Is It Cruel to Raise My Sons to be Vegetarians?

Raising my boys vegetarian is about sharpening their minds, not restricting their choices.
Publish date:
February 25, 2014
children, health issues, vegetarianism, diet, vegetarian, fast food

My wife and I had barely finished exchanging happy/panicked looks and sipping champagne after a positive pregnancy test when Parenting magazine began arriving, unsolicited, in our mailbox. We weren’t sure how they knew; but suddenly, in the eyes of marketers everywhere, we were part of that large and lucrative parents-with-young-children market, and apparently in need of some childcare tips along with our advertisements for Gerber and Gymboree. Tips on how to manage your toddler’s tantrums in the supermarket aisle, when you are still in the early stages of pregnancy, do not necessarily make comforting reading.

Here’s another thing I wasn’t sure I needed: to know what Parenting and its readers thought of my plans to raise my child vegetarian. Fourteen months after the birth of my first son, however, that’s precisely what the October 2009 issue brought me. Parenting had undertaken to poll their readers on the question, “Is it cruel to make your preschooler follow a vegetarian diet?” 63% of respondents said “yes,” and the remaining 37% said “no.”

In an odd way, I did need that poll, because it prodded me to think about vegetarian parenting and power, about what it means when you make a choices for your kids that restrict the things they can do (or eat) in the service of invisible others. In this case, those “others” are animals whose lives bear almost no resemblance to the happy barnyard pigs and cows that appear, a ceaseless happy lie, in the books on my kids’ shelves.

With the question worded any other way, the Parenting magazine poll results would almost look good for vegetarianism. After all, in a country where somewhere between seven and thirteen percent of adults identify as vegetarian or vegan (depending which polls you read), a 37% expression of some support for vegetarian parenting should be a big win.

But back to that wording: “Is it cruel to make your preschooler follow a vegetarian diet?” The magazine framed the question as one about choice and power, casting vegetarianism as a primarily restriction of choice, and vegetarian parenting as so blatant an exercise of power that it might just be cruel. With the bar set that low, those thirty-seven percent of respondents who said “no” could have been expressing nothing more than a reasonable belief that serving your kid black bean burritos instead of steak chimichangas is probably not child abuse. And as for the other 63%, well, apparently to them it is.

The first two chapters of the literary and political theorist Elaine Scarry’s landmark book, The Body in Pain, describe the ways in which ordinary language fails to express, and sometimes even obfuscates or inverts, the experience of pain. In the book’s opening chapters on torture and war, Scarry catalogues these distorting patterns of speech: for example, wartime communiqués in which inanimate objects such as helicopters and bases are described as “wounded” or “injured,” as if they had sentience, while at the exact same time the deaths of sentient soldiers and even civilian populations are referred to using abstractions such as “neutralized” or “liquidated.” Parenting’s wording of the vegetarianism question wasn’t just “harsh” or melodramatic; it enacted a neat displacement of precisely the sort that Scarry describes. The concept of cruelty, central to the concerns of many parents who choose not to feed meat to their children, was neatly detached from the experiences of millions of animals who live in confinement and misery and then die in filthy slaughterhouses every year. Then Parenting’s poll re-attached it—ta-da!—to vegetarian parents, whose cruelty the magazine invited us to consider.

Crucial to the suggestion that vegetarian parents might be cruel is the idea that they “make” their kids do something, perhaps something unnatural, depriving them of their carnivorous heritage as well as the great American value of individual choice. Vegetarian parents are accustomed to seeing their own parenting labeled in this way. It is as if Maggie and J.J. down the road went to Safeway themselves to pick out the factory-farmed turkey in their sandwiches, while poor Aiden’s mom and dad forced him to eat lentil soup. As if antibiotic-laden, processed chicken “fingers” were the natural food of our ancestors, while tofu is zapped out of an alien machine.

