bullying children animals

Anna McHugh

Thanks to social media, we’re a lot more aware of the presence of bullying, the kinds of behaviour which define bullying, and the often horrifying outcomes of people of all ages being bullied.

Recently there’s been a movement away from the two traditional models of tackling bullying: one is assisting the child who bullies to express their frustrations or aggression in other ways; the other is to empower the child who is being bullied to assert themselves or to seek help. Today there is a stronger focus on the bystander, who watches bullying occur and, by doing nothing, shows a tacit consent to this behaviour.

There’s a saying in the British army – an institution admittedly not without its problems in this regard – that ‘the behaviour you walk past is the behaviour you condone’. This applies to people’s behaviour towards animals as well, and bullying behaviour towards animals often appear prior to similar behaviour towards other people. However parents, friends, and people in public often do nothing when a child is visibly bullying an animal – though they would speak up if the child inflicted the same treatment upon another child.

The key difference between teaching children “pet ownership” and “animal guardianship”

Essentially, we let children see their relationship with an animal as one of dominance and subordination, not mutual need and respect. It might be a kindly one, but it’s not based on any notion of equality.

While we claim to have ‘zero tolerance’ to bullying as a behaviour and a mentality, we frequently let it pass when it’s directed towards animals rather than people. Part of the answer may lie in deep-seated cultural beliefs about ‘man as master of the animal kingdom’.

Parents and teachers try to teach children that their companion animals must be cared for both physically and emotionally. We try to get them into feeding, walking, grooming, and playing routines – this equates a reliable animal guardian with a good one. But it’s still based on an uncritical attitude towards animal ‘ownership’. We’re teaching children that the animals are ‘their’ pets. Essentially, we let children see their relationship with an animal as one of dominance and subordination, not mutual need and respect. It might be a kindly one, but it’s not based on any notion of equality.

Animals which respond to bullying in the same way are trying to show children that they must be treated as equals – not objects, toys, or servants.

So when we see a frustrated child lashing out at a confused dog and do nothing to stop it, we reinforce the child’s view of themselves as (thwarted) master and the dog as something between a machine and a servant, built to obey but with a limited set of programmes. Very indulgent parents are frequently so protective of their children’s self-image and belief in their own competence that they will abandon a pet which doesn’t shore up their idea of dominance and subordination. Cats which scratch small children, or dogs which bite and maul them, are hardly to be blamed for asserting their own independence and their own wishes in the face of a bullying child. If a child hits back in the playground, or responded to a bully’s tormenting with violence of their own, we would either congratulate them, or chastise both children. Animals which respond to bullying in the same way are trying to show children that they must be treated as equals – not objects, toys, or servants.

What can parents and educators do?

Discuss the idea that animals in your home and your school are companions, not pets. They’re nonhuman animals, just as we’re human animals.

In short, when parents and teachers become a party to the relationship between children and animals, it’s important to start as the right place and continue consistently. Discuss the idea that animals in your home and your school are companions, not pets. They’re nonhuman animals, just as we’re human animals. They may not be able to speak their wishes in any human language, but they can demonstrate their desire to be played with, left alone, fed and watered, taken out, and put to sleep. Those wishes should be observed, not because children are responsible owners, but because they’re compassionate people who treat all living things the way they want to be treated.

While this may sound highly idealistic, it could save dealing with a situation in which a child has been bitten or scratched because they inflicted treatment on an animal which they wouldn’t wish for themselves.

Getting to the root cause of bullying

It is also helpful to consider why a child might bully an animal in the first place. The answers aren’t so different to why they bully other children. Bullying is an assertion of power because of a fundamental uncertainty about existence, agency, and boundaries. A child – or adult – who bullies is often doing so to establish absolute control over their surroundings. They may be doing this because they’re anxious about something, or to test just how much agency they actually have. We only know that we’re here, after all, when we see the effect that we have on things around us. Many bullies stop when they hit the boundary of their own agency – that is, when a teacher or parent imposes a limit on the behaviour, or when their victim hits back hard.

Animals, particularly domestic animals, are often extremely long-suffering and will not act to hinder a bullying child until they are in pain or extremely unhappy. They continue reacting favourably, feeding the child’s need to see their own agency, while the child continues to transgress against limits of kindness and safety. It’s vital that children have another way to assure themselves that they are here, effective, and have limits. Sports, arts, music, technology – even domestic chores, are all better ways to experience their own power than using an animal as a kind of private kingdom. If children have already begun to do this, show them that partnerships between humans and animals – such as army dogs or champion equestrians – are far more powerful and effective when they are based on notions of equality rather than subordination.

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