Circus puts parents' values in center ring
By KATHERINE SNOW SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 21, 2001
Michael and McCord Pagan didn't walk down Fifth Avenue S toward the circus last week. They charged.
Nine-year-old Michael, dressed in a puffy white hat with red polka dots, skipped while his younger brother tried to contain his pace to a slow gallop.
But they both paused at the corner to read the signs three animal rights protesters silently carried.
"Welcome to Elephant Hell," Michael read aloud. "I don't get it."
Still, his mood wasn't dampened. He told me that he watched the animals carefully last year and thought they seemed fine.
"Why do they want to have a circus and not have animals," McCord added.
The boys' mother, Maureen Pagan, said she had told them ahead of time there may be protesters and that it was an example of free speech.
Parents' reaction to the protesters varied. Some drove around the block to avoid dealing with them altogether. Others silently agreed but looked the other way and hoped their kids would too.
"I'm one of these people. I think it's wrong myself," Rick Jilkes said referring to the caged animals. "I think the circuses without animals are a great idea -- and places like Busch Gardens. But kids love the circus. I'm here because of them."
Add going to the circus to the list of times when parents may believe one thing, do another and hope their kids don't notice or find out. Of course, usually they do.
We teach kids to help those less fortunate. But many of us drive or walk by homeless folks looking for some loose change as if they aren't there. We tell them to always treat animals with total love and compassion. Maybe we're not sure that's always the case at the circus but let's just, uh, have some more popcorn and look at that hilarious clown.
We teach children to throw the plastic milk cartons in the recycling bin at home so they can help save the planet. But when we're out where there isn't an easy recycling receptacle few of us lug all of our plastic and aluminum trash home.
I taught my oldest daughter early not to throw straw wrappers or tissues on the ground. Before she could even understand about laws, I told her it could hurt the birds if they ate it and got it stuck in their throats. Now she wants to walk to the far corners of every grocery store parking lot to pick up a paper cup skipping across the asphalt.
"No. It's too far away," I tell her.
"But what about the poor little birds?" she croons.
"Oh they know not to mess with that," I mumble and quickly change the subject.
Well, we can't be expected to practice everything we preach. But it helps if we have a decent explanation when we sometimes stray from our usual mantra.
I called Jay Kaminsky, executive director of Temple Beth-El, to get his thoughts on how parents might explain why they don't always give to the homeless.
Kaminsky makes a point of giving something to people asking for help -- unless it's the same needy person on the same corner every day. Then he explains to his kids that God expects us to make mistakes, but he wants us to learn from our mistakes. If you do have to draw a hard line, he thinks children don't lose the importance of sharing and helping others if you have given something along the way.
"It's very hard to teach a child to share at age 11 when he's led by the example of "what's yours is yours,' " Kaminsky said. " "Do as I say, not as I do' doesn't really hold much water."
Child psychologist Denis Donavon agrees that consistency is key. Still, there are times when we can explain why we're doing something that may seem different from the lessons and morals we teach.
"If you reason with the child they will probably understand that we always have choices," he said. "You can tell them, "We can't stop and give everyone money. It makes more sense to us to choose an organization or group or church and let them do it because they can reach more people.' "
Even if our kids do think we're treading in some gray area once in a while it shouldn't undo all we've taught so far, he said, as long as we're consistent for the most part.
"Fortunately our kids don't nail us to the logical wall on each and every instance," he said. "The way their mind works is on patterns."
Dawn Patterson and Patricia Sharpe tried their best to explain both sides of the animal rights issue to their 8-year-old son.
"We told him that there are some circuses that aren't as wealthy that don't take the best care of their animals," Patterson recounted. "I think Barnum & Bailey would never hurt its animals."
"But we said everybody has a right to their opinion and that's the way it should be," Sharpe said. "That's why this is America."
Kris Dotson, a member of the American Humane Society and Florida Voices for Animals, was one of the non-confrontational protesters carrying signs at the circus. She said she gets mixed reactions from parents and children, though most don't seem bothered.
"One mother asked me to stop shouting obscenities at her children," Dotson recalled, saying she's never done anything like that. Some ask questions or take fliers quoting a recent Dateline NBC segment on animal abuse in the circus. Most just walk by.
"One time I was at the Ice Palace, and the mom and dad walked by yelling at me," she said. "But as soon as they got past me their little boy turned around and gave me a thumbs up. It made my day."
- You can reach Katherine Snow Smith by e-mail at Oliviachar@aol.com; or write Rookie Mom, St. Petersburg Times, PO Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.
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