As I drove home from the grocery store with my two-and-half-year-old grandson, Bo, I notice the five-year-old neighbor down the street running after our car. Delighted to see one of the kiddos on the block, Bo screamed with delight, “Stevie! Stevie! Grammie, look, there’s Stevie.”
Now, I know most grandparents think their grandchildren are prodigies, and I’m no different. While Bo is still considered a toddler, he is way beyond his years in speech and critical thinking. Having a conversation with him is not only delightful but often awe-inspiring, for his little mind works in great detail. And, while his age group typically engages in parallel play (not fully interacting with the counterpart but playing independently while side-by-side), my grandson gets right into the action of the moment. So, to think he could hang with a boy a few years older made me proud.
As we parked the car, Stevie ran up with a large rock in his hands (this child is always carrying something interesting). Obviously delighted to see Bo, he waited anxiously for my little guy to get out. But what I thought would be your typical, Hi, Bo, let’s play. Do you want to collect rocks? turned out to be something entirely different.
“Hey, Bo! Want to help me kill a squirrel?”
Trying desperately not to overreact, I stated firmly, “No, Bo does not want to help you kill a squirrel.” Knowing this child always seemed a bit lost as he wandered the neighborhood alone, I wanted to delve deeper into his request once I got my innocent one out of earshot and into the house.
“Stevie,” I began on my return, my mind reeling but hoping not to sound intimidating or judgmental. “I need to understand why you want to kill a squirrel.”
“Well,” he said, firm in his conviction this was the right course of action, “one bit me, so I want to get it back.”
I’d never heard of a squirrel biting anyone unless it had rabies, so I told him, “You know, we shouldn’t get too close to them. We have to share our living space with all animals and let them have their privacy too.”
Still hefting the rock, he shrugged. “I tried to kill it first, but then it bit me. So I need to finish the job.”
Now worried this home-schooled child was witnessing violent behavior someplace, I found I was the one needing to get inside. This was not a boy I wanted my grandson associating with—unless heavily supervised by a hovering grandmother. But as I went inside, I thought this would be a good teaching moment for Bo.
Pulling my angel baby aside, I told him I wanted to talk about what Stevie suggested they do. While I feel Bo is highly advanced (remember, he is a genius), I don’t think he understands the concept of death. He knows we get upset if he hits someone, but how do broach the permanence of killing with a toddler? My own father at Bo’s age put a kitty in a suitcase, then threw it down a long flight of stairs. He thought he was giving the creature an exciting ride, but the poor animal died. Despite the fact he didn’t know better at two, my Dad’s actions would haunt him his entire life. I never wanted any child to live with that guilt.
Putting Bo onto my lap, I began to explain that, just like people, he was never to hurt any animal. The Buddhist thinking in me went so far as to say that included bugs, unless they were biting you in the moment. Though his precious blue eyes stared at me while I spoke, I could see the message wasn’t resonating. As soon as he could, he jumped off my lap to get a snack. Forlorn, I felt my schooling was all in vain and that, one day, he’d be persuaded to the dark side if I wasn’t there to oversee his playtime. Then I remembered how my father taught me.
It was that same man who killed a kitten in 1918 who constantly taught me to respect all forms of life. He didn’t drone on and on with words that drifted past my ears and into the ether, but rather he showed it every day in how he gently moved a worm that was in his way while shoveling, tenderly clipped roses off of the trellis by our front door, and lovingly patted the dog’s head when he came home bone tired and hungry from his long day. And, when it came to the human species, he was the first to show up with aid. I’ll never forget watching him jump into the ocean to save a drunk man from the swirling waves—and Dad didn’t know how to swim.
As a grandparent, I search for ways to do things better than I did with my own children. While we all know actions speak louder than words, in those days, I was all about words. My four kids fared well, to my surprise and despite my droning. But the chance to connect differently with my grandchildren is one I will not squander.
It may take a few years for the reality of life to truly hit for Bo—that all living things one day die and should do it in their own time, with no help from us. But what I can do in the meantime is teach him kindness and how to be gentle to all life by my example.
Rather than squish that bug making its way across the concrete, I will help my grandson find a way to put it out of harm’s way and back in a bush or tree. I’ll show, not tell, how to pet a dog or cat, but also how not to pester them when they need their space (squirrels too).
And, when it comes to flies and mosquitoes, I’ll just shoo them away to illustrate we can all live together, and in peace. (Wait, I take that back. I hate mosquitoes. An old woman can only go so far in teaching by example). In this message of love for all creatures, my goal will be to close my mouth and illustrate by example that all life is precious, and we must be the Earth’s good stewards, just as my father taught me.
We’ve all suffered these past few years of discord and hatred in our country, where our words seem to get us nowhere. Rather than fruitful conversations, it feels like all we do is yell at one another. Perhaps we need a different course of action to bring us together. Since we often act like children, despite the fact we’re adults and should know better, maybe if we lived by example and not rhetoric, change could be made. And, it all begins with one simple thing – kindness – the building block for a successful society, and life.