Dear Cat
The Tail of the Cat

It's Not Him, It's Me

Birthday parties. What in the world is it about the stupid BIRTHDAY PARTIES?

We've gone to a few very successful birthday parties since, well, the very unsuccessful ones. I've gotten selective about which ones we attend -- if it seems like a low-key affair at your house, yes. If it sounds like something with a lot of structure and set activities, I usually decline. 

We went to a party this weekend. At someone's house. It was big yet fun and low-key and full of general mayhem, in a good way. There was also...a petting zoo. 

It was so cute! So fun! Delightful! Some ducks and chickens and bunnies and a pony whose head barely reached my knee (but whose penis practically touched the ground and I'm sorry I can't help but notice it I mean look it's right there and it's huge OMG). Noah initially resisted the call to round up around the enclosure and meet all the animals, but by the end of the handler's introductions he was begging to have a turn inside. 

He stepped in and accepted a lap-mat of some old carpet and the tiniest baby bunny ever. He held it gently and giggled and declared his love for it over and over again. Jason and I beamed from the other side of the fence and I wondered how much this sort of thing cost, like I do at every party we attend because I guess a successful party turns me into Liz Lemon in Cleveland. This is a great party! ! I want to have this party! I want to live at this party!

And that's about what I was thinking around the time Noah suddenly decided he was done holding the bunny. And...I don't know what happened, except second the bunny was on his lap and then...oh my God...the bunny was on the ground. He dropped the bunny. 

There was a collective gasp from every adult in the vicinity and Jason and I kind of screeched in unison at him and the handler scooped up the bunny and...oh my God...Noah was LAUGHING. 

The handler scolded him. "That's not funny," he said. Jason took Noah inside for a Serious Talking To while I just sort of stood there in the mob of parents and kids, hoping maybe the ground would open up and swallow me up. Oh hi, yeah. I'm the mother of the kid who dropped a baby bunny on its head and then laughed about it. Parenting win! Wanna playdate? 

Noah spent a few minutes in time out and then rejoined the party. Just in time for the animal handler to bring out one last friend: a tortoise. He plopped it outside the enclosure in front of a crowd of mostly unsupervised toddlers and preschoolers and instructed them to only pet its shell, and NOT to touch its head. 

I crouched down with Noah and repeated these instructions. He patted the shell and then tried to get a better look at the turtle's face. I pulled him back slightly because I just had a really bad feeling about this -- there were easily a dozen kids crowding around the turtle and I felt the level of impulse control was collectively dropping.

And then, for reasons I simply cannot fathom, Noah raised his foot and moved it slowly in the direction of that turtle's head, like he was going to kick it.

I had my hands on him again within a millisecond and yanked him completely away from the crowd and the turtle. I looked up and there was a finger in my face. It was the animal handler.

"KEEP HIM," he said, moving his finger from me to Noah, putting much emphasis on the word him, "AWAY FROM THE ANIMAL."


When I was in first grade our teacher attempted a slightly too ambitious art project involving covering cardboard stars with aluminum foil. I guess she bought the wrong foil or something, because we all had a terrible time with it. The foil kept ripping and puckering and nobody -- not even The Kids Who Were Good At Art (of which I was one of) -- could get their star looking remotely decent.

The teacher kept giving out new pieces of foil whenever we tore ours, and after having my hand raised for awhile, I approached her in the aisle and requested a new one. 

Instead of giving me the foil, she spun around and yelled at me. She used my full name and told me to go sit down at my desk that instant and use the foil I already had.

I went back to my desk and cried. I remember the sight of that shredded foil and my ugly star blurring up under my tears. I did the best I could to fix it but it still looked terrible -- doubly terrible, now that I was one of The Kids Who Get Yelled At (of which I'd never, ever been). 

I get that my teacher was probably stressed out and thoroughly annoyed, and that my request for a third or fourth or fifth piece of foil simply came at the absolute wrong moment, and I wasn't supposed to step away from my desk in the first place, but oh, to this day I remember everything about that moment -- the tone of her voice and the look on her face. 

She hung everybody's star over their desks anyway, Mine was not a Good Star. I hated it and hated looking at it and when they finally came down I tore it into little pieces before tossing it in the trash. 


I guess you can add "birthday party petting zoo animal handler guy" to the list of people I never expected to get yelled at by. But even now, many many hours later, I can still remember everything about THAT moment. The way he instantly singled Noah out as the troublemaker, the way his voice changed from the enthusiastic party entertainer to General Serious Angry Person, and the way he turned the word "him" into something more like "your out-of-control sociopathic kid."

My chest deflated like I'd been punched. I nodded meekly and grabbed Noah's hand and walked quickly and wordlessly back inside the house, where I proceeded to give Noah a verbal dressing down of epic proportions.

