Wednesday, December 30, 2009

vegan children, a recipe

I've been coming to fisticuffs lately with a vegan friend over whether or not it's appropriate ('ethical' seems overly strong) for vegan parents to raise their children vegan. This came up because as part of a book exchange with her I read The Ethics of What We Eat, by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. In the book, the reader is introduced to a nice little vegan family with two kids, ages six and ten. The youngsters are eager to talk about all the reasons why they're vegan, including animal welfare and land and resource use.

Compared to most non-vegans, I'm sympathetic to veganism. A well balanced vegan diet is perfectly healthy. And if you can live well without using animals, it seems reasonable to do so if you choose. Because a child of a vegan parent lives in a home with vegan pantries and refrigerators, he'll have to be almost entirely vegan by default, and that's fine. But I think things get a little more complicated when the child leaves the home. Should the child be burdened with upholding vegan standards amongst the non-vegans? Must he inquire of the ingredients of birthday cake and refuse it. Cupcake or pizza parties in the classroom? Meals at the homes of friends? Must the child refuse a gift of a leather jacket or belt or boots, say, when an aunt or friend of the family forgets about the family's unusual practices? Should they feel guilty when they accidentally imbibe something with milk in it? These hefty standards are too much.

The kids in the book are conveniently home-schooled. But if that weren't the case, my friend claims parents can send vegan snacks with the children to whatever events they attend, and supply teachers with vegan alternatives for snack occasions in the classroom. Kids should learn that it's okay to be different, of course, but I don't like the idea of saddling a kid with something that unnecessarily sets him apart from his peers.

More importantly, I suspect a raising a child as a strict vegan requires a certain amount of brainwashing. This was the case in the book. The ten-year-old from the book made this creepy adorable statement: "Mom, I love gymnastics, but it's not my real life. My real life is activism." The mother is an activist, so of course the daughter wants to be one as well. As a libertarian and frequent critic of public schools, I tend to cut homeschooling a lot of slack, but there's a reason so many homeschooling parents are evangelical, young-earth creationist Christians: it's easier to make your kids believe weird things if they aren't exposed to differing views.

Veganism (much more than vegetarianism) is indeed similar to young-earth creationism, extra-Utahan Mormonism, atheism, libertarianism, and eco-communism in this way. Richard Dawkins loves to point out that there are no Christian children or Muslim children, nor Republican or Democratic children, because these ideologies do not follow one out of the womb; they are learned. And the ideas underpinning the ideologies are far too complicated for a child to truly understand until they're much much older. Brainwashing them with belief systems before they have learned to think critically handicaps them. I think this is correct, and I think the case is stronger for the really bizarre sets of beliefs at the top of this paragraph. Democrats and Republicans are, for better or worse, part of mainstream American culture. A child will have to understand these aspects of society one way or another to fully function as a member of the society. A relatively un-dogmatic upbringing as a Democrat or Republican could be seen as little more than an introduction to American civics. I hesitate to say something similarly charitable for moderate, mainstream religious traditions (differing from Dawkins), but the case could be made.

It's tempting to think "My [quirky] philosophy is so obviously true and good, of course I should raise my children in this manner." I feel the same way about, say, atheism. But preserving a child's ability to form her own ideas, at least partially, inevitably porously shielded from the overwhelming influence of her parents is a worthier goal. I could raise my children explicitly as atheists, inculcating in them the fallacies of theism and images of all the horrible things people have done in the name of religion throughout history at such an early age that they would likely be forever immune to Christian proselytizing (unless that's their chosen form of rebellion). But I'd rather try to keep my biases and ideologies to myself as much as possible, teach them to ask questions, answer those questions honestly as they arise, and then hope that with curiosity and critical thinking, they will come round to my way of thinking anyway. A vegan parent should do the same. And a Marxist parent, and a kosher Jewish parent, etc.


  1. If a parent believes meat is murder, it makes sense to communicate that value to her children. Now if the child doesn't want to be vegan, I think it's poor parenting to force that value and potentially ostracize the kid.

    Generally I think kids like taking values from their parents and at a certain point will question everything.

  2. My (pie in the sky) hope is that by the time my future children are old enough to be attending school, veganism will be just another alternative to the typical American diet, and not something other parents find "weird" or "cruel" (as in depriving a child of something) in any way.

    When I was in elementary and high-school, most of my school events had food options for Muslims. When I worked at a day-camp, we catered to a number of kids who kept khosher. I guess there is power in numbers, but there is no reason why the same couldn't (and should) be done for veg*n kids. Birthday parties are a more difficult situation. I don't have an answer to this yet, other than to make our food choices known to the host beforehand, bring a vegan offering and not sweat the small stuff.

    I see no reason in hiding my veganism from my future children so long as I also encourage the type of questioning and learning you speak of. I am angry that it took me 18 years to wonder about where my food came from. I would not dare keep this knowledge from my children on purpose. If, eventually, they choose another diet, so be it. Ultimately, I think part of being a good parent is accepting your kids regardless of dietary choices, sexual orientation, career path, etc.

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