Dear Joseph, My 3- and 5-year-olds take delight in squashing ants on the sidewalk. I've tried to tell them that it's bad to kill living things, but they've seen me swat bees and spiders in the house, so I feel like a hypocrite. How can I explain the difference to them? --Feeling Hypocritical
Dear Feeling Hypocritical, Guess what? You're not a hypocrite. When you kill a bee in your home, there is a reason for you to do so. The insect is somewhat dangerous, and you have a right to protect yourself and your family. But when your child squashes ants, there is no reason for him to do so; the ant poses no danger and is not bothering him. You would, however, be a hypocrite if you went out into a forest to kill bees for fun.
I heard a story told about the late Rabbi Israel Spira, a Holocaust survivor, who had in his lifetime seen the worst of which human beings are capable and who had become, perhaps in consequence, even more careful not to cause any needless suffering to human beings or animals. Once, when he saw one of his grandchildren purposely step on an ant, he said to him, "Oh, how sad! The ants were marching joyfully to a wedding and now you've killed the groom." The young boy felt bad and deeply regretted what he had done. By personalizing the insects in the manner done by the rabbi, you may similarly motivate your children to feel more compassion for all living creatures.
Regarding your killing of spiders and other scary (but not dangerous) insects, wouldn't it be better to simply try and pick them up on a newspaper or large piece of paper and put them outside? There is no reason to kill insects when there is no pressing need to do so and there are alternatives available to you. If your children see you act in this manner (i.e., swatting dangerous or bothersome insects, but trying not to kill non-dangerous ones), they might change their own behavior.
But what if they don't? Is this an issue you should be concerned about? I believe you should be, if such behavior persists over the coming years. It is sadistic to kill a living creature just for pleasure. A woman I know was dating a man who told her that as a child, he used to cut insects in half for fun. She married him, and when he became angry at her, he beat her. A necessary correlation? Perhaps not. But if one of my children were dating someone like that, I would be very concerned.
Your children now are 3 and 5, so there certainly is no cause for you to panic. But it is an issue that must be addressed. At any age, it's important to learn to curb one's sadistic tendencies.