not-physical social aggression in the same as if your child was acting physically cruel. They are the same cruel intentions. Emotionally cruel children will grow up to become adults with abusive tendencies for their partners and children, and commit the same cruelty on a larger scale.

Why do children resort to cruelty?

In some cases, the instances of cruelty can be evidence for terrible events in a child’s past and future. Children who have been abused by a parent or adult in a severely traumatic way will often act out the same cruelty to another being less powerful than him or herself. This often leads to cruelty to animals. Cruelty to animals at a young age is often much worse than a curiosity, and is often an indication for future aggression and violence. According to Animal Law, some of the worst mass murderers all first committed horrific acts of animal cruelty before ever committing any type of violence toward a human being. However, it’s not only serial killers who demonstrate the cruelty at a young age. Instead, statistics show that cruelty towards animals directly correlates to violence towards people. As reported by Animal Law Info:

  • 100 percent of sexual homicide offenders examined had a history of cruelty towards animals
  • 70 percent of all animal abusers have committed at least one other criminal offense and almost 40 percent of those have been violence against people
  • 63.3 percent of men had committed crimes of aggression admitted to cruelty to animals
  • 48 percent of rapists and 30 percent of child molesters reported committing animal abuse during their childhood or adolescence
  • 36 percent of assaultive women reported cruelty to animals while 0 percent of non-assaultive women did
  • 25 percent of violent incarcerated men reported higher rates of “substantial cruelty to animals” in childhood than a comparison group of non-incarcerated men (0 percent)

As an adult encountering these cases of young children committing animal cruelty, do not demonize the child for their wrongdoing. Instead, because childhood cruelty can be caused by abusive parents, try to have them explain to you why he or she wanted to commit such cruelty to harmless animals. Here, you can get at the root of the problem and encourage empathy for living things, instead of only giving them another rule to follow.

Your Role as a Parent

As a parent, how do you counteract these all-too-prevalent cruel behaviors your child is subjected to when he or she goes to school? Researchers say the key is to highlight the positive, not the negative, by always demonstrating empathy and kindness. Dr. Robert Brooks, a psychologist at Harvard Medical school asked the question, “How do we create an environment that reduces bullying?” and goes on to answer, “It’s better to be proactive than reactive. From the time children are born, parents need to model empathy and kindness”.

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