By Ambuja Rosenphoto by Josh Hawkins Mom Debbie Brubaker helps son Liam, 1, get to know Oblina, 4 months.
"I don't want to do what he says. I don't like him."
Two years ago, Sally Grenz often heard such remarks from her kindergartners at Robert Healy Elementary School in Chicago. In the past year, though, she says, "I haven't heard these same students argue this way at all. They're treating other people with more respect."
Her students-who have now finished first grade-also seem to be more giving toward others. "This past Christmas, in our letter-writing, they've been looking more for ways to help other people, instead of the usual, ‘I want this present and that present.'"
Did something change Grenz's students, or did they just grow up a little? "I don't think it's because they're older," Grenz says. "I've visited some other Healy classes and seen the kids arguing like mine used to." She believes her children changed mainly because for the past two years she's given them regular lessons in treating animals, people and the environment with respect. "It's the only new thing I've added to my curriculum in two years."
Every month, she gives each student a copy of KIND (Kids in Nature's Defense) News, published by the Humane Society of the United States. The class reads it together and discusses it. After reading a story about endangered species, for example, they talked about why people need to care for all animals but should try especially hard to save the endangered ones. "Other stories talk about how, by encroaching on animals' habitat, we're taking some of their food away," Grenz explains.
She empowers the children by offering them solutions. "For example, when they become adults, they can keep their backyards green instead of covered with cement, and they can encourage cities like Chicago to have more parks."
KIND News also teaches children about careers to pursue if they want to help animals. Once a year, someone from the local animal shelter comes to teach students how to care properly for pets.
If we want kids to be kinder, why not just teach them to treat people well? Why talk about animals?
"Animals are such an integral part of our lives that if we don't teach children to be empathic with animals, they quickly lose some of their empathy for people," says Dr. Steve Gross, a Chicago psychologist who was a family therapist for 28 years. "For example, from studies on moral development, we know that kids who sympathize with animals seem much more able to resolve problems non-violently than kids who don't."
On the other hand, some studies indicate that kids who are cruel to animals have a much higher probability of becoming violent toward people. "Every serial killer started out by being cruel to animals."
Not everyone who is cruel to animals turns out to be a serial killer, but when children are taught to be kind to animals, they learn not to be fearful of differences, Gross adds. "Most kids normally don't learn that. They think, ‘If he's Lutheran and I'm not, he's not good. He's not one of us.'"
When kids learn about being kind to animals, they think, "You have feathers. You're different from me, and I'm learning not to be afraid of you. So I won't be afraid of a Lutheran either," he says.
Gross has visited about 70 schools, mainly in Chicago, to teach students to behave more compassionately toward animals. He started doing this volunteer work after his 12-year-old son suddenly decided to stop eating meat. "My son told me and my wife that eating animals was not right," he says. Gross started questioning his own moral values, and researched how cows, pigs, chickens and other animals are treated on farms.
"I felt that, as a religious person, it was my duty to help ease the suffering of these animals," he says.
Soon teachers were inviting him to speak to their classes. To students 11 and under, Gross talks about what kindness looks like. For example, if the children see a stray cat, what should they do? To older students, he says, "What do you think farmed animals should have in order for them to be treated well?" Then he describes how the vast majority of these animals are treated.
For example, he shows students a replica of the type of cage that 90 percent of egg hens live in. The cage contains pretend hens, packed together as tightly as they are on farms. "Do you think this is right?" Gross asks.
He encourages students to think about the choices they make each day. "I encourage them to ask themselves, ‘Is what I'm doing good for other living beings?'" Some of the students have decided, for example, to start buying eggs from hens who run freely on pastures.
Gross says, "The older students have been thankful to find out how most farmed animals are treated. It was surprising to them. During the days following my presentations to the younger students, some boys surprised their teachers by actually being willing to talk about kindness. Most kids, particularly boys, won't talk like that-they don't want to be ‘wimpy.' But these boys saw being kind as a sign of strength."
If you want to schedule someone to visit your child's school or youth group, contact Gross, (815) 334-9442, or the International Institute for Humane Education, P.O. Box 260, Surry, Maine, 04684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
What parents can do
Dr. Steve Gross, a Chicago psychologist, and Sally Grenz, a kindergarten teacher at Robert Healy Elementary School, offer these suggestions to parents to help them teach animal compassion to children.
• While you supervise, have the child show a younger sibling how to feed and groom the pets, and how to keep track of when the animals need to go to the vet.
• Ask children what they're learning. If a child has to dissect animals in biology but doesn't want to because he feels it's wrong, tell him and the school about the Illinois law that requires teachers to provide alternatives.
• Offer to read a humane-themed story to your child's class. Or show a video and lead a discussion about it.Ambuja Rosen is an award-winning journalist in Ashland, Oregon.