10/11/09

Raising Vegetarians


Hope you like the new banner (art by Jad Fair).  If you look closely, you'll see that the images are related to the topics of this blog.  (I might try to photoshop the "pow" in the middle to the right or left--it suggests more pugnacity around here than there really is!)

Jonathan Safran Foer has an enjoyable essay in today's New York Times Magazine.  Interestingly, he points out that "taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses."  We think we're entitled to inflict every conceivable barbarity on animals because they taste good, but "why?  Why doesn't a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it?"  Foer wisely explores the "meaning" of taste, a matter that ethicists tend to ignore or trivialize ("vegetarian food is just as good," they say, as if it were that simple). But even with the meaning duly appreciated, taste just can't be exempted from the ethical rules.  There's a limit to what we can do to animals in the name of taste, and the modern food production system grossly exceeds it.

Foer says he and his wife were inconsistent vegetarians until their kids were born, and then they got serious about it.  It's just much more important what you feed your kids, he writes, and so it became more important for the whole family to be vegetarian.  "And then, one day, they will choose for themselves," he writes.  Here's the thing. I think it may be better for that day to come sooner than later. 

We have meat-free meals in our house, but we left it up to our children whether to eat meat at restaurants, school, and in their own sandwiches.  I just did not want them guiltily coveting their neighbor's ham sandwich.  A kid doesn't need guilt like that, I thought. We also didn't proselytize.  We talked openly about why we were vegetarians, but told them it was up to them what to eat.  There was nothing devious about this--there was no attempt to use "reverse psychology" (as they say) to convert them.  The guilt issue really was preeminent.

And then (big surprise), my daughter at age 6 stopped wanting to eat meat.  In fact, she talked the rest of us out of eating fish once a week, which we used to do.  Despite my reassurance that little lapses were nothing to feel bad about, she rarely lapsed at the beginning and became very consistent about it.  She viscerally finds it revolting to eat a (formerly) living creature.

Her twin brother was the house carnivore for many years, to everyone's amusement.  And then he decided that on his 12th birthday he would stop eating meat.  He did, and never looked back. No inconsistency, no guilty longings, no coveting anybody's ham sandwich.

It wasn't my intention, but I suspect (retrospectively) this is a pretty good way to make vegetarian kids. As they grow up, they're going to see this as a choice they made for their own reasons.  I think they're going to be less likely to rebel as they get older.  What's to rebel against?  Just themselves!  In any event, I think they're going to have a life-long respect for animals, because they came to it themselves.  I'm pretty sure they're going to be better animal advocates for having made their own choices.

14 comments:

amos said...

I've never "converted" either of my sons or my de factor step-son to vegetarianism or required that they eat meat-free meals, even in the home; and none of them became vegetarians. I had seen too many friends raised as Orthodox Jews "liberate" themselves by eating bacon. The ethical reasons for vegetarianism are much more cogent than those for keeping kosher, but for a teenager, a rule is a rule, and rules imposed by parents are made be rebelled against. I agree with you that kids should be allowed to make their own choices about vegetarianisn and thousands of other ethical options. In fact, ethical choice is valuable only if it is choice. Otherwise, it's not ethics: it's law/rule and while law/rule is important to keep society civilized, ethical choices have more dignity than obligations compelled by law/rule.

Wayne said...

I've been thinking about how to raise my future child in terms of diet, since my wife and I are vegetarian, and we're thinking about adopting soon.

If anything, I think Foer did with his kids are likely going to be what I'm going to do. I'm not going to force it on them, it is their own decision, however, at home they'll be vegetarians only because Mommy and Daddy will be doing the cooking. If we go out, they can eat their meat.

I've been meat free for 3 years now, and I don't think I've had one lapse in will. I did have an accidental encounter with a chicken burrito when I ordered a vegetarian one, but I didn't eat it.

amos said...

I'm allergic to households which are little Cