Thursday, June 17, 2010

My Daughter the Monkey-Eater

"I want a rubber band, Daddy," says my almost four year old daughter.


"For my monkeys."

"Why do you need a rubber band for your monkeys?"

"Because I'm going to kill them."

Calm down. Deep breath. Aaaaaand, overreaction!

"We don't pretend to kill animals," I say, knowing full well that we do, indeed, pretend to kill animals. I pretended to kill animals (mostly humans) all the time when I was a kid. It's what kids do.

Did you have a cap gun growing up? Did you pretend to have shoot-outs with your siblings and/or friends? It's make-believe. It's dragon slaying. It's, "I'm Luke Skywaker and you're Darth Vader." It's (not necessarily, but often) a developmentally appropriate part of childhood.

Kids explore taboos, danger and the idea of good vs. evil through make-believe. It's an important way they process the unfamiliar things that they see and hear.

A couple weeks ago, Anna went on a boat ride. Before the boat ride, two of her uncles were fishing. She asked on the way home what they were doing on the boat when we weren't there, so we told her. I get the feeling that her knowledge that these two uncles she loves were out trying to kill fish before they took her on the best boat ride of her life has something to do with her recent pretending to not be vegan. It's a safe, harmless way for her to process the idea of killing animals to eat them.

As an aside, I realize that many vegans probably think that killing animals isn't an idea that kids should have to process. We oppose it, so why should we allow kids to pretend to do it? Well, I think we should for the same reason that we should let them play cops and robbers; for the same reason there's no harm in them picking up a stick and battling a tree that they're pretending is a mean person or a monster. Kids need to learn the difference between make-believe and reality, and they need to process all that they see. They're either going to internalize everything or they're going to express it. I think expressing it (in a way that doesn't hurt anyone) is the healthy way to go.

All of this was running through my head after I said we don't pretend to kill animals. And I decided that she can, indeed, pretend to kill animals. You'd think I would have been prepared for this, since Jen went through this same scenario with Anna about a week ago and we talked about it and said that it was OK. But when your daughter says to your face, in that cute little voice of hers, that she wants to kill monkeys, well, I think I'm allowed an overreaction here and there.

A few minutes later we sit down to the dinner table and Anna pulls out the pretend food. I get an orange with ketchup, Jen gets a lemon with ketchup, and Anna gets a barrel of monkeys (no ketchup). She startes tying them up, one after the other, with a rubber band and then never really pretends to eat them, but says she's eating them.

"So, what's the deal with the rubber band? What are you doing to them?

"I'm tying it up," she says.

"It?" I say, "Don't you mean her? Or maybe him?"

"Her. She's a big sister! She has a little brother."

"How do you think her little brother will feel about you eating his big sister?"

"I'm going to eat him too! I'm going to eat all of them!"

Jen and I just laugh. I try to say something about the monkeys' cousins in the next town, but it's a lost cause.

"We don't actually eat monkeys though, right?" I have to check. Just to make sure.

"I know. I'm just pretending," she says with that little shoulder shrug and slight pursing of the lips that says, "Chill out Dad. This isn't a big deal."

The other day she "prepared" a veggie burger for her, Liam and me. Mine and Liam's were both vegan with vegan sour cream, but hers had non-vegan sour cream on it.

There's a book that I own, but haven't read yet, called Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, And Make-Believe Violence. It will be next on my reading list.

I think we're just going to roll with all this stuff for now (as if we have a choice). It's either that, or kill make-believe. And we don't want to kill make-believe.


miss mpls said...

Oh wow. I am glad you're going through this before I am. I'm totally going to steal all your ideas on how to deal with this stuff. Big stuff for such a little kid!

Lisa is Vegan on $10 a Day (or Less!) said...

"kids say the darndest things" ... nice post ... yeah, i think kids like to try things on for size sometimes ... we don't have to "go ape" every time they do :)

Jeni Treehugger said...

"I'm going to eat him too! I'm going to eat all of them!"

Made me laugh so much.

Anne said...

Zach is a prime example of kids fascination with good vs. evil... bad guy vs. good guy. Agree it is completely normal way of processing new ideas and information. Also, I think toddlers/preschoolers are prone to creating dramatic situations... maybe to explore their own emotions? Or test ours?

Al said...

Mindy, you're welcome.

Lisa, your blog is awesome.

Jeni, you're welcome.

Anne, I think that the good vs. evil paradigm is horribly reductionist and doesn't take into account the fact that real people are behind real actions and no one really thinks they're doing evil things. But that said, kids glom on to the simplicity of it all, and I think that for the most part we just have to roll with it. Teach them gradually, as they get older, about context, motive, intention.

The best stories (conveyed by books, movies, TV shows, plays, etc.) are the ones that explore these complexities of conflict. This is why I think that Horton Hears a Who is amazing. It's ambiguous. It doesn't slam you with a message. There are multiple themes floating around in the movie. At times, you can identify with Kangaroo, even though she's the antagonist.

Anonymous said...

I just stumbled on to your blog and was so pleased to see this topic. My husband fishes and is a full blown carnivore, I am a long time veg trying to go vegan and we are raising our four year old daughter as a vegetarian. She has mentioned lately that when she grows up, she is going to not be vegetarian. Deep breath, indeed! I look forward to your future posts and your children are simply lovely.