November 3, 2012 7 Comments
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 than ‘horror 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.