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How Do I Handle My 4 yr Old Son Killing Our Gerbil?

by Jared
(Puyallup WA)

My 7 year daughter purchased a pair of gerbils with money she had saved last week. We are a multi pet household and both of our children have been raised in this environment. Over the first week we developed a play system with the gerbils in which we allowed them for short periods to run free with us (The whole family) in my daughter's room away from the other animals. We laid down several rules pertaining to the gerbils safety specifically not being to active as not to accidentally step on one.

Yesterday we allowed the children to play with them unattended. While the thought of one of them getting accidentally squashed crossed my mind I thought it would be fine. My daughter had left the room for some reason leaving my son (4) alone with the gerbils. A short time later maybe 3-5 minutes, when she returned one of the gerbils was dead.

I assumed a tragic accident had happened, however when I went into the room it was apparent that this was no accident. I don't want to make it sound like some sort of mutilation because that is not the case but there was blood smears in about an 8 inch circle and the gerbil had blood coming out of its nose and ears. I then came back out to my son and took him to an isolated part of the house and questioned him. He told me that he pushed down too hard on the gerbil and blood came out. I questioned him about the amount of blood and he told me he dipped his finger in the gerbils ear and smeared it on the carpet. I am suspicious that the gerbil would hold still long enough to be pushed on without an initial swat.

My concerns are many fold. First is the obvious concern about my sons behavior and what it could mean. He is a very sweet and empathetic boy. He does however get aggressive with both the pets and people. He doesn't hit or bite but during play he sometimes clenches his teeth and pinches or squeezes too hard and I have seen him stomp on the dogs tails or paws. I have chalked this up to being a boy. When his mom asked him if he was trying to kill the gerbil he said yes, but when we asked if wanted the gerbil to be dead he said no. I was wondering if he has a disconnect there or if he is regretful that he has to deal with the questions?

I'm also concerned that as empathetic as he normally is, he doesn't seem very sad. I would like to believe this was a tragic mistake but I don't want to brush it under the rug. We have had talk about how sad and wrong this was and how he needs to act in the future. I also don't want to verbally badger him about it either. What I really need to know is should I just let it go and be vigilant or is there something to be gained by further questioning.

Comments for How Do I Handle My 4 yr Old Son Killing Our Gerbil?

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Does A Four Year Old Have A Conscience? - Part One
by: Annie Desantis

Hi Jarad,
What a distressing event for your family, it is really hard when a child does something that appears very cruel and heartless. However, horrible as it may seem, it is actually in keeping with your son's stage of development. In an older child this kind of behavior would be a red flag for serious concern, particularly if
the child came from a background of instability, distress and violence.

It is very clear your little boy is growing up in a very loving and supportive family, so I'll cover some of the developmental areas and how you can help.

Firstly, no-one saw exactly what happened and now the event is in the past so in terms of addressing the issue itself you will have done most of what can be done. Explaining to him why his actions were wrong is really the best way of
dealing with something like this. In terms of discipline or punishment - some people would be horrified to hear me say that would not help the situation at all.

Yes it would be good if he can do something to make amends to his sister - and it is better if he comes up with something himself as this is far more powerful in terms of developing his cognitive ability, and connecting the dots
between his actions and his sister's feelings.

A four year old is very much at the stage of developing empathy and a moral conscience - which is a long term development. We wish our children to develop a world or Universal conscience - to be responsible for taking care of our world and being morally responsible for cleaning up past transgressions - even collective hurts, such as cleaning up the planet, human rights activism
etc. But a four year old is a long way from that!

You said "I'm also concerned that as empathetic as he normally is, he doesn't seem very sad." He really won't even properly understand death and dying - it is around 7 that the concept of death hits home - so your daughter will be going through a very powerful lesson here. Energetically, the energy that was that little
gerbil is not dead, but the wee body certainly is. So his feelings will be far more self centered, in terms of I feel bad because everybody is angry with me, rather than feeling sad about the gerbil.

Part Two Follows . . .

Does A Four Year Old Have A Conscience? - Part Two
by: Annie Desantis

A four year old is only just beginning to develop the ability for moral reasoning: "if I do this, it will result in this, so is this a good thing to do?" (Lots of adults don't think things through either!) In the situation with the Gerbil, it is very unlikely that there was any moral reasoning happening. But it is also very
unlikely that he cold-bloodedly decided to whack the Gerbil to see what happened. He may have been chasing it, grabbed it too roughly, landed on it to catch it - who knows, but he was not very likely deliberately trying to hurt it - or kill it.

However curiosity does play a big part in his behavior. Particularly the playing with the blood. It sounds macabre - but it really isn't it is more: "ooh, where did this come from? can I squish out some more? It's wet and warm? Did I do this?" ... etc. Sound horrible to us adults, but to a little boy it is just acting in the moment.

So what develops moral reasoning? - firstly it is very tied up with empathy. And empathy is something gradually developed as a child sees from the reactions of those around him that someone is hurt, sad, angry etc. This is one of the issues with Autistic children, is this part of their development doesn't happen, they don't recognize how someone else feels, the visual or auditory cues are not retained. It sounds like your son does already have good empathy in lots of situations, so he is well on track there.

The reaction he would have seen in your faces, and his sister upset would have been all part of the deveopment for him in creating a conscience. He starts to see the connection between his behavior and how it affects those he loves.

Kids have a huge need not to loose that love and approval, and one of the ways we develop a conscience is actually through guilt. The unpleasant feelings of guilt actually help us to build the connections so that next time maybe an alarm bell goes off inside before implusive behavior happens. It takes time though. And kids that get severaly punished for actions, don't actually develop a very good moral reasoning ability. They can actually become more aggressive and resentful or or overly fearful.

Part Three Follows . . .

Does A Four Year Old Have A Conscience? - Part Three
by: Annie Desantis

One of the reason kids do sometimes hurt animals - or other children, is because they get a reaction and realizing they are the cause of that reaction is quite exciting. Having power over something else is quite intoxicating to a little
child - whom everyone else bosses around. So you might want to think about if he is feeling powerless or angry - if anything has happened in his life that might be contributing to this.

For example, sometimes a major event, like moving house, a new baby arriving, starting pre-school - can be a little more than a small child is equipped to rationally understand. So when they are still learning to control and express feelings appropriately, it can be overwhelming when their life is giving them so many new experiences that trigger strong feelings.

We also have a tendency to squash our children's angry or upset feelings. If kids are not given ways to let it out safely, then they will express their anger and aggression to those perceived as less powerful. Kicking the cat, biting etc. From
the way you describe your son, I get the impression there is rage and anger in him that he does not know what to do with. Learning to let that out in more acceptable ways than pushing someone, or hurting an animal is important.

Kids often don't see us express our anger - except when we yell at them. Adults have usually learned to suppress their anger which is not a good thing either. Yes we want to control it so we don't hurt people, animals or things, but neither do we want to suppress it so we end up with rage seething away under the surface, or for physical symptoms to start manifesting.

You can teach your son to do things like whack a cushion or pile of newspapers with a bat - or roll up a newspaper tightly and tape it. It makes a very satisfying thwack when hit down on something! Or go outside and YELL very loudly.

Helping them to put words to their feelings - when you see him clench his teeth or fists, then acknowledge his feelings - are you feeling really mad right now?

That helps him to recognize how he feels and start to think about it. Then help him to say how he feels and why. Are you cross because she won't give you a turn with the truck?" It's so hard having to wait your turn isn't it?

Part Four Follows . . .

Does A Four Year Old Have A Conscience? - Part Four
by: Annie Desantis

A four year is talking nineteen to the dozen, but their vocabulary is expanding all the time. Being able to say why he did whatever he did to the Gerbil, is probably beyond his cognitive ability.

By the time you talked to him, he was most likely in self preservation mode - he would have seen the shocked reactions, probably been yelled at by his sister - maybe his parents - he would be starting to recognize he did something wrong - but may not quite know what that was. And he would likely be wanting to minimize any unpleasant outcome for himself. So the chances are he would be trying to give you a response that would be less likely to result in more disapproval. Kids can come up with all sorts of stories to explain an impulsive situation. (and then we think they are lying - but that is another whole issue!).

I would doubt he really could explain fully what happened. His explanation of l pushed down too hard and blood came out, was actually pretty accurate. We know there was more detail, but that is about as much as he can articulate and cognitively understand. So it's great that he drew the connection between pushing down too hard and the blood. I would think after this whole event, he will have developed more connections about cause and effect. A shame it was such a tragic event for you all.

So when you wondered if he had a disconnect - to some extent yes! But that is normal in terms of what he is learning. And yes, he will be finding it hard to deal with the questions!

You are totally doing the right things in terms of explaining how his behavior resulted in the tragedy, and yes, I would make sure he is supervised with animals for a fair while yet. But make sure you are building his care taking skills
and being gentle, not in terms of you can't be trusted with animals so we have to keep an eye on you. You want to be reinforcing it when he handles animals gently, and when he looks after animals needs, such as feeding and brushing.
Explaining how animals need us to look after them and take care of them etc. I know it must have been an awful shock, but he will grow beyond this stage as he matures and learns to control his impulsive actions. It is a fine balance sometimes between curbing a child's excited enthusiasm or exploring their power in safe ways, but not squashing them or making them feel they are a
terrible child.

Part Five Follows . . .

Does A Four Year Old Have A Conscience? - Part Five
by: Annie Desantis

Clearly you have a very loving family and are wonderful parents, so I have no concerns that your little boy is going to be a problem adult! There will need to be some healing of the relationship with your daughter and son, and maybe your daughter may feel she did not get enough support in keeping her precious pets safe.

You have probably dealt with disposing of the wee gerbil, but for the sake of other parents reading this later, having some sort of ritual and funeral to say good bye is a good way of helping her to deal with the death, and at the same time helps your four year old to gather some information about what death means, and that the gerbil is gone.

If you have not already done so, I would actually recommend that if you are getting a replacement gerbil, don't get one that looks the same. Get a totally different one, so your son doesn't just think, "oh, he is back again, no problem". Have him included in the whole process of going to buy it if possible.

You are right, in that you don't want to keep on about it, but also, don't pretend it didn't happen. You can still have conversations about the death of the Gerbil, but in terms of the learning from it - so reinforcing that "now you have learned that you have to be really careful with animals . . . . rather than, when you killed the gerbil"! If his sister doesn't want him to play with the gerbils, then you can explain why she is concerned. And talk with them both about how can he earn her trust back, does she need someone with him, or maybe she just is not ready yet etc.

Although events like this in a family are distressing and unpleasant, there is actually a lot of really good learning opportunities in it! Having to deal with powerful feelings and reactions are wonderful opportunities for your children (and you both!) to learn all sort of things ranging from dealing with grief, moral development, expressing feelings. Working our way through family dynamics is the building blocks for them when they become adults!

Thank you for sending in this question, it is a tough one, and I know many other parents will learn a lot from your situation.

Wishing you JOY with your children, they are lucky they have such a loving home.
Annie D:)

Thanks
by: Jared

Thank you very much for the detailed advice.
We have already done many of the things you recommended and we intend to follow through with specifically the alternative anger outlet advice. Both my wife and I have found comfort in your response and this website has been a great resource in the process of dealing with this incident.
Thanks Again, Jared

Thanks from Grandma
by: Dianne

Thank you for your comforting and informative advice. Jared and Mandy are incredible, loving parents and I know this was weighing heavily on them both.

Lovely To Hear Back
by: Annie Desantis

Thanks for commenting back (and Grandma too!). I love hearing back from parents - I may be totally off the mark sometimes and not know!

Lovely to get the affirmation from Diane as well that you guys are fantastic parents. It certainly was very clear to me that you have a wonderful loving home and doing a great job as parents,

keep it up!

Annie D:)

Worried
by: Anonymous

I would like to ask about the current level of exposure the child has to programming, and or reading, story telling, communication and reasoning. As the mother of two, a nurse, an aunt to many nieces and nephews, I have never seen or heard of such a thing.

Not to be an alarmist but there is always a degree of apprehension and temerity with something small, furry, that moves quickly, and has the ability to sniff and explore. Usually after some familiarity occurs there is an innate tenderness, to something warm and breathing that seems almost instinctual as to the exercise of caution to the sensation of fragility, that is certainly different from an inanimate object.

Does the child exhibit tenderness to any stuffed toy or other comfort like a special blanket or pillow, does he cuddle with parents or other family member. Has the gritting teeth etc. come to pass recently? I would also ask is he damaging anything inanimate, does he strike out at the parents or any other older children?

Frankly, I am worried, a level above concern as my measuring system - with very worried and high level requiring professional intervention. I am not a child psychologist but an R.N who over the years has worked in every area of health care from Labor and Delivery, to long term care, and in an OB-GYN office where we dealt with sibling rivalry, quite often, and in my experience have not had this occur although I am aware of comparisons in media etc.

I would avoid one on one contact with any child or animal over which he might assert himself for his safety as well, as even a family pet will reach a level of resentment/retaliation (I'm sure these are projected word-feelings).

Please maintain your vigilance... I wish you well!

Reply to Worried
by: Annie Desantis

Dear Worried,
Thank you for your concern and comments. The parents of this child are clearly concerned too, or they would not have contacted me for advice, particularly in a public forum such as this.

As a parenting professional of many years, I have to say I have often heard of incidences where a child was cruel or hurtful to animals. In many of these cases the family was somewhat dysfunctional - the child was exposed to a lot of violence, parenting inconsistent and uncaring, and little education or pro-active management of family issues.

This family clearly are very close and loving, and spoke of the boy being sweet and empathetic most of the time. I do not believe this family as dysfunctional or remiss in their dealing with this situation.

If the child had been older, to the point where I would expect him to developmentally be past this stage, then yes I would have been concerned that there was a bigger issue that needed medical intervention. Autistic children can have difficulty with empathy development, and do not learn the cues from parents, such as disapproval, or anger, that would assist the development of morality. There are other conditions also.

This little boy is only four. I am very sure the parents will be paying close attention to his interaction with animals, and clearly they are very willing to learn ways to help him express his anger appropriately. It is not unusual for a preschooler to hurt animals, even sometimes intentionally.

You may like to read this short article by David Elkind is Professor Emeritus of Child Development at Tufts University:
Are Young Children Cruel?

Whilst this has been a horrible event, I believe the family has and is dealing with the effects in a responsible and loving way. I think this boy will develop a normal healthy conscience and be able to discern right from wrong as he moves through the normal developmental stages. I suspect this event will have contributed greatly to this, though in a shocking way.

Thank you for your comments, it certainly is a tough issue.

You Are Not Alone
by: Grace

Dear Jared,
I know exactly what you are going through, ten years ago my five year old son killed our Guinea Pig.

We were horrified, shocked and had no idea how to handle it. He was a fairly quiet boy, was not very outgoing socially as a young boy, and yes, like your son, we had caught him from time to time teasing the dog in a way that was cruel.

I think the worried nurse is over reacting and asking about things like reading and programing makes it sound like you are conditioning your son to be violent. You don't sound like that sort of family to me.

Our family was not either, we didn't even let the kids watch TV. The incident happened when he was in the room on his own, and in hindsight maybe we expected too much in terms of his understanding how vulnerable little pets can be. Earlier in the week both boys had been playing a game with cushions throwing them on each other and jumping. It appears that is what he did to the Guinea Pig. When questioned, and I have to say we did not handle it very well - he just appeared confused.

I truly believe he was just playing and did not realize the impact of his behavior in advance. I also think our reactions actually traumatised him to some extent. We made a huge deal out of it. I think you are handling it much more sensibly.

Just to let you know, he has grown into a caring teenager, and takes great care of our animals, and has a very good idea of what is right and wrong. I'm sure your son will too.

Just had the same thing happen.
by: Amanda

I just had my 4 year old little girl kill my 7 year old's gerbil. I am so upset. We have had her for almost 3 years. She has held and played with it for just about as long as she has been able to walk. I am concerned that she is acting like it was no big deal. We don't know exactly what happened. But I just don't know how to let her know that what she did was not ok and not keep hounding her about it. I am just so worried about it..

We felt the same way!
by: Mandy

Amanda we felt the same way! It has been several months since our son killed the gerbil and he seems perfectly fine. He has done nothing like it again and even mentions the incident with remorse. I know it seems so awful now, but time will tell that it was just an unfortunate accident.

Relieved
by: Concerned also

I am grateful to have found this forum. Today my 4 yr old killed my 7 yr olds guinea pig. At first she didn't tell us but when I asked her what happened after finding the guinea pig she said she tried to take it out and squeezed it and it went to bed. I was so scared that she killed our pet and didn't seem to realize the severity.

I explained to her that it was now gone forever and when my older daughter started crying my younger daughter started balling and saying sorry and hugging her older sister. I was relieved that she finally showed some emotion and remorse but still concerned until reading this that it was possibly malicious. Thanks for letting us know that things like this happen.

This Site Was Very Helpful
by: Anonymous

Last night our 4 year old killed one of our chickens. He was playing in the yard. I was working in the kitchen. I could see him hiding in his play set - just assumed he was playing. Could not see that he had one of the chickens inside his jacket.