Jason -- who hadn't witnessed any of it -- came in and tried to find out what happened. He thought, from the way I was talking to Noah, that he'd actually kicked the turtle. Which...he hadn't. And...I don't think he was really going to. I think maybe he thought he could get around the "no touching" rule if he didn't use his hands? Maybe he was just overwhelmed and weirdly impulsive? Or maybe he wanted to scare the turtle? Oh God, why would he want to scare the turtle? WHAT. THE. FUCK.

Another father overheard my shaky-voiced explanation about what happened and declared it all to be bullshit, there's a good 50-plus kids here under the age of five (many of whom are, BY THE WAY, considered special needs), the turtle shouldn't have been outside the enclosure in the first place. 

And I agreed with that to a point, but still. I looked back at Noah and his mostly oblivious face and got whacked with a huge secondary wave of emotion. He didn't care that I was upset, he didn't care that he might have hurt or scared the animals, he only cared that I was making him sit in time-out. I felt kind of woozy at all the implications of the situation. Where's his empathy? Is this normal? This isn't normal. What have we done wrong? We have pets, we love our pets, his father can't even bring himself to kill a mouse. He laughed that time I accidentally stepped on Ceiba's paw and she yelped, I'm always reminding him to be more gentle. How did I miss this?  I'm a good mother. I work so hard. I love him so much. How did I end up being the mother of That Child at the birthday party?

Or, conversely: How did I end up being the mother who allows six words from a complete stranger to send her into an absolute tailspin of parenting confidence?

I told Jason I wanted to leave, but he insisted we stay. We swapped kid duties so I could watch Ezra and have a break from Noah and my face-melting anger and embarrassment. Ezra watched the ducks inside the pen and tried to imitate the quacking. The handler asked if I wanted to bring him inside. I politely declined, saying I thought he was a bit too young. 

(Fuck you, I also thought.) 

(I'm sorry, I also thought, immediately after.)

We came home and had several more talks about what happened. Noah was able to correctly parrot back what he had done wrong, though I couldn't help but feel that he still wasn't getting the why. Jason Googled some books on being nice to animals. I went through our DVD collection and plucked out anything that presented people or animals getting hurt as "funny." 

And I calmed down. I dialed back the terrible fears that This Was All So Indicative Of Something. Noah is not going to grow up to be a serial killer because he may have almost maybe thought about kicking a turtle at a four-year-old's birthday party. It was not my proudest parenting moment but I must be doing okay if it actually does end up being one of my worst.  I thought about what happened in first grade and laughed at myself, a little bit. Deep breaths, moving on, sack up, ho. 

He's still a Good Star. 



I remember the distinct moment when I realized that my actions could physically harm an animal. I had gotten a kitten for my birthday, had picked it up by the tail, and was carrying it around. I remember my mother panicking, taking it away from me, and telling me NO, THAT I WOULD HURT THE KITTEN. Then the realization sort of exploded in my head, and I think that was the moment that I GOT empathy. This was my 6th birthday. I guess empathy can take a while for some kids to fully understand - it did for me.


I'm also wondering about an ASD. The empathy issue is very telling. In any case it sounds like you are doing everything to raise your children in an animal friendly and loving home. *hug*


my brother used to rip the heads off of grasshoppers when we were kids and line them up on the sidewalk out in front of our house.
today, at 34, he is quite possibly the biggest animal lover of anyone i know - the connection he has with animals is quite remarkable and he wouldn't hurt a fly now.
just for some perspective, maybe possibly thinking about kicking a turtle in the face doesn't even come close to beheading defenseless insects. and my brother isn't a psychopath! :-)


I am in the minority, it seems. I agree with Amanda.

"The handler was just protecting the animals, and Noah didn't just almost kick a turtle. He dropped a bunny and laughed. I don't think that means he's a psycho by any means, but I also think this was a little more serious than a foil star."

When you said this:
" ...looked back at Noah and his mostly oblivious face and got whacked with a huge secondary wave of emotion. He didn't care that I was upset, he didn't care that he might have hurt or scared the animals, he only cared that I was making him sit in time-out. I felt kind of woozy at all the implications of the situation. Where's his empathy? Is this normal? This isn't normal."

I immediately thought to myself, "TRUST YOUR GUT, AMY."

If you think there is a problem, and I think you do, talk to someone about it. A counselor, somebody. It will ease your mind.


