Vegan children, meaty world: dealing with overlap

March 3, 2010

This week’s question to the Council of Vegan Parents actually spanned two weeks of puzzles! While we’ve got over 30 parents on the Council now, some problems are still common enough that it’s hard to find examples of problems and solutions that worked.

(And of course, that’s a cue for another call for volunteers!)

Council member Julie was looking for some help with balancing vegan values with “stuff happens” in the eyes of a small child, after having a few issues with her son freaking out after accidental contact with animal products – the kinds of things an adult could easily shrug off, but for a three year old, it’s like the world just ended, which prompted the question of how to manage things when your child doesn’t mesh well with a non-vegan world.

As a related followup, Dean was wondering how other parents explained where animal products come from without scaring the kids or creating the impression that mommy is a murderer or grandpa is a flesh-eating killer. While it can be easy enough to frame the “why vegan?” question to a young child, doing it in a way that doesn’t suggest that omnivorous family and friends are bad people can be a different game entirely.

We ended up combining the two questions, which sparked a lot of interesting ideas! Let’s take a look at how other members of the Council of Vegan Parents addressed things:

Talk talk talk talk talk

By far, most of the advice given this week was about having extended conversations that are age appropriate, and also doing a little extra work to remind kids to be polite and not tell everyone they’re wrong (though from the stories we recieved, it looks like lectures from children are pretty common, and hey, I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing 🙂

Kristie “explains, gently, that meat, dairy cheese, cow’s milk, etc., come from animals, and we don’t eat animals, we love animals, just like we love mommy and daddy and other family members.” She’s in a mixed household, but the “is daddy a bad person because he eats animals” question hasn’t come up yet.

Kim goes with this approach: “we say some people eat meat, some people don’t. We talk about why we don’t use food, leather, etc. from animals in a positive way. It’s better for animals, better for us, better for the earth kind of thing. But we always say that it’s really important to be polite and not hurt people’s feelings. So now instead of saying ‘OH GROSS!!!’ and completely freaking out when family members eat meat, my kids say ‘We love animals, we don’t eat them.’ Sometimes they throw in “we don’t kill them and eat them” but still… We try to encourage our kids to lead by example rather than lecturing, but with little guys some lecturing happens :)”

Linda’s 4 1/2 year old is entering a stage where she’ll ask why anyone would eat animals: “I usually just explain that most people grow up eating that way. I tell her it’s hard for some people to change the way they eat. Then I tell her how lucky we are for knowing not to eat animals in the first place. This seems fine for her at this point.”

Rebecca generally falls back on “we wouldn’t do this in our home, but they do it (in theirs, at school, etc.) and, while we’re sad about their choice, we can’t force them to change their behavior. People learn and change at their own pace. If they ask us questions about being vegan, then we can answer them.”

Al’s already written up a great blog post about some of his daughter’s experiences and conversations that you really need to check out directly – it’ll really get your mind working!

Focus on things in common

One approach Julie’s been having success with is to focus on how much her family has in common with non-veg family and friends. As she puts it, her son “was ecstatic when he figured out that ‘cow people’ can eat vegan food, too, and that grandpa can eat tofu and beans and (insert random favorite-food-of-the-week here) just like we can, because vegan food is ok for everyone to eat.”

Julie finds that various “course corrections” are helpful: “We still get some pushback from him; he’ll say that he hates people who ‘are cow’ (‘hate’ is apparently a favorite word when you’re three – lots of strong emotions and not enough words to describe them all!) We’ve had a lot of talks about how he doesn’t hate grandma; he loves grandma and wishes that grandma was vegan like he is.”

Teach by example

Children are great at mimicking your behaviour (good and bad!) so simply being yourself and providing good examples can go a long way.

Meredith says “I think he’s probably learning to do what I do with family, just ignore the bad stuff (meat-eating and relatives who hunt) while enjoying the good stuff (playing games, watching movies, laughing at silly old photos from gatherings past).”

Understand the brain

Jacob didn’t have an example from his own life, but he did pass on a helpful podcast from This American Life (it was in episode 400, “Stories Pitched by our Parents.”, but apparently only in the podcast version, which is confusing the crap out of me so if someone could please post a link in the comments along with a time marker, it’d be a big help…)

In it, they explain that some kinds of upper level reasoning simply aren’t possible for a young child whose frontal cortex hasn’t developed. The example in that case was a child who couldn’t understand someone who was Jewish but also celebrated Christmas. In her mind, the definition of Judaism was “someone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas” and the resulting paradox was more than she could figure out.

Jacob suggested that both incidental contact and cases where family members eat animals are things that a child can’t work out if, for example, “being vegan” means “being a good person” and then the alternative is, clearly, unfathomable.

It’s also important to realize that the idea of death takes a while to fully understand, so the concept of killing animals might not mean as much as the idea of eating like Mommy and/or Daddy do. Killing might be understood as “a bad thing” but the actual details take a while to sink in – while it’s for humans, I found this resource helpful while researching this topic.

Further reading

Steph picked out a few points from Joanne Stepaniak’s “Raising Vegetarian Children” that are worth considering:

  • The best approach is the honest one – it will depend on your circumstances, age of the kids, etc.
  • Just because some people eat meat, doesn’t make them “bad” – they may just be unaware, or unable to change
  • Some people practice their ethics through food, others do it in other ways – charitable acts, etc

As for books you can enjoy with your child, Al gave this recommendation: “the book That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals was Anna’s first exposure to the treatments of animals. I edit the book as I’m reading it, taking the ‘factory’ part out of the farm and making it more about use and less about treatment (because even animals who are treated well still shouldn’t be raised and killed for human consumption). The illustrations in that book are, I think, age appropriate. They drive home the point without traumatizing the kids.”

What about you? Has your child acted out due to the nonvegan actions of others, or “accidents”? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments so we all can grow together!

Thanks to Jacob, Elaine, Julie, Dean, Al, Kristie, Meredith, Kim, Steph, Dilip, Rebecca, and Linda for their help on this one!

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

jendiggity March 6, 2010 at 7:00 am

I'm still having trouble with the overlapping of MY vegan world and the meat-eating world. My baby shower is coming up and both my mother and my mother-in-law think I am being difficult because I am insisting on no meat and cheese platter or other non-veg friendly far. Okay, so saying, “NO death food,” was admittedly a little harsh.

I have wondered many, many times how our family will handle this topic when our little boy gets older. My plan so far is to explain that we are very LUCKY to know how much healthier and more natural it is to eat this way and how much luckier it is for the animals, too, because it means we don't have to hurt them for our food. Is teaching our kid to pity everyone else for not knowing better bad? I think at some point we'll probably be forced to be more PC than I'd like for the sake of our kid's social skills. I don't want him to b a bitter as his mother!

sayward March 6, 2010 at 7:17 pm

I just wanted to say thank you for putting together this awesome site. My son is now 3 days old so we're a bit early for most of what you cover, but it's great to know that this wonderful resource is out there. Keep up the great work!

jasondoucette March 6, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Wow, thanks, but more importantly, congratulations! Let us know if you have any questions!

jasondoucette March 6, 2010 at 7:50 pm

We've got a friend going through a similar mess with her shower, so good luck! Strange how “my house, my rules” doesn't always work in both directions, eh?

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: