May 05

Bears Are Terrible People

by Hannah Holt »


Bear head

If you find a bear trapped in a forest and release it, the bear will probably eat you.

It’s nothing personal. It’s just what hungry bears do.

You see, bears don’t feel gratitude the way people do. They also can’t experience complex emotions like empathy…

…much like young children. Children don’t develop empathy until around age five to six. Even then it’s just the beginnings.

It’s not that three-year-olds don’t care about your feelings. Rather, like bears, they can’t.

Bears and Children Venn diagram2

It’s Not Personal

It might feel personal when a four-year-old yells, “I hate you, and Aunt Mildred hates you, too!”

Only, it’s not.

Actually, what the child means is, “I have learned by trying lots of different words that these particular words get a big response.”

Take another common phrase, “I wish you would die!” Here’s what it means by age:

Four-year-old: What’s death? Who knows?! I’m not even sure when next Wednesday is, but you go all crazy when I say this. It’s awesome and makes me feel powerful.

Eight-year-old: I understand death. I think. I don’t actually want you dead. I probably want you with me right now, but I’m frustrated and don’t know what else to say. These words distract both you and me from what is bothering us.

Sixteen-year-old: I understand it, and I mean it. However, the long-term reasoning center of my brain isn’t fully developed, so what I really mean is, “it’d be convenient for me if you didn’t exist at this moment.”

So when your sixteen-year-old daughter comes home and says she can’t imagine a future without her new boyfriend DJ Bonecrusher, it isn’t love talking. Rather, futures in general are a difficult thing for her (realistic ones anyway). BTW, I don’t recommend telling her this.

What Can You Do?

First, of all take a deep breath. You aren’t a bad parent because your child pushes boundaries. All children push boundaries. It’s in their job description.

Second, keep rules basic and age appropriate. The more simple the rule, the more likely it will be followed. “Don’t open the game closet,” is more likely to be followed than, “only get out one game at a time, and be sure to close the door behind you, and don’t let your little sisters play with the Monopoly pieces.”

Third, only set up rules you are willing to enforce 100% of the time. Rules enforced 99% of the time are only suggestions. You can only constantly enforce a few rules at a time. Choose wisely.

Fourth, don’t jump to nuclear with the consequences too early. There is no level above nuclear. If you play the nuclear card and it doesn’t work, you lose. Start with the most gentle consequence possible. You will probably need several (first, time out in the kitchen with me, then time out in your room by yourself, then I start taking away toys and privileges, etc, etc).

What Can Children Feel?

Children are capable of love, kindness, and cooperation. However, these are learned behaviors. Show them love and they will love. Tell them when they are kind, and they will be kind more often. Be consistent about enforcing boundaries and they won’t cross them after the six or eleventeenth try.

On the other hand, spanking and yelling will result in more hitting and shouting. Don’t show a child how painful biting is by biting them back. Remember, the child cannot feel empathy; however, they will parrot your behavior.

It takes creativity and energy to model positive behavior. This means you need to  take care of your own mental health. Ask for help. Reach out to other adults when you are feeling on the brink.

Momma Bear Speaks

It makes me feel growly when I hear adults say things like, “my children are monsters,” or “those children are bad!” Usually what these people mean is, “those children are horrible adults.” Children can be exhausting, strong willed, and frustrating, but they aren’t terrible, rotten, or ill willed. Children desperately need positive adults role models in their lives.

After all, without adults children might wander into the forest and make friends with bears. And that would be a true disaster because as we’ve already learned—bears are terrible people.


If you like this post, you might also like these books:

Children Make Terrible Pets

Children Make Terrible Pets, by Peter Brown

I Want My Hat Back

I Want My Hat Back, by John Klassen

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed

Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, by Mo Willems

  1. Gramma Holt

    NOW I understand these things! What great examples and explanations. I wish I had little kids to practice on. Hmmmm…..I *do* have these grandchildren. Thank you!

  2. Carrie F

    Love your Venn diagram. My children are definitely a lot like bears much of the time – sometimes lovable, huggable bears, other times fierce bears who roar and scratch their claws on the furniture.