Want to raise good kids? Then teach them to be kind to animals. That’s the goal for Nick Coughlin, founder of the Good Kid Project, a St. Paul-based business helping young people develop respect for all living things. His website features resources, stories of young activists and a conversation-starting card series called “We’re All Animals.” Written with his mother, Kathy Coughlin, an editor who grew up on a farm, the box set features 30 scenarios, some heartwarming, others tough, but all meant to address how we relate to animals in a nonjudgmental way. Coughlin, who shares his home with Pico, a spirited 5-year-old Australian cattle dog adopted from the Animal Humane Society, shares more below.
Q: Research shows violence by children against animals can be a warning sign of future violent behaviors. Why do you think this is true?
A: Kids often feel like they have little agency in their lives, and animals often represent the one opportunity they have to exercise power and experience a sense of control. Children who abuse animals may be acting out lessons learned at home by responding to their problems with violence, a reaction that tends to amplify over time. In almost every interaction, animals are at our mercy. Teaching kids the importance of handling that power with kindness cannot be overestimated.
Q: Let me guess. You were the kid who couldn’t even swat a fly?
A: I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I was a boy who abused animals. As the youngest of three kids growing up in a middle class family in St. Paul, I had loving and supportive parents with rather traditional values. Yet even with that strong family structure, I started acting out in the interest of “being cool” and fitting in. I remember throwing a dog into someone’s backyard with a friend. I pulled the legs off of ants and smashed others on the sidewalk with a hammer. I tried to shoot birds for fun at our family cabin. It sickens me to think about my behavior back then.
Q: How did you pivot?
A: At some point I got my hands on an issue of an animal rights magazine called the Animals’ Agenda, where I saw horrific things that humans do to animals for food, clothing, and entertainment. I became fascinated by animals and wanted nothing more than to spend time with them and help protect them from human cruelty.
Q: Why call the project, “We’re all Animals,” instead of, say, “Caring for Animals?”
A: I wanted to highlight the similarities we share with other animals rather than making it an “us” and “them” thing. The more we recognize others, whether human or nonhuman, as individuals who have needs and desires, just as we have needs and desires, the more likely we are to treat them with respect and kindness.
Q: How do you hope people use the “We’re All Animals” box set (goodkidproject.com/box)?
A: Each of the 30 cards is quite short, so parents don’t have to commit to reading all of them if they’re short on time. They can grab one card and read it with their child and have something to discuss during dinner. We included an adult guidebook so that if parents or teachers aren’t totally comfortable with or knowledgeable about a particular subject, they can look up suggested answers.
Q: You address the sweet rewards of friendships with animals. But you also tackle hot-button topics such as circuses and slaughterhouses. Many people like the circus and eat meat. How do you avoid alienating them and instead engage them in a thoughtful and respectful conversation around an issue that can feel emotional?
A: We were very conscious of the fact that several of these topics would be sensitive to some people. We did our best to meet people where they are, understanding that many folks haven’t ever thought of certain issues this way before. We didn’t want to come across as preachy or judgmental, and I hope we were successful.
Q: You’re a vegetarian now, but did your family eat meat when you were a kid?
A: Our parents told us that we were our own people and could eat as we chose outside of the home, but in our house we did not eat animals. I think that flexibility allowed us the space and freedom to actually think about where our food came from.
Q: Do you ever get pushback about your activism?
A: When someone asks me a question or challenges my position, I take the opportunity to present a friendly response and ask some of my own questions that might get them thinking about the issue in a new way. In many ways, we seem to have lost the ability to have civil conversations today and I hope “We’re All Animals” can play a role in reversing that trend.
Q: What do you hope people of all ages take away from your project?
A: I want people to take a fresh look at our relationship with others, both human and nonhuman. This isn’t only about teaching kids to treat animals with kindness, because kids who learn to treat animals with kindness will naturally begin to treat other people with kindness, too. It’s about shifting from a self-obsessed culture to one where we think critically about how our choices might affect someone else. Ours is a tool that uses simple, charming stories to open up conversations and get kids to start thinking about how we relate to others. Let’s start talking about difficult issues with patience and understanding.