Obviously it suffocated. My husband and I did not react appropriately. We were mortified and angry.

We now realize that was wrong now that we've calmed down. He is definitely not a malicious child. He teases the animals sometimes but nothing violent. I truly believe he thought he was keeping her warm.

Since then he has said it was an accident and he didn't mean to hurt her. We explained she's in heaven with God and he asked if God could give her back "not dead". We feel physically sick over this. I can't even eat.

This website helped a lot. Thank you!

Helps To Know You Are Not Alone
by: Annie Desantis

Thank you to other parents who have shared their experiences of such a traumatic event.

Hard lessons all round, for us as parents to protect our pets and not to assume our little ones can understand their play or actions might be harmful.

And very hard not to react with horror, it is horrible and very distressing. A very hard way for a child to learn about death and the consequences of their actions.

In western cultures we don't talk about death, most children don't have much experience of it, and even then it is very sanitized, children seldom see a dead grandparent - their food is purchased from the supermarket, unless they live on a farm they don't see animals being killed for food.

But they need to learn death is a part of life, and learning that our role is to take care of living things gently and with love.

Thank you,
Annie D :)

4 year old daughter accidently killed guinea pig
by: Anonymous

This thread had been so amazingly helpful.
Today our daughter was playing with her guinea pig in her room and put it in her closet to play then slammed the door...killing it. It was aweful.
She finally came clean and told us the truth, that she had gotten angry with it and put it in the closet.

This thread has helped my husband and I understand how to deal with what has happened and to move on.

Its been a horribly hard lesson for us all to learn, especially as like many parents, our daughter is very empathetic and kind, so this was a shock.

Thanks to you all for sharing.

Thank You
by: Anonymous

Good Info

Thank you all
by: Anonymous

Today my 3 1/2 year old killed our guinea pig. Like every post on here - I felt horrified, angry and devastated. Thank you all for sharing your stories and helping me realize that my lil guy isn't alone in just making a young child's mistake. He was chasing his twin sister with him and threw him...when he died, he put him back in his cage. We know we left them too long without direct supervision - I was literally on the other side of the window staining a deck.

Annie's reply
Thanks for sharing your story too, it is such a horrible thing for parents to have to deal with, as well as the child.

He seemed more upset that we were angry while his twin sister seemed to grasp 'death' more clearly and was more upset about the guinea pig. These posts helped me realize he is too young to grasp the situation and to understand that he didn't do it out of cruelty or maliciousness. It is not the first time I have heard of this happening with young children, and we have all learned a tough lesson about animals and parenting.

Peace to all your sad hearts, know how you feel.

4yr old killed 2 chickens
by: Anonymous

Well my situation might be a tad bit different. My just turned 4yr old drowned 2 of our baby chickens today. The fact that there were 2 is what upsets me the most. As if he killed one, and went back and did another.

When my 10yr old was frantically searching for our missing 2 chickens, I asked him where are they, as he was last to be seen playing w/ them partially supervised in the yard while my husband was working in the garage. His response while being yelled at was, " I killed them."

Seems to me like it's beyond curiosity. I'm really nervous and upset about this. And with reading previous comments, he is my un-cuddly child. Advice please!


RE Chickens
by: Annie Desantis

Hi,

This is a hard one, since it does seem like he was aware he was killing them. But you did say he had just turned four, so again, he is at the stage of learning about empathy and making moral decisions.

Kids are exposed to all kinds of "killing" in movies and TV and killing can seem "normal" and not a big deal. You might want to think about what kind of exposure he has had - being a younger child he more than likely sees more from things his older siblings watch.

You say he is your un-cuddly child. Are there any other behaviors that seem odd or suggest a lack of empathy or bonding? Is he often inappropriate in his behavior?

I don't like to suggest any kind of developmental issue in a child this young, but if you are concerned he is display a range of unusual behaviors then check out a bit more.

It would be worth talking to his pre-school teachers and see if his socialization is fairly typical or if they have noticed any extreme inappropriate responses or behavior.

Certainly something like this is a huge learning curve for a family - both him and you! Hopefully with your responses and talking about it, he will gain understanding that killing something is not OK. Though that can be a grey area - we kill meat to eat, we squish snails and ants. Learning about those kind of boundaries is not black and white.

Good luck dealing with it all. The bottom line is you love him, but you might not like his behavior one little bit.

Annie D :)

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