The praying mantis never had a chance.

Not when the boy lifted the rock the size of a cantaloupe over his head. Not when the other children cocked their arms back, fists full of stones, ready to fire down on the insect per the boy’s command.

A morbid thought crossed my mind. What would a praying mantis pray for if it knew its life was threatened? Would it pray for help? I’d bet yes.

That’s what I was thinking. My friend, the mother of Baby Girl’s classmate,  was thinking more humane thoughts.

She rushed over to the children and quickly de-escalated the situation, semi-scolding the kids for attempting to kill the bug. She masterfully walked the fine line of not openly criticizing a child in front of his or her parent while simultaneously reminding all of them that what they were about to do was not okay.

The kids holstered their arms. The rocks fell to the concrete. My friend picked up the praying mantis and let it crawl into a tree.

It was a telling moment on several levels. I felt like I had been watching a watered down version of Lord of the Flies play out in real time. In the beginning, the kids seemed mesmerized by this living, breathing, long, green stick that stood idle on the school walkway. Soon though, the awe factor devolved into a form of controlled madness as one little boy made the decision to kill the bug then convinced others to follow his lead. When he raised the rock above his head, it was as if William Golding’s prose had come to life. Roger was about to drop the boulder onto Piggy.

But unlike Piggy, the praying mantis was spared when my friend intervened and reason took over.

What we had just observed could only be categorized as a very interesting sociological and behavioral study. Some children led. Some followed. Some ignored the crowd. One group chose to participate in the attempted act of killing. Another chose against it.

What did each child’s decision say about him or her? What did it say about the nature of leadership? About following? About peer pressure and influence? About knowing who to follow and why? What did it say about teaching children empathy for another living creature? Or was I making this into something bigger than it was? I graduated with a degree in communication, not psychology. Also, wasn’t I the kid who would go around the creek pelting lizards with a BB gun?

Then the self-reflection questions came. Why hadn’t I stepped in with my friend? Why did I watch from the sidelines instead of make a move to stop the kids? What did my inaction teach Baby Girl as she watched from a distance?

When my friend returned, I praised her for acting like the only adult in the group. There were several other parents like myself who stood around and did nothing. She laughed it off almost with a tinge of embarrassment. There was nothing to be embarrassed about. If anything, I was the one who felt embarrassed.

Bigger picture: At what age do we really begin to understand the difference between right and wrong? How do you explain morals and ethics to a child who’s first question is, “why?” How do you answer that? “Because it just is.” “Because that’s the law.” “Because I say so.” “Because how would you feel if…”I think the answer may lie in the last response.

As for the kids who were likely just following the leader, it was a stark reminder that even at this young age everyone is susceptible to peer pressure – which, given the context of our history and the new world we find ourselves living in, is a bit unsettling and yet not all surprising.

I was comforted to see that Baby Girl was not among those about to lay waste to the bug. Once the praying mantis was safely in the tree, Baby Girl and two friends gathered up sticks and leaves in an attempt, I believe, to build it a little nest or shelter. A safe house where it would be protected from the dangers of the uncivilized world.

Later, I asked Baby Girl about her thoughts on the incident. She told me she didn’t understand why the kids were trying to hurt the insect. It hadn’t done anything. I reinforced the point by asking the, “how would you feel if…” question. Seemed like she understood. Then I got into the gray area by asking, what if the insect had done something to the children? Would that have made it okay? No, she said. Why? I asked. Because, she said,  it’s wrong.

The gentle breeze that brushed through her hair? That was my sigh of relief. Give a point to Mom because I sure hadn’t drilled that thinking into Baby Girl. I had been the one standing on the sidelines. I had been the casual observer. And, to be honest, I felt a little guilty.

I’ve since talked to Baby Girl about standing up for others, especially those who can’t stand up for themselves – a lesson that seems all the timelier considering our current national climate. And if she doesn’t remember my words, maybe she’ll remember the bug – that praying mantis who, thanks to my friend, had its prayer answered.

Copyright 2017 Damien Alameda. All Rights Reserved.

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