The other day, a coworker came to me in a panic. Her 7 year-old daughter had been channel surfing on her own and ended up watching a special about meat production. The program had traumatized her to the point that she had proclaimed herself a vegetarian. My colleague expected this to be a brief phase, but, a month out, her daughter was still refusing to eat anything but pasta and bean tacos. Being a meat eater herself, she was totally at a loss as to what to feed her child.
I’m not a parent (yet) myself. But, being about that age, T and I have definitely put some thought into how we’ll raise our kids. Being a mixed omnivorous and herbivorous couple, this issue is a particularly important one for us. In trying to figure out what will be best for our own family, we’ve reflected a lot on our own childhoods and how they have impacted our relationship with food.
T grew up hating vegetables. In his household, meat was considered the real food and veggies were a necessary evil boiled to oblivion, minimally seasoned, pushed to the edge of the plate, and begrudgingly choked down.
My parents were what you might call conscientious meat eaters. They did eat some meat, especially fish and chicken, but vegetables were usually an important part of the main course and I understood early on that getting the last piece of broccoli, for instance, was a special treat.
Still, I can’t help but wonder if there was something innate about my attraction to a plant-based diet. As a kid, T would eat burgers everyday if his parents allowed him to. No matter how they were prepared, vegetables like cauliflower and brussels sprouts tasted too bitter (and still do). I, on the other hand, virtually never chose to order meat when I was a kid, and found linguini with Alfredo sauce sickeningly rich. My favorite lunch to bring to day camp? Spaghetti noodles with teriyaki sauce. The most exciting part of going to Fluky’s Hot Dogs, Old Country Buffet, or Wendy’s? The salad bar, of course, and maybe a chance to top my baked potato with sunflower seeds. I was also the kind of kid who, the first time I saw a cow being milked by a big complicated metal machine at Lincoln Park Zoo, wondered how much it hurt her. It wasn’t that anyone had taught me about animal rights issues then. I’ve just always had the Deanna Troi-type empathic intuition that causes me to unintentionally take on the feelings of and become concerned about any semi-animate being in my line of vision (from cartoon characters to the evil burglars in Home Alone).
Do I prefer eating vegetables because my parents taught me to? Or was I born to be (just about) vegan? If T and I had been switched at birth, would he have come out the vegan and I the juicy rare burger lover? And what does this all mean when it comes to raising children?
My colleague’s experience with her daughter highlights the fact that it’s not a given that our kids will easily conform to our dietary preferences and values because they’re coming into the world with their own distinctive temperament and taste buds. And when their parents each hold different values, the issue becomes even more complex.
It will likely come as no surprise to many of my readers that I don’t intend to try to raise my children as perfect little vegans. I personally don’t believe in forcing any belief system on a child, because I know that it doesn’t work, especially when your child is wired differently from you. None of my friends or clients who were raised in strict households and force-fed ideologies that were presented as the only option have embraced their parents’ values. Instead, many have swung to the opposite extreme. The last thing I want is a child who grows up to become a butcher! But of course I want my chIldren to understand and embrace my lifestyle and to internalize at least some of my values.
What’s most important to me is that my kids grow up 1) understanding where animal products come from and the health and ethical issues associated with consuming them, 2) loving at least some vegan foods, and 3) knowing how to build a filling, delicious plant based meal. I’ll keep a vegan household and I’ll teach them from the beginning what meat really is and why I don’t eat it. I’ll advocate for their schools to offer vegan meals and treats. But I’m not going to force my kid to abstain from cake at their friend’s birthday celebration, or to make them eat peanut butter and jelly during the classroom pizza party. If T, as he often jokes, wants to surreptitiously take them to McDonald’s for a special treat when Mom’s out of town, so be it. If they grow up being able to think critically about what they’re eating and having the tools and knowledge to someday, if they want to, go fully vegan, then I’ll be a happy mama. Even if they continue to eat animal products throughout their lives, they’ll be able to make informed, conscientious decisions about when and how often to do so. As I’ve said dozens of times before on this blog, any step towards a plant-based diet is a good thing in my book.
Readers, what do you think? Do you agree with my point of view, or find it disturbing? If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, particularly one in a relationship with a meat eater, how are you raising or planning to raise your children?