The simple truth lost in all of this mysticism is that most kids are not choosing the foods served to them (if they did, we would see so many more recipes incorporating Oreos) and meat-eating households are neither more democratic nor more “natural” than vegetarian ones. In fact, if we consider transparency an indispensible part of a democratic system, we should probably take into account that most parents who put a roast chicken on the table are banking on their kids not asking where it came from—or, in the event they do, that they’ll buy the familiar story about the happy barnyard (Jonathan Safran Foer, describing how the birth of his own first child turned him back to committed vegetarianism, says it was the shame of telling this false story that he—a professional storyteller—couldn’t bear the thought of).

My older son actually has some choice. He admits a tendency to “accidentally” eat the meat offerings at school lunch from time to time. I understand that elementary school is an important place for him to work out living independently of his parents: to adapt to other adult authority figures, form his own friendships, learn Katy Perry songs, and so on. I also understand that he’s surrounded by meat and meat-eaters all day at school, and that consistency, at his age, is a lot to ask. One day, he tries the orange chicken at the cafeteria; another, he attaches a sign to his bicycle that says “Stop Killing the Animals.” He is figuring out, as we all must, how to line up his knowledge, principles, and practices in a way that works for him. If he didn’t contradict himself from time to time, I’d be worried.

This son is a wildlife enthusiast; he spends months at a time obsessed with jellyfish, or raptors, or snakes. While I have learned to accept his dietary explorations, I have a harder time with the wildlife-related, child-oriented cultural production he consumes.

The Wild Kratts, his favorite superheroic wildlife rescuer brothers, introduce a different species in each episode of their PBS Kids show, and then leap from their live action bodies into animated (younger, skinnier) incarnations. Gaston Gourmand, one of the Kratts’ villains, is a dastardly chef who only wants to cook endangered species. Over on Nickelodeon, Dora the Explorer and her cousin Diego reunite wolf pups with their mothers and save dolphins from fishing nets. Yet Dora’s image is also used to sell packages of Dr. Praeger’s lightly breaded “fishies”—Alaskan pollock who are caught in mammoth nets, processed beyond recognition, and then turned into nuggets that have the friendly, rounded shRape we prefer in our depictions of fish.

In the world of Dora, Diego, and the Wild Kratts, we must only feel sorry for the dolphins caught by accident, not the fish the nets are intended to catch. No reference can be made to the animals the show’s young viewers regularly eat—who, by virtue of the fact that they don’t have talons or spit venom or shoot ink, will never be rescued. No one will ever be depicted as a Wild Kratts villain for eating a cow. So part of the hidden curriculum delivered in these educational shows is the concept Safran Foer calls the “species barrier”—the irrational wall that makes people cringe with horror at the thought of eating dog, or of unwanted dogs being euthanized at a shelter, even as they reach for a slice of a highly intelligent, emotionally complex animal that has been turned into bacon.

One of the most earnestly promoted goals of higher education, my field of employment, is to instill “critical thinking” in college students. Difficult to define, yes, but here’s a decent place to start: in a recent Chronicle of Higher Educationarticle, Stanley Katz suggests that college should help students “develop intellectual BS detectors.” I can think of no more ubiquitous, less questioned parcel of BS in American life than the species barrier. To be a vegetarian in this factory-farming society means becoming sensitive to its regimes of visibility and invisibility: to the attention lavished on dogs and cats while cows and chickens are tortured and killed, to the way words like “cruelty” and “choice” are selectively applied. In other words, to be a vegetarian among carnivores—that lifestyle I am “forcing” on my kids—is to develop one heck of a BS detector.

I may not be sending my kids to weekend tutoring or bombarding them with flash cards. But I care about their success. As we sit around the table and occasionally talk about what we eat (and related issues, such as why people we love eat meat, and why we love them anyway), I am giving them training in critical thinking that I think will serve them throughout their lives. I look forward to the inevitable day when they turn around and use this tool against me—when my ways of eating, talking, and doing business come under fire from their unsatisfied, sharp minds.

In Fast Food Nation, his survey of America’s cheap eats, Eric Schlosser famously wrote: “There is shit in the meat.” From the happy barnyard storybooks to the species barrier, there is also a helping of metaphorical BS that goes along with it. I don’t want my kids eating shit; and I also don’t want to fill their brains with bullshit so they can stomach what they’re eating. Is that so cruel?

Reprinted with permission from The Good Men Project.