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I have a just under 3-year-old girl. We spend a lot of time outside exploring nature. Often I'll pick up a bug and after she agrees to be gentle with it, I'll give it to her. She'll play with it for awhile and then with a grimace she'll intentionally squish it. Then she'll look guilty. I'll ask her if she's good and she says yes; then I'll ask her if squishing the bug was good and she'll say no.

Should I be worried about this behavior? She is otherwise very empathetic. What can I do to discourage it?

  • Doesn't she get rough with other sorts of things/toys after she explored them enough? Like throwing blocks around after building and demolishing a tower a few times? I think this is normal behavior for that age and will go away over time with your support. – JimmyB Jun 7 '17 at 12:58
  • Man, are you guys serious. I love squashing and hate bugs. My hsabnd thinks I am a horrible person, but he is indeed more warm.and fuzzy than me. I am a doctor, I do not squash my patients. – Angie Jun 9 '17 at 4:29
  • @Angie I particularly appreciate the "I do not squash my patients" – frarugi87 Jun 15 '17 at 10:18
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Should I be worried about this behavior?

Not with bugs no. This in itself is the behaviour of a lot of us, including kids. I myself hate bugs. I have some irrational fear of them and will squash them.

My seven year old seemed pleased with himself the other day when he washed a spider down the drain. When asked why, he didn't know. This is because he couldn't empathise with a bug and let's be honest, it is difficult to do so. Instead he took the approach that he managed to handle a situation without being scared and I guess that's why he was pleased. I would only start to worry when they intentionally harm other living things such as vertebrates. These you can empathise with as they will often give feedback when in distress.

She is otherwise very empathetic. What can I do to discourage it?

By being familiar with the bugs they would be less inclined to squish them. As already mentioned, this is probably a phase and they will grow out of it. Maybe it's just a moment of panic in which they are creeped out and just stamp out of instinct. If it is, probably nothing to worry about.

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    I find it rather fun that you talk about hating bugs when your name is, well, Bugs. – Becuzz Jun 5 '17 at 13:14
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    I don't have the sources right now, but evolutionarily speaking, we are wired to hate and squash bugs on sight. Many of them are troublesome to humans in one way or another, like biting, spoiling food and getting into external body cavities. Not to mention some that are actually poisonous. – learner101 Jun 5 '17 at 13:47
  • @learner101 that would be interesting to go over. I mean generally here in the UK most bugs aren't that bad but I can't help but cringe when I see them. I'm just a big wimp really. As a kid however I never worried, it's just as I've got older. – anon Jun 5 '17 at 13:50
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    @Bugs You're wise to avoid them, as you'll realize some day if you come to Australia! Here are some sources I found with some shallow research on google : newscientist.com/article/… This in turn cites global.oup.com/academic/product/… – learner101 Jun 5 '17 at 13:58
  • Thanks @learner101 I'll have a look over. It's actually one of the reasons why I won't move from the UK! I dislike bugs, I detest monster bugs! – anon Jun 5 '17 at 13:59
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Should you be worried? I don't think so, especially if she's empathetic in other situations.

Empathy for squishable things is tough at that age, because squishing feels good, and having power over something - the power of life and death, in this case, even if she doesn't fully comprehend death and it's finality - is fascinating to a preschooler.

As adults, an insect's suffering and death is much more meaningful because we understand it. She really doesn't.

That doesn't mean you should not attempt to change her behavior, though. I would. Here are a few ideas:

Make sure she has a rich emotional and physical vocabulary. Ask her what she thinks the insect felt when she did that. Ask her what she felt when she squished it. Ask her what she thinks you felt when she squished it. Ask her what she thinks you felt when she agreed to be gentle with the insect but was not. The first step to recognizing emotions is to have a name for them.* (Don't add a value judgement to her words, though. You want to understand her thinking, not to make her feel bad, and besides, if she knows you don't approve of something, she's less likely to be truthful about it, preferring to give you the answer she thinks you want.)

Stop giving her insects to play with. If she asks for it, remind her that she hurt the insect the last time you gave one to her. Model the behavior you want her to emulate: gentle handling and setting the insect free.

Ask her what kind of adventures the insect in your hand is going to have. Maybe make some up. That might help her to relinquish the idea of squishing it to death.

Read stories with insects as the main characters. If you can't find many (which would be surprising), make some up. Anthropomorphizing insects might give her more empathy for them.

Give her a caterpillar to raise. It's easy, fun, short, and exciting to see a butterfly emerge. Caring for something - even a plant - is an empathy building exercise.

What I strongly urge you not to do is ask her if she's good when she has just done something wrong. That is more likely to make her feel unlovable. Kids that age are very prone to bifurcation: they are either good or bad, and it's kind of like hearing ten compliments and one insult: you'll remember the sting of the insult long after you've forgotten the compliments. We aren't good or bad based on one action.

*There are lots of age appropriate emotion vocabularies on the internet. Aim a bit higher than the age listed; I think many aim a bit low.

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I wouldn't worry. But I burned, drowned, dug up nests, squashed and poisoned ants for fun well into my teens. And currently have a conflict with some yellow jackets that is not entirely free from death. Or glee.

If you want her to care for bugs help her catch and care for them. A little bug box is easy to make and allows you to observe a bug for several days. The container can keep the bug from being hurt by direct handling, the bug can be given a name, and the various behaviors you observe in the bug can be related to her behaviors.

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I would not be overly worried about it, especially that young. After all, squishing bugs is what most adults do as well (those who don't yell, jump and run away). We used to do a whole lot worse to them when we were kids yet nowadays, I'll throw mice out alive when I can catch them without a trap.

You could ask her why she did that instead of just releasing it or throwing it away. I would not push the issue beyond that myself unless she seems to want to hurt something larger just for the fun of it. Or spends all day doing nothing but killing bugs. It sounds like the kind of thing which just goes away as children grow up. At that age, if you push back hard, things could get worse instead of better.

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