{Vegan Children} What should I tell my children about slaughterhouses?

This post is an extract of an article that I wrote in October 2009; it was published in the Dec 2009-Feb 2010 edition of Vegan Voice magazine.

When I wrote this article, my eldest child was 5, and my youngest (now 8 months) was just a twinkle in my eye!

‘Are there more meat eaters or vegans in the world’?

My daughter, 5,  posed this question recently. Oh, how I wish I could have answered ‘vegans, of course’!

She knows that some people eat chickens, cows and other non-human animals; that some people drink cows’ milk and eat eggs. But she has no idea of the scale of horrors that humanity inflicts on other beings. How could she? As an adult, I can barely comprehend it myself.

Like other vegans, I feel a great sense of sadness that billions of non-human animals suffer torment and misery at the hands of humans.

As a mother, it breaks my heart that my young children are growing up in a society that is largely indifferent to the suffering of non-human animals.

When I provided her with the irrefutable answer (‘meat eaters, unfortunately’), she asked the inevitable question: why?

My husband and I attempted to turn a complex issue in to a simple ‘5 year old’ answer, and still the explanation spanned many topics, such as history, culture, anthropology and politics.

Yet, the complexity of this question, and our attempt to answer it, paled in comparison to a question she asked me a few days later: how ‘food’ animals are killed. I was silent at first, weighing up whether to change the topic or lie to her. Instead, I provided her with the most toned down version I could manage without making it sound too innocuous and clinical. There was so much more that I could have said, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so.

I couldn’t tell her that the animals are filled with terror and fear as they watch their kin being killed, knowing that they are next. I couldn’t tell her that some animals are conscious when their throats are cut.

I feel sad that we live in a society where it is necessary for me to talk to my daughter about slaughterhouses and slit throats. Should I have lied, creating something more palatable for her sensitive, young ears? There is obviously a fine balance. I want my children to understand why their father and I have chosen veganism for our family, but I don’t want to burden them with distressing information that may traumatise them.

Parents of young vegan children can learn from the experience of Mary Eileen Finch. In her article, ‘Innocence Lost: Explaining Veganism to my Daughter’, Finch writes about the day that her 6 year old daughter Rebecca, a life vegan, discovered that some animals are a source of food for humans.

Rebecca was inadvertently exposed to a vegan pamphlet containing distressing photographs that her mother graphically describes as follows: ‘a butchered cow hang[s] from a hook with blood making a puddle on the floor… a sickly pig with a pus filled sore [lies] in his own filth while rats chew on his ears’. A sobbing Rebecca is incredulous ‘But why? Why would anyone want to eat them?’ She implores her mother, ‘Don’t they know it is hurting the animals?

Although Rebecca was aware that she ate different foods to most other people, no one had yet revealed to her that animals are raised for food. Finch laments, ‘I didn’t have the heart to tell an innocent child, someone who sheds tears over dead insects, that her beloved animal friends were potential meals’.

Conversely, Finch took a different approach with her son, Rebecca’s younger brother: ‘I began early on to mention to him that to some, animals are food. As a result he has never had a world shattering experience to upset him’.

I have avoided exposing my children to the types of images that Rebecca saw, as I fear that they would be distressed and horrified. I do not want them to see images of dismembered bodies when they close their eyes at night. This knowledge is a heavy burden for adult vegans to carry, undoubtedly the tiny minds of vegan children would be crushed under its weight.

Although I talk to my children about the health benefits of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains, I make no secret of the fact that we have chosen veganism for our family predominantly for animal rights reasons.

In the article ‘Mummy, Why Don’t We Eat Meat’?, clinical psychologist Dr. Debbie Glasser argues that parents should ‘develop their own way of explaining veganism to their kids’, with a focus on ‘positive examples’ rather thanhorror stories’.

Glasser comments that ‘a very sensitive child might be easily overwhelmed by a detailed explanation of where hamburgers come from’. She also suggests that ‘it might be best to stick with simpler explanations unless your child probes for more information’. A simple explanation could include the following:  ‘it’s respectful to the animals we love’. She also advocates sharing your motivations with your children by, for example, telling them that you don’t want to eat animals.

When my daughter was 2 years old, her father and I began to talk to her about veganism in simplistic terms. We told her that we didn’t eat eggs because ‘the chickens don’t like it when we take their eggs’. We explained that beef, chicken, and other ‘meats’ were dead animals. We told her that mummy cows made milk for their own babies, not for people.

Naturally, she became aware that many of our family members and friends ate non-vegan foods. To explain this, we basically told her that people who eat animals and animal products do not know that the animals are unhappy with the way humans treat them. I didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise.

She had a simple solution: Inform our family and friends that animals suffer and do not want to be eaten and, once equipped with this knowledge, they would all become vegans. Oh, if only it were that simple.

When my daughter questions me about veganism or animal rights issues I aim to be honest, within the boundary of an age-appropriate response. I tend to err on the side of brevity, and wait for her to ask further questions or seek clarification.

I am filled with apprehension at the thought of informing my children that many (most?) people are indifferent to the suffering of non-human animals.

When is the right time to tell my children that the deliberate killing of a lamb is not worthy of sorrow in our society? How should I reveal that dairy cows are robbed of their newborn calves because a capitalist economy prizes their milk not their sentience? How can I even begin to explain the motivations of people who shoot kangaroos and kill tiny joeys by stomping on their necks?  Why would I want to inflict this knowledge on young children?  I don’t know if I can help them to comprehend these horrors when I cannot even understand them myself.