When my little brother was about Noah's age, we brought him to one of those "experience the butterflies" exhibits at a local zoo. There was one particularly beautiful butterfly that had landed on the ground and a whole group had gathered around to ooh and ahh at it. All of a sudden my little brother walked up and stomped on it. Killed it dead right there in front of all those people! My mom and i were MORTIFIED and quickly left. Well today he is a lovely 20 year old young man who has empathy for animals and humans alike :-)


Yeah I think the whole empathy thing probably relates to Piaget's stages of child development and I think it doesn't develop until the "concrete-operational" stage, which is usually 5-7, if I remember my Developmental Psychology class.
I can totally understand that it would be scary to think that Noah was "mean", or to worry that you'd done something wrong.
Even if he thought dropping the bunny was funny - that doesn't mean he understood that it hurt the bunny, you know? Maybe he thought the way it tumbled was amusing? I don't know...I think checking your DVDs and stuff is a good idea, and you'll definitely be more conscious of it now, and so likely working with him on it, but I really do think you all will be okay!


I remember being on a Kindergarten field trip at the Enchanted Forest in Baltimore. The chaperone was a friend's mom. I took two steps out of a line to get a better look at something and the woman shrieked, "Get back in line, YOUNG LADY!" I was horrified/mortified/etc. and stopped being friends with that girl after that. I hate to be yelled at. The handler guy was obviously pretty clueless about preschoolers.


I remember being on a Kindergarten field trip at the Enchanted Forest in Baltimore. The chaperone was a friend's mom. I took two steps out of a line to get a better look at something and the woman shrieked, "Get back in line, YOUNG LADY!" I was horrified/mortified/etc. and stopped being friends with that girl after that. I hate to be yelled at. The handler guy was obviously pretty clueless about preschoolers.


I just wanted to say that, I, too contemplated and ACTIVELY TRIED to hurt an animal. Our family dog! I remember that I really, really wanted to shut the door on her tail. That's mean and I was definitely old enough to know better. I don't know WHY I wanted to do that, but I think I just wanted to see if I could make it happen.

(I don't think I ever managed to do it.)


When I was little we had an old poodle named Curlie, and I used to walk around and smack her balding old ass as hard as I could and yell, "BAD CURLIE, BAD!" and the poor dog would just walk away with her tail down like what did I do to deserve life with this little bitch? And then she pooped on my bed, serves me right. I also remember reading through a book of babies and taking great joy (delight!) out of smacking each and everyone one of those round cherubic drawings. I grew up to be a good sister, a loving pet owner, etc. Not saying our situations are the same, but just saying I didn't always have the empathy either. Anyway, I'm very sorry for your bad day and your torn tinfoil star.


Ha! I knew it had to be the same guy. He might be an animal lover, but he doesn't seem to be at ease around children....

Just want to say that I've been a "lurker" since I read about you in the Washingtonian when you were pregnant with Noah. I've read every post, but your recent one on gaining weight after baby #2 really hit home with me. It could have been written about me. Word for word, honestly. After reading it, I feel more inspired to get off my ass and actually DO something about it other than buy things to cover myself up. I thank you for that.

If we ever met, I'm pretty sure we'd be BFF's. ;)

Life of a Doctor's Wife

Yes, you are right, he IS a good star. He's a young child who is still developing... and oh my god I know it will get better but I feel your anguish so acutely.

I just have faith - from reading your blog, reading your posts about Noah - he's a good, good person being raised by two wonderful people. He may not be perfect, but no one is. It will be okay. (And I mean that not in a brushing off sort of way, but in a hugging, comforting way.) It will be okay. He is good. You are good. It will be okay.

Kate@And Then I Was a Mom

Okay, so let's just say it: Petting-zoo parties are ridiculous. You take a bunch of animals who in no way could ever possibly want a bunch of people touching them. Then you make the people touching them SMALL people, small people who are accustomed to grabbing and wanting and generally not thinking before they act, I mean, COME ON.

I bet it's a combination of Boy and Four. I know from your posts that Noah is wonderful and tender--and you do, too, of course.


Ok, I have a child with the same disabilities as Noah. He's now seven. Let me say this:

1. We tend to get upset about things like this because we are so on edge about EVERYTHING they do. We are questioning and wondering about every freaking action.

2. You are making this bigger than it needs to be. I say that to give you comfort. It's not a judgment. This was a normal thing to happen. He's 4 and curious and just doesn't get it yet. That's ok.

3. What the hell? Who has a petting zoo with kids that age. When my son turned 6 we had something similar. The rules from the center were kids above six only and no more than 15 kids. The animals came out in a quiet room and were passed in front of the child to pet or touch if they wanted and then put away. There was no access and crowding at all. That was the handlers fault.

It's ok. This was a normal child reaction and not at all something weird or disability related. It just happened.

Plano Mom

Yep. Brother + Frogs/bugs/turtles/snakes/you name it = death + destruction.

He's now a father of three and a productive member of society.

Plano Mom

Oh yeah - and the handler is an ass.


I think petting zoo guys might just be dicks. We were at a city festival this weekend. I didn't notice at the time but later heard on the video the petting zoo booth guy threatening a 6 year old girl with his meanest possible voice that he was going to "throw her out" if she didn't pet the alpaca on his head instead of his back half.


And yeah, I totally want to see a picture of that pony!!


When I was little I use to kill frogs with my babysitters son. We never really thought of it as wrong. I am now the person who cries when the dog gets put outside because he peed on the floor...again. I think it's just a thing some kids do. No worries.


My husband and his brothers, all kind, caring souls sent hamsters up in homemade cages attached to kites. Often the hamster didn't come back.

My ex boyfriend tied mice to the bumper of his bicycle and dragged them around.

And surely, being all Southern & all, you're heard of frog gigging? That isn't frog giggling either.


The way you write about these moments is genius. Especially meaningful to me because your Noah & my Noah have A LOT of the same issues. But equally genius are your readers who comment... the sharing of stories & support is amazing!! This is what "mommy blogging" is all about. Thank you for everything!
PS. Noah is a star & so are you. Everyone will be FINE!!

white girl

I cried when I read this post.

All mothers have those epic fail moments (or it seems so to us). Why do they always happen in public? And then you so desperately want people to see the sweet kisses, the story reading, the cuddling, the good mentor talking, the working so very hard, the win moments! But no one ever seems to see those. I understood completely the face melting anger and embarrassment.

And I cried.

Noah is a good star. So is his mommy.

From Belgium

Sorry you had to go through that. But come on, haven't we ALL hurt an animal once as kids. I once pulled our dogs tail when I was little (and I loved that dog), my nephew thought there was nothing funnier than sticking a fork in the butt of my grandparents Great Dane (it is a miracle he still has his head, that dog could eat you alive). And now we are both fine and functioning adults, who love animals.
On a second note : petting zoo parties for childeren. Ehrm, is it just my belgiumness but what part of that idea does not scream :'childeren and/or animals will be traumatized'.


I think the animal handler was probably acting a bit impulsively himself, but honestly, if a kid did that to my dog, cat, etc., I'd probably react the same way. And I've seen my son be as gentle as can be to a beetle and then in a few days, lift his leg like he's going to kick a small dog in it's face (ok, once, but still, he was definitely going for the kick). It is a good teaching moment to help remind them how to teach animals but unnerving. I will say that after our old, tolerant, and very big dog died, I have a certain amount of fear at getting a new dog after a particularly bad moment (child teased/hurt dog, dog went after child later) and I've reversed my stance on small kids getting new animals (I'm holding out on a new dog until he's 5 at least now). I felt similar mortification but overall, if you are able to have a dog and cat in the house, I'd say he's pretty safe from the sociopath diagnosis. I've seen young kids NOT be disciplined for hurting animals and those are the ones that continue to kick/hit animals ... so please don't feel like you made a mistake in letting him know it's not ok (although I too can go too far in the explanation). I hate it when parents let those things slide ... it's the parents that do let it slide and blame it on everyone else that people start to avoid.


ok, my totally normal (so they all tell me) son who is the same age as Noah.... yesterday came up to me at a family reunion with a lizard he had caught and chopped in half. He actually handed me the tail (still wiggling madly ), his eyes shining with pride and delight and amazement! I (and everyone else) was repulsed and dismayed and gave him the whole empathy talk. He heard us out and then said , "But i don't care how the lizard feels I think it is so exciting to HUNT LIZARDS AND KILL THEM".

so. do we need to talk about kevin?

i'm pretty sure the answer is no. this is my third son and past experience tells me that a lot of little boys are exploring aggression and fighting and hunting and so on at this age. Noah loves Star Wars, yes? So he has hit the superhero phase of development. My approach is to stay v calm and treat it just like you would a refusal to share or some other social rule violation... it really is no biggie (unless you are the lizard i guess)

real empathy? not for another couple of years for most kids.

geek anachronism

My mother once found me calling for the cat while giggling and holding a hammer. I don't remember it but when she told me I was horrified.

geek anachronism

My mother once found me calling for the cat while giggling and holding a hammer. I don't remember it but when she told me I was horrified.


Empathy is hard for kids. And he probably laughed out of discomfort. Don't you laugh in a new and uncomfortable situation? Or is that just me? ha ha! Whoops. There I go again!

The handler was obviously stressed, the animals should have been in cages, I wouldn't worry about it. He is five. He is not a monster!


