First of all I want to warn people that this story contains the (non-graphic) death of an animal. If you find that upsetting, please don’t read on.
My husband and I are avid animal people, and among our many pets we have several reptiles. At one point, among those reptiles was a young bullsnake, only about two feet long. This snake was my pet in particular, and I adored her.
One day, we woke up and the little snake was acting strangely, obviously in distress. We took her down to the exotic animal store where we’d purchased her, less than a block away from our home and run by a friend of ours who is also a veterinary student who has kept snakes for over twenty years. If he didn’t know what was wrong with her, no one would. When we got there, there was already a man with his two sons in the store; one boy of about ten, and the other perhaps seven.
Both boys were naturally curious, and I didn’t begrudge them when they crowded around to get a look at our snake as we spoke to the owner. He examined her, and sadly announced that her lower jaw was broken (we still do not know how this happened; best guess was that it was already slightly fractured when we purchased her). This is a mortal injury in snakes, as it cannot heal properly, and the only thing left to do was euthanize her. Our friend kindly offered to do so by quickly breaking her neck, and tearfully, my husband and I agreed. We walked away and held each other, sobbing, while our friend took care of it, quickly and painlessly.
The etiquette hell part comes now. As I, still in tears, approached our friend to thank him for helping us, the seven-year-old boy rushed up to me. “You know that snake!” He said excitedly, “It died!”
I was still in tears from the loss of my beloved pet, and this just hit me like a baseball bat to the head. “Yes, it died. It was my pet, and I loved her, and she died!” I snarled, and then fled the store. I heard my husband angrily remark that some people clearly raised their children with no manners before following me. The father, by the way, took no notice, and never even attempted to apologize, even though he was in hearing distance. We returned to the store later in the day, and our friend apologized profusely, saying that the boys and their father were frequent customers and the boys often made rude and/or careless remarks, but he’d never heard them say something so callous before.
I don’t blame the children, again. Kids are curious, and often don’t realize when they’re about to say something inappropriate. But this was apparently normal behavior for this boy, and the father never made any attempt to correct him. It made a horrible day all that much worse. Parents, please teach your children about when to or not to say things! 0914-15
When parents decline to use situations to teach their children proper social behavior, it can be your opportunity to influence future behavior in these children. Obviously we shouldn’t be looking to pedantically instruct every child we encounter but sometimes a situation seems “just right” to provide a memorable lesson. In your situation you recognize that a seven year old boy is probably unaware of the social etiquette of being empathetic towards grieving people so snarling at him, while an immediate emotional reaction, wasn’t the best option, imo. You want to excite his compassion to rise to the forefront of his thoughts, not his desire to be dramatic. Bending over or squatting in front of him, making eye contact and saying, “Yes, that was my pet snake and, yes, she has died because she was badly injured and in pain. She was just a baby snake. I am sad because I loved her and will miss her very much.” Unless the child is a sociopath, this dialog should arouse his empathy for the snake and for you. He still may not understand the proper things to say (that will come later) but you will have used the opportunity to plant a seed of compassion in him.