My youngest child, 7 months, is blissfully ignorant to the horrors of the world. He loves a game or a song, and I revel in the fact that the world is a nurturing place for him, where he is loved and adored by his older siblings, parents and extended family. He squeals with excitement when he sees my parents’ large dog, eagerly crawling after him while attempting to engage with him.  One day, my son will learn about humanity’s despicable treatment of non-human animals, and that saddens me immensely. But for now, he explores the world with wonder in his eyes.

I use every opportunity I can to normalise veganism for my children. If we meet someone who is a vegan (or a vegetarian), I make a point of enthusiastically announcing the fact to my children.

Recently, we encountered vegan graffiti. The statement: ‘Don’t Eat Animals’ was written in black marker on the playground equipment that my kids were playing on. This was accompanied by a simple drawing of a pig’s face and the plea: ‘Don’t eat me’. I brought it to my daughter’s attention and read the words to her. Soon after, I saw her pointing it out to her (non-vegan) friend. She appeared to be quite animated and excited. I hope she realises that there are lots of people out there who believe that it is wrong to eat animals.

Maybe, not too far in the future, a 5 year old girl will ask her parents if there are more meat eaters or vegans in the world. And her parents will answer irrefutably ‘vegans!’……..

Well, one can have hope.

What have you told your vegan kids about the deaths of animals that are raised for food? Have you told them about slaughterhouses? Please share your experiences in the comments section.

About Ally
Mamma. Vegan. I blog at Made of Stars.

7 Responses to {Vegan Children} What should I tell my children about slaughterhouses?

  1. uberdish says:

    I love your writing. I love this post.

    I have a 13 and 9 year daughter who are HUGE animal lovers (how most kids are). I tend to avoid the subject of slaughterhouses because, even at their age, I think they’d have nightmares. I’m also not sure when will be the right moment. I have discussed with them, however, the reasons for us not drinking milk.

    • Ally says:

      Thank you so much for your kind comment. I really appreciate it:)
      Thank you for reading my article.
      I know what you mean about there not being a ‘right moment’ to talk about distressing subjects with our kids.
      Are your kids accepting of your explanations about why you don’t drink milk? I’ve kept it pretty simple so far. But my daughter is nearly 9, so a more complex explanation may soon occur.
      It’s nice to ‘meet’ you:)

      • uberdish says:

        Hi Ally – Yes, they are very accepting of my explanations about why we don’t drink cow’s milk. However, I am guilty of explaining our vegan lifestyle to them as more of a “healthy way” to eat, as opposed to the more compassionate reasons. I really need to do that. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous of doing so. We live in a small, rural town where most of our friends are farmers and/or hunters.

  2. Our almost two year old was in the supermarket, playing with chocolate bars and thinking it was hilarious. I could see why it was fun – they’re shiny and colourful, an she has no idea what’s in them. I crouched down and said “we don’t buy those, sweetheart. Those are made with milk that’s been taken away from baby cows. I could never let anyone take your [breast]milk, so we choose not to take baby cows’ milk”
    Her face became serious at the concept of milk being taken, and I knew that she got it. Now, when we walk past the same section at the shop, she scrunches up her face and says “no….no.”
    We haven’t had to explain too much else so far, but I’m not looking forward to the heartbreak.

    • Ally says:

      Hi Kath,

      I love your honesty, and the age-appropriate way that you conveyed the information to your daughter. Comparing it to her [breast]milk is such a logical way to describe it to her.
      What a sweetie she is. She knows that it isn’t right.

  3. Veganratlady says:

    I love this post Ally and I do remember reading your article in Vegan Voice.

    My son has been Vegan from birth. He is now 30 years old and certainly thanks me that he knew the truth and the reason why we never ate our best friends.

    I cannot ever remember eating meat as a child because the smell made me so sick. It still does to this day. When the day came that I found out that meat was actually the animals I truly loved more than life itself was when I felt totally betrayed by my parents. I honestly felt that because they knew how much I loved animals and yet still wanted me to eat them was totally betraying my innocence. Thankfully being strong willed I simply refused to eat it, night after night, week after week until my parents finally gave up and realised that I was never going to eat meat.

    I guess I never told my son the gory details either when he was young, just like you, I told him that we love them to much to eat them. I told him bits and pieces but not the true reality of the horror that humans inflict on these innocent souls everyday, purely for greed. I am in my mid 50’s I still have a hard time coming to terms with the reality and the enormous depravity of it all. I have not yet managed to wake up from the nightmare of Planet Earth.

    I think you are doing a wonderful job and yes, I too hope one day there will not even need to be a question regarding how many meat eaters there are – there will be none!

    Keep up the great work.

    • Ally says:

      Hi, Thank you for sharing the info about your childhood, for your honesty, and your encouragement.
      I am thrilled to hear about your son!:) I am happy to hear that he is vegan as an adult, and that he is grateful to you for raising him vegan. My dad recently apologised to me for raising me as a meat eater. He said that he wishes he had known then, what he knows in his heart now.

      I remember being lied to, by a very dear family friend that I had known since birth. I was probably my daughter’s age – maybe younger. I asked about cows; about the meat I was eating. She told me that the cow had died of old age. I remember it so clearly. I believed her.
      I never want to lie to my children so directly. I understand the importance of providing age appropriate information, but to deceive is a different matter. I do not feel comfortable deceiving my children about the source of their food. Therefore, they know that animals do not willingly sacrifice their lives for humans, and they certainly know that animals aren’t served up after dying of old age!

      There are so many horrors in this world and, I agree, there are things that we will never come to terms with. It is heart breaking. But it warms my heart to have contact with like minded people:) So, thank you for reading this piece and for leaving such an insightful comment. I appreciate it. It’s always great to reminisce about Vegan Voice too:)

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