P.S. I agree with Jenn above. What is up with a petting zoo at a bday party. That is just ridiculous. Unless your parents are movie stars or something. In which case, everything about your life is probably ridiculous.

Amelia Sprout

This last winter, M tried to cut the dog up with a fork and knife, all neatly. She was two. She was, in hindsight, pretending. We always pretended with "I'm going to eat your nose" and she was learning how to use utensils. She just connected them. My husband lost his shit. He had a complete "she's completely screwed and I don't want to deal with her" moment with our two year old. I did not lose it, but I freaked out too.

Kid's are experimenting, and they're pressing boundaries all the time. I know there is a lot of "Let's see what I can get away with now" that happens. And it is scary as hell.

This is what I told my husband. If it was an isolated incident, there is no reason to freak out. If it becomes a pattern, then we freak. So far, no pattern. Now she's doing this thing with giving our kisses back when she's mad at us. Completely different reason to freak out.


Okay, so you've had a bunch of these, but here's another....our then 3 year old used to laugh every. single. time. Nemo's mom got eaten by the barracuda in Finding Nemo. Yes, by the 1000th or so viewing (and laughing) I was sure we were raising a psychopath. He's now 5, and starting to understand empathy a little more...tiny steps...Noah will get there...


First of all...that was so well-written. You have a serious gift with words, especially when it comes to describing experiences with your kids. Now that that's out of the way, sometimes it is literally painful to read this stuff because it reminds me so vividly of stuff I experienced (still do) with my oldest. He's not on the "spectrum" but has a catalog of other difficulties, of which poor impulse control is a major player. He is 10 now and we struggle daily. He's also a sweet, loving kid who loves his little brothers fiercely, so I get the dichotomy. My point it, this is a marathon, I think, and we can't let the little bumps derail us completely (although I struggle daily with this too). It is so easy to blame ourselves for every little thing. Please don't. You are a great mom and to be commended. Thank you for writing...I think many of us NEED to read these beautiful posts.


i have a 3.5 year old who has zero sympathy when it comes to animals... not that he's out torturing them, but he just doesn't get it yet.

i would try not to worry. it's funny when mommy or daddy trips and falls, right? (see, larry curly & moe?) why not when a turtle falls?

sounds like a pretty natural reaction to me. xo


Agree with the idea that there is a learning curve to "empathy." It's not just Noah. And I'm not even entirely convinced Noah lacks empathy. Frankly, I think there's a gigantic epic sized world of difference between finding out what would happen if you poked the turtle (because OMG THE FASTEST WAY TO GET A CHILD TO DO ANYTHING IS TO TELL THEM NOT TO DO THAT THING), and deliberately doing something to hurt the turtle because you get pleasure out of seeing something hurting.

You know?

My kids are (nearly) 5, 3.5, and 19 months. DO YOU KNOW how much time we spend asking them to do nice nice to Fletcher (our Bichon)? To give him nice pats and tell him he's a good boy? Only every time one of them notices the dog. EVERYTHING in regards to Fletcher is good boy this and nice boy that, and gentle pets I SAID GENTLE PETS NO HITTING TELL FLETCHER YOU ARE SORRY AND ASK IF HE'S OK. They are probably going to grow up entirely confused by animals because I make them treat the dog the same way they treat their siblings (yes, they need to apologize to Fletcher when they hurt him. AND they need to ask if he's ok).

Plus, I'm sorry. But the petting zoo guy? Asshole! And wait, no I'm NOT going to say sorry. If you can't handle the stress, DON'T BE THE PETTING ZOO GUY. In your shoes, I probably would have cried at the party, and I know I would have given my child a verbal dressing down, and I'd probably ALSO be freaking out about the whole thing and clearing out our movie collection, but honestly Amy, Noah? Is not a sociopath. There is a learning curve to empathy and impulse control.

Try not to freak out. Though that's coming from a girl who would also freak out, but as another parent looking in? Don't freak out.


Since I was a small child I have always laughed when I am nervous, particularly when someone takes a sudden fall. I continue to do this. I am mortified by this trait but I swear, it is an involuntary reaction. I am 34 years old, a devoted animal lover, a social worker, and a generally decent person. Just wanted to say that laughing at something painful/dangerous doesn't necessarily indicate insensitivity to that situation.


Amy, when I was ten my parents acquired a middle-aged Burmese cat who had clearly been through some sort of trauma, because that poor cat was neurotic with a capital N. She fled at the sound of aluminum foil, pans been taken out of the drawer, and just about anything else.

My brother was 13 and thought it would be a dandy idea to put her in a black garbage bag and carry her around. He also picked her up by the tail. This despite the fact that we'd had cats before when we were very young, and were taught to be gentle, and the fact that he loved cats. I don't know why. A boy thing? A stupid male thing? He also tried picking her up by the tail.

