How Do You Teach A Kindergartner to Kill?
I’ve been vegetarian since I was 8. My dad likes to tell people it’s because Babe, the movie about the charming pig, came out around that time, but really, I was just copying my older cousin.
That said, it clearly stuck, because I’m 34 and still vegetarian — and now, as a science teacher, I work with young people who are beginning to navigate animal rights, ethics, welfare, or whatever you want to call it for themselves.
It would be simple if my goal were to convert every young person to vegan, or if my goal were only to inspire young hunters. But, as my own stance on killing animals for my personal benefit has evolved through the years, I don’t believe there is an obvious right course of action. My main goal for young learners is that they make their own decisions, in line with their own moral compass.
Personally, I don’t eat commercial meat but plan to someday harvest and consume my own chickens. I believe that good lives and good deaths should both be prioritized, and that our current meat industry doesn’t do either all too well. I don’t wear fur. I swerve to avoid animals on the road, if it’s safe to do so.
Why, then, would I want to teach a kindergartener to kill, even if it’s just a fly? Because bugs are fascinating, and often it’s easier to study an animal if it’s dead. To dissect an animal, or to preserve its skull or hide, requires that we kill the animal. Biologists and naturalists, often the people most in love with wildlife, are often the people tasked with killing a creature for the benefit of scientific understanding, or even for the benefit of that entire species.
So, how do you teach a kindergartener to kill?
Set aside the why for a moment, and just ponder the task.
Well, the easiest approach is to get the kid to fear or hate something.
My dad, a girl scout troop leader for years, has a story about half a dozen young people oohing and ahhing over a creepy-crawly, and then a parent came up and screamed in horror. Immediately, all the girls switched from fascinated to horrified, and lost any interest in studying the bug, only in fearing it.
We learn by example. If mom screams at a cockroach and thanks dad for stomping it, we learn that roaches are to be stomped. It’s actually fairly easy to teach a young person how to destroy, if you can instill enough hate.
But as a science teacher, I don’t want to teach young learners to hate, to destroy, to fear. I’ve focused my academic life on biology and biology education, and I revere life in all forms, most especially animals. I want to teach young folks to appreciate nature, and that studying it allows us to appreciate it all the more. Animals are incredible.
Sometimes, though, we need to kill an animal that we respect, that we revere, so that we can learn enough to help that animal’s kind survive into the future. Conveying this concept to young people is, in my humble opinion, essential.
My parents, keen to raise young nerds, ensured that my older sister and I had access to a prestigious magnet public middle school, with a strong focus on STEM and arts. For my sister, this was her first opportunity to take whole courses focused on specific forms of art, while I was thrilled about getting ahead on my math studies and getting to take Animal Studies.
Animal Studies was an elective course that focused on the science of animal life, including ecology, behavior, and anatomy and physiology. It was, for nearly every learner, their first opportunity to dissect an animal, and if you took the course, dissection was mandatory.
Ironically, due to a schedule glitch, my creative and artistic sister landed in Animal Studies instead of Ceramics, and as my sister and parents fought to correct this, I realized for the first time that not everyone was pumped to cut up dead animals. Of the vegetarians I knew, exactly one — myself — wanted to take the dissection course. Two years later, my parents again petitioned the school, but this time to let me in the Animal Studies course. I spent that entire span of time eagerly anticipating my first dissection.
My mother was more like me on this issue — she’d dissected a human cadaver in medical school, an experience I started asking about at a young age. My mother explained a ritual she’d developed, where during every dissection, from worm to human, she thanked the animal for its sacrifice and for what it could teach her. Acknowledge, appreciate — and pay back that debt by learning absolutely as much as possible.
I think about these early conversations regularly, especially during Microscope classes. I challenge students to find interesting specimens, which often leads to a bug in a jar and a student asking, “now what?” It’s my job to explain to the student that killing the bug will make everything easier, without making the very young learners cry.
Either learners struggle to accept the idea of killing the insect, or they process it rapidly and promptly ask how. Traditionally, insects are killed in salsa-jars-turned-gas-chambers, devices known as kill jars. Something absorbent gets soaked in something poisonous — cotton balls and nail-polish remover work well — and the fumes kill the insect within minutes. Much more effective than freezing; much cleaner than squashing; arguably more humane than starving to death.
Starving to death, however, is a surprisingly popular option for young people killing their first insect — my guess is because it’s not an active intervention. Leaving the bug in the jar until it dies may seem cruel, but it’s hands-off, which makes a difference. It’s the railroad ethics problem — do you prefer to kill by action or inaction — but real, and immediate.
So, I explain death to the young learner, and suggest that some forms of death might be better than others, and some forms are certainly more effective. Often, these learners are still adjusting to the concept of death at all, much less at their own hands.
Sometimes, this is when a learner asks if we can’t look at the insect while it’s alive, and avoid the question of death entirely. I encourage them to try, and we talk about small chambers or vials that could contain the bug. Petri dishes are hit or miss, depending on the critter. Generally, learners discover that the best specimens are dead, and that it’s much kinder to remove a wing or a leg, for example, from a dead bug than a live bug. I generally use the word “disassemble” before I say “dissect,” if for no other reason than to catch learners off guard.
By now, I’ve shown off specimens from my live cat, a cat who the learners have met — fur, nail clippings, eye boogers, even old rotten teeth that I talked the veterinary dentist into saving for me. The idea of taking pieces of a critter for specimens isn’t new, just the idea that the animal might not survive the disassembly.
Most learners who sign up for online Microscopy coursework are already fairly interested, and own a ‘scope and a few sets of premade slides. The best premade slides include animal, plant, and bacterial specimens. I once had a student insist that her dog esophagus specimen was from a biopsy on a live dog, and that nothing I said would change her mind. I acknowledged that as a possibility. Maybe not the most likely, but certainly plausible.
At this point, some students just resign themselves to geology. Most, though, are willing to engage, and make active decisions about killing and dissecting their precious bug. Some students want to make their own kill jars. There’s always someone, though, who says they just won’t do it, and can I excuse them while they let their bug fly free.
So, pest that I am, after they get back I ask about their meat consumption. I’m certainly not trying to convert people to vegetarianism, but I do ask that my students are at least internally consistent. Remember: first acknowledge, then appreciate. Young people often decide, as do their elders, that they cannot kill a cow, but they also cannot give up burgers. Arriving at this statement is enough for me.