How to Teach Empathy By Saving Ants

There is a great big world out there. It’s amazing and beautiful and awesome and sometimes scary. And introducing your children to it is intimidating. How do you do it the right way? I’m convinced I’ve already failed at that plenty of times, but I’m going to keep trying to make the right choices when raising my kids.

Happy toddler

We are an outdoorsy family. Our ideal vacation? It’s not a resort, cruise, or amusement park. We are woods, mountains, and streams people. We spend a lot of time hiking and exploring. Even in our backyard, we hunt around for neat bugs, new flowers, toads, fireflies, and crazy mushrooms.

Kids exploring ourside

So when Lyra reached the age where she started interacting independently with her wild surroundings, we wanted to ensure that she was doing it safely and considerately. In other words—we wanted her to respect Mother Nature.

Kids exploring outside

Ants are one of the smallest visible pieces of our backyard ecosystem and killing them is easy. I see kids doing it all the time. There aren’t any natural repercussions because there’s always another ant to take the dead one’s place. They don’t fight back. They don’t make an unpleasant noise or mess when they die. Ants are just a convenient target for children who are learning about their environment.

Kids and wildlife

Looking at the big picture, a dozen ants killed by a bored kid isn’t going to upset the natural balance of the ecosystem. Objectively, it doesn’t matter.

But we don’t let our 3-year-old kill ants. Here’s why.


Lyra empathizes with other children. She comforts and encourages her friends when they are sad or scared. She empathizes with our dog when Banjo is excited and playful. She’s naturally achieved that level of empathy.

We’ve taught her to empathize with other creatures as well. We bought a delightful little toad house for our resident garden toad and encouraged Lyra to say goodnight to the toad every evening. That evolved to her wanting the toad to have a water dish with fresh water daily, because “It’s too hot outside for Toadly” and decorating the toad’s yard with her own hand-painted rocks.

We’ve taught her to empathize with the rolly-pollies (pill bugs) by learning about their living habits and explaining to her that they live with their families underground, so after we play with them, we must always return them home. We would never want them to be away from their families.

Kids exploring wildlife

She empathizes with the millipedes on our driveway, calling them all her friends and holding them gently. She feeds the grasshoppers grass so they can be happy. She releases the fireflies we catch in the evenings so they can reunite with their friends.

Lyra is our nature child. She identifies the cicadas buzzing in the treetops; she points out the hawks soaring overhead; she caws at the crows. When we go on hikes she collects acorns and pinecones so we can grow more trees. She likes snakes and frogs and worms.

Killing an ant won’t affect the ecosystem, but it might chip away at that tender empathy that she showers on everyone and everything. Instead, we’re hoping that small acts of compassion towards the most insignificant creatures will snowball into giant acts of compassion that shape her into the person she will become.

Kids playing outside

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