As an adult he was a gentle, loving (if occasionally thick-headed) non-confrontational human being. Who adored cats and basically all animals. Who was gentle with his newborn nephew and donated to Amnesty International and was on the board of directors for a home for elderly, homeless women.

My point? He didn't grow up to be a serial killer. Or a pet torturer. Noah will be fine. He was curious and got too close to a turtle. An animal that was probably older than God anyway, and since it was part of a frakkin' petting zoo, was used to all sorts of abuses and mishandling.

And that handler? Needs to seriously up his meds. 1) Dude, don't put an animal outside the enclosure. 2) Dude, don't give a baby rabbit (A BABY RABBIT!) to a small child. We went to a learning farm a few weeks back and there were week old kittens there. The workers were very firm in their resolve to refuse the kids when they asked to hold a kitten, no matter how they begged. They said if too many people handled the kittens they'd get sick. I would assume the same would go for a baby rabbit, no? Guy was a moron, your kid didn't do anything wrong beyond show a little curiosity and maybe a smidge of rebellion. He's normal.


Also, as another poster pointed out, true empathy in children takes a while to develop. A four year old should not be expected to be operating at the same level as, say, an 8 year old or even a 6 year old, so those who are jumping on the ASD bandwagon because a four year old didn't show enough empathy for your tastes are being really tactless.

None of my kids are on the Austism Spectrum, and they have all had to learn empathy, they weren't born with it, and even at age 5 and 6 I had to supervise them around animals. You just never know when that poor impulse control--a hallmark of NORMAL children--will rear its ugly head.


My oldest daughter is now 8. She is a very high functioning kid, but she is very easily embarrased and frequently laughs and smiles at inappropriate times b/c that is simply how she processes her anxiety. She recognizes now that her reaction bothers people, and we are working on ways to help her react differently, but at age 4? That's just how she was.


Breathe deeply. Everything you just described doesn't sound out of the realm of something my mostly "normal" 7 and 10 year olds might do. When you get a bunch of kids together outside their normal activities they sometimes do weird things. Not everything is indicative of BIG PROBLEMS. I completely get where you're coming from though. It is so hard to know what is right and wrong and what you could have done differently. To me it sounds like that handler was kind of an ass. My boss has a theory that there are people people and animal people. The animal people seem to have a hard time relating to people. Sounds like that guy was an animal person. I also believe even with older kids there's really only so much "lecturing" you can do. They listen for about 2 minutes tops, then all they hear is blah, blah, blah and they say anything to have the lecture be over. The little bits of interaction with people, pets and other animals are much more indicative of kids' overall ability to feel empathy than one isolated unusual afternoon. Good luck, who knew having kids would be so fraught with emotion over the slightest thing. I know I sure didn't. You're going to be okay, so is Noah.

Miss Britt

Getting yelled at - at any age - sucks. Big time.

I'm no Dr. Spock or whatever - but maybe that was actually a sign of Noah feeling safe and secure? I mean, you know, trying to see just how far those boundaries would go just out of curiosity?

I don't know, but I feel an urge to list off all of the embarrassingly just OMG WRONG things my kids have done over the years that made me envision standing in front of a news crew years later saying "I just don't know... he was always such a good boy." Because SURELY that would make you feel better, right?


Thanks for posting this and opening up a dialogue. Really. I just had a conversation with my husband about our 3 year old who has some mild SPD issues and whether he was going to grow up to be a sociopath after he stomped on a ladybug I was showing him, then got in trouble two days in a row at nursery for kicking other kids legos. We're so proud.

It's nice to know I'm not the only one who wonders what I'm doing wrong when my kid acts like this, as if you needed some asshole to make you feel even worse about it.

There's an NPR program called Radio Lab and they recently had a show about morals/ethics. In one segment, they interviewed a bunch of child development experts and some 3-4 year olds and it was clear that they just don't get it and are not capable of real empathy at that age, neurotypical or not.


aw. As the owner of a house rabbit, I have to agree that rabbits shouldn't be around kids unless they are placid, grown-up rabbits -- if at all.

Rabbits can be frightened to death, yes, and they can also get serious back injuries from being held if they start to struggle. They're adorable pets (mine is litterbox trained and acts just like a much, much softer and sweeter cat most of the day) but not so much for children. Remember, they're prey animals, not predators.

I'm sure Noah is fine & just didn't get it.


I haven't read through the comments (too many! I'm chiming in late here), but wanted to let you know that I have similar fears. My 3 1/2 year old is GREAT at telling me when I've hurt HIS feelings, but absolutely cannot tell when he is being cruel to someone else. And I worry that I'm raising a bully, someone that lacks emphathy and the ability to apologize without serious prompting and just general, um, kindness.

