Musings, philosophy, arguments on vegetarian living, from the heart of Europe (Belgium, that is).

Friday, May 4, 2012

Raising children vegetarian: brainwashing?

It's not every day that a picture book for children causes controversy. With a title like "Vegan is Love", however, criticism can be expected. Author Ruby Roth is being accused of bringing images and content to children which are not suitable for them. She's talking about where our meat comes from.
I agree with the idea that a message should always take its public into account, and that one has to be extra cautious in the case of children. Not everything is suitable for young readers or watchers. Roth's work may be a bit dark, but I don't for a second believe that she crosses a line, and I suspect there's other things that are making adult critics itchy. It's probably not so much about *how* the message of eating animals is being sold to children, but *that* it is being sold at all. The way animals are raised intensively and afterwards are killed for food, can undoubtedly be brought in a correct, not overly graphic way to children of a certain age. Roth herself puts it very nicely: if it's too cruel to talk about, it's certainly to cruel to eat.
In the context of this book, but also any time when the conversation is about parents raising their children vegetarian, the term "brainwashing" often comes up. Vegetarian parents are thought to impose their own ideology and preferences on their children, who have not made that choice themselves, simply because they are not old enough to make conscious decisions on this (or any more complicated) topic. I have some serious reservations about this argument.
As a parent you cannot help but make certain choices for your children. Also if you bring them up with meat, you make a choice. To many people this may not actually seem a choice because meat eating is the norm today. There are no reasons however, including in the domain of health, why it should be like that. People of all age groups, including babies and young children, can thrive on a balanced vegetarian or even vegan diet. Conversely, roughly 1 in 3 children in Europe (and more in the US) are now overweight. That's a direct result of this "normal diet" with which we raise them. It would therefore be difficult to argue that bringing up children with meat is in any way more valid, correct or justified than raising children without meat, and hence we should have no real need for additional arguments in support of the vegetarian option. Neither are there reasons to support the statement that children should be vegetarians only when they themselves have made a conscious decision to be vegetarians. Parents can make that decision for them.
Incidentally, my experience with vegetarian parents (I myself have no children) is that they are not overly fanatical in the vegetarian upbringing of their children. The children will of course get information on why the parents do not eat meat, they won't be served any meat at home and there won't be meat on their sandwiches to take to school. But they will hear from their parents about what meat is, that other people eat it, and often that if they want to taste it out of the house, they are free to do so. Unfortunately vegetarian parents must constantly defend and justify their perfectly justifiable choice to their family, friends, teachers, doctors, etc.
Eating meat is not a neutral idea or custom. The American psychologist Melanie Joy finds it problematic that a term such as vegetarianism exists, while there is no term for the norm (eating meat). Vegetarianism needs to be explained, but the norm doesn't. She points out that behind our habit of the daily and careless consumption of meat, there is also an ideology, which she calls carnism.
When we choose how to raise our children, the choice is not between the "normal option" (meat) and the ideological option, but between vegetarianism and carnism. Whoever tries to objectively analyse the pros and cons of both systems, may very well find that it makes more sense to raise a child vegetarian, to give it the necessary information when it reaches the right age, and then let it decide whether it wants to eat animals or not. Can this be told in a neutral and objective way, without influencing the child? That's probably rather difficult. But on the other hand: consider what parents tell their children when they spontaneously start to question meat (as many do, at a very young age). The parents will say that those animals didn't suffer, that they were bred for this purpose, or that this is just the way the world is and that we have to eat meat. Is *that* objective information?

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