Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Shooting Old Yeller

When my twins were about three years old their favorite movie was Old Yeller. The Disney movie set in Texas in the late 1800's about Travis and his dog, Old Yeller. At the time I was telling another mother, with amusement, how often they asked to watch it.

"Do you let them watch...the end?" she asked.

Of course, she was referring to when Travis the main character, has to shoot his dog Old Yeller who has contracted "hydraphoby" (rabies).

At first I thought she was joking! It had never dawned on me to hide that scene from them. It wasn't a bloody or gory moment and Travis was forced to do something he didn't want to do. I viewed it as a teachable moment to discuss death, grief and sadness.

Over the years the boys and I have watched a lot of wildlife documentaries to learn about our world and its animals. Most of the time I was disappointed because directors chose not to show any death in the animal kingdom. The giraffe barely escapes the lion or the reindeer gets away from the wolf. How will my children learn about the "circle of life" if its always edited out?

Life isn't like it used to be when America was an agrarian society. A time where children saw birth and death first hand out in the barn. They saw it, understood it and accepted it as a part of life. Growing up, my sisters and I spent part of every summer butchering chickens with Mom and Grandma. Grandma chopped off their heads, with a very dull axe, and our job was to catch the chicken after they were done flopping around. Yes, it was bloody. Yes, there were parts of it I didn't enjoy. But I liked to eat I did the job and went on.

The only first hand experience my boys have had with death was when Knothead the dog killed a squirrel in front of them. My dad still laughs hysterically over that story but that is another post for another time.

Last week I found Disney's EARTH documentary and I applaud it. Not only do they have Darth Vader (aka James Earl Jones) narrating but they aren't afraid to show the realities of death. The wolf catches the baby caribou. The lion pride takes down the elephant. The male polar bear starves because he can't hunt.

EARTH'S death scenes are never bloody or gruesome. In fact when the Great White Shark attacks it is almost a beautiful moment. The scene shows the shark leaping from the water while attacking its prey in slow motion and set to classical music. Of course, there were times while watching the film when the boys were uncomfortable. But they didn't want to turn it off and I answered all the questions they had. Death is a way of life and I wouldn't be doing my job as a parent if I wasn't educating my children about life and death.

So I am wondering, how have you had to handle this subject with your own children? What works? What doesn't? How did you come to terms with death growing up?


  1. We are on the same page, my father was always waking us kids up in the middle of the night if an animal was having a baby and my job was to collect the chicken heads after butchering. I would imagine that growing up on farms or in rural areas allows parents to have more teachable moments. Although I grew up on a farm I now live in suburbia and I think it is more difficult to teach my children about the circle of life than if we lived on a farm. We too, love the Planet Earth series. The boys know that the shark, for instance, isn't being mean, it is just being a shark. This is life. (I am of course talking about the "natural life cycle" I still don't let them watch the news)

  2. I've had to explain to my older daughter that if the lion didn't kill the young wildebeast then it wouldn't have any food and it would die, and it's babies would die.

  3. Good point about the news. There are way too many issues I am not ready to tackle; rape, terrorists,etc. There are days I don't even like reading the news :(

    As for chicken heads...i knew a girl who used to stick cigarette butts in the beaks afterward. We used to chase my sister around with them afterward too...i wasn't a very nice sister :P


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