But then I think of the way he is with his younger sister (wonderful! [usually]), and I dial it down a bit and tell myself that it's probably just his age, he'll learn these skills in time, considerations for how you make someone else (or something else) feel is not necessarily something we are born with.

I hope I figure out a good way to teach him that, and soon. If you learn any good tips about how, I'm all ears!


Ok, I rarely comment here but I can't let this go. We had pet rabbits. You NEVER EVER give a rabbit to a little kid. EVER. Special needs or not. Rabbits are too skittish and will jump out of your arms and hurt themselves. (Are you sure Noah dropped the bunny? Or did it jump out?) ESPECIALLY baby bunnies. These people are idiots. The "Crazy Bunny People" (rabbit rescue) we used to know were VERY particular about who could hold rabbits, especially baby rabbits. They didn't let most adults hold them. This is NOT your fault and it is NOT Noah's fault -- it is the fault of the people providing the petting zoo. There are animals appropriate for that, and there are animals that are NOT appropriate (I wonder about the turtle too -- if there are rules about where you can touch them, is that something you want to give to a preschooler?). Clearly they do not know the difference. Feh. Not your fault.


I am curious....was the animal handler told ahead of time that a large portion of the children were special needs?

I have two oldest didn't "get it" most of the time when he was little. He wouldn't even cry at movies. My 2nd showed empathy at a very small age....around 3....if he watched anything with an animal or person getting hurt he would instantly get teary eyed.

Each kid is different....gotta hand it to you did better than me because I would have spanked my kid's ass if he had done that :)

Kristin J

I agree with what most people have said. He is still so young and the compassion and empathy are going to come later. It doesn't sound like he was intending on hurting anything. He probably laughed at the GASPS of the crowd and was curious about what would happen if "pet" the tortoise on the head with his foot.

It sounds like the animal handler could have "handled" himself differently too. You are a great Mom, keep up the good work and the rest will fall into place.


Oh, I can so relate to the feeling of "OMG, I'm the parent of THAT kid" and then the next minute your anger swells and it's "OMG, who are YOU to look at ME like that?? My kid is AWESOME." *SIGH*

Keli Maye

Like everyone else, I too want to assure you that Noah is perfectly normal for his age. Heck, I used to drop my pet hamster on purpose when I was little, and I have, indeed, grown into a well-adjusted vegan.

By the by, I think you are 100% right to cull all videos that depict people or animals in pain or humiliation as funny. This is a good step towards encouraging the empathy and compassion your son will eventually and age-appropriately develop. At the very least, you will not have to deal with the cognitive dissonance between the two message of "we shouldn't inflict pain on animals" and "hahaha look at that bird--it flew into a window! Hilarious!"


You've gotten approximately 150 of these stories, but here's another. I used to play catch with my hamster. CATCH! As in, my friends and I would toss the poor thing back and forth to each other from across the room. Once, I tossed too hard and then thing hit the ceiling and died the next day. I was like 8 or something. I totally knew better. Now I'm an adult and I swear I don't store human heads in my freezer and I've never once gone on a murderous rampage.

Kids do these things, you are not the parent of a sociopath. I promise!


Thank you Amy for your response. I just find the whole ASD thing so confusing and what one professional might label PDD-NOS, another might not.

To the PP who said "those who are jumping on the ASD bandwagon because a four year old didn't show enough empathy for your tastes are being really tactless" that was not my intention. It was not just this story that made me suggest ASD, it was the a combination of all the previous stories of routine, speech delay, sensory issues, problems with socializing and riding a bike and whole bunch of other things. To a person who has been looking into the spectrum lately this sounds like ASD to me but I'm not a professional and Amy explains that it has been ruled out. Thank you.


Ok, so this might be mentioned somewhere, but tonight I just don't have the mental prowess to focus enough to read through everything. I know that a lot of people have told you it is normal. I work with kids, I study kids, and I do so with typical and special needs kids.

So: before you can develop empathy, you have to be able to understand that people, kids, animals, what have you, are completely separate beings with feelings that may not correspond with your own feelings at all. Easier with other human beings, because facial expressions, body language, tone of voice - all of those things and more are things that we are taught to read from day 1. With animals, it is way harder because their emotions aren't as visibly easy to read (it is a whole different category of body language).

I haven't read everything on your blog, but I remember him sliding, swinging, an riding a scooter... as well as I think I remember him jumping from a playhouse slide thing into a pool (?)... so to Noah, who was sitting on the ground and dropped a rabbit all of half of a foot or so... he probably thought it was fun for the rabbit because it would have been fun for him.

Typical typical typical typical. And you, by talking to him, by discussing it with him, by making him process it by having him repeat it to you... basically by giving him a reaction that he could read better (a human reaction), are on the path of teaching him and allowing him to develop empathy (on a typical path).

not supergirl

I have another good star story. So, Dawson, the son of a friend of mine, was at the local nature center with his mom years ago. He was maybe 5 or so. The staff members were talking about insects, how wonderful and interesting they were, how vital to our environment, all that. The kids were really into it, Dawson included (even though sharks were totally his fave back then). Then the staff started handing out a cricket to each kid to look at with a magnifying glass. The kids were intrigued, handling them so carefully. All except Dawson, who promptly dropped his on the floor and stomped it dead. His mom was mortified (and secretly a bit proud, too, because she hates when crickets get indoors). And he's another awesome, empathetic, sweet boy who dotes on his 5 younger siblings.

Mariana Perri

Amy Dear (I take the liberty to call you dear because from reading you so often, I have come to really like you!) -
he is a child! A toddler, mind you! He is allowed to, sometimes, go against all expectations as far as expected reactions go!
I have lost count of how many times I have, in the middle of a lecture, asked: "you do not want to go to time out AGAIN, do you?" and have gotten the immediate response of a defiant laughter and a "YES!"...
Take it easy dear... take it easy on you, on him, on all that goes on in a child's mind... Give your lecture and be done with it...


I consider myself an empathetic person to the point of absurdity sometimes, yet I remember being very young (5? Maybe 6?) and throwing rocks through a fence at RACE HORSES. I remember getting scolded by a nearby stranger, but I also remember how I felt as I was throwing the rocks: curious mostly. Could I hit the horse? What would happen if I did? Would they come over to see me? No malice was in my mind at all. And I've grown up to be normal (depending upon who you ask ;)).


Your story about being yelled at by your teacher gave me an immediate flashback to being yelled at by MY teacher. I was 6 years old at a new school and it was so humiliating and scary and frustrating and I can still feel everything I felt that day as I'm recalling it right now.

The animal handler was an asshole, and I'm sorry he was so rude to you. I wouldn't worry about Noah. Like everyone have said already, kids don't really develop empathy until they're 5 or 6. When I was around 5, I got angry at a little 3 year old girl who wrote the school bus home with me, and I tortured her the whole ride home. I pinched her incessantly until she cried (to this day I don't know why nobody intervened) and I didn't feel sorry at all for having done it. 20-odd years later, I'm being told I'm too empathetic towards small animals and children, so what do you know.


Honestly, I don't think what the animal handler said was very harsh. Image if some kid dropped your dog/cat on it's head and laughed? Even if that kid is 4...

My son is 4 in 2 weeks. He has many of the same issues as Noah. He also doesn't have much (any?) empathy. I'm sure that, with time and through learning, he will understand. I also think my son may be on the spectrum, and maybe Noah is as well? Aspergers? I work with families with kids on the spectrum and I cannot help comparing where their kids were at at 3-4 and where my kid is at now.


This is why I read your blog -- all of us have negative thoughts about our kids and it is a rare person who is willing to put it out there and say "SEE!!!??? What do YOU think??" I appreciate this about you, so much.

My almost 4 year old has little to no empathy, btw. That petting zoo guy overreacted due to HIS mishandling of the situation.

Dawn B

So today, the 4 year old walks up to me giggling, while his 3 year old sister cries and screams in timeout, and says, "I like it when Natalie's funny".
Yup, sometimes 4 year olds can act like assholes.


So, coming onto this topic really late, but just thought I'd throw my own animal horror story in. My little sisters - one of whom is such an animal lover our house was crawling with stray pets, and who could not kill a mouse, and the other who is now a vegan because she can't bear the thought of hurting an animal just to eat its flesh - used to just die laughing when a lizard would accidentally fall onto a ceiling fan and get processed to sliced smithereens. Laugh and laugh. Probably tossed some at the fan too. And DEFINITELY chopped some tails off those little suckers.
I think you're right to always be vigilant and involved with your child (I mean, if my mom busted them slicing off lizard tails, there was hell to be had) but I agree with all the posters that state that this is pretty typical of this age. You have a great little boy. He is not THAT kid, at all!


And people pay that guy to come to parties? Emotions and social situations take a lot of planning. He probably had no idea how to end the bunny interaction. I'd just encourage you not to shy away from animal petting things because of this. The repetition w/ the dyspraxia is everything. I've found for us that the 4-H petting exhibits at the rinky dink Ag-fairs are the easiest to navigate on your own terms. Re: emotions....someone just recommended to me Emily Rubin's Feelings Book -- commxroads dot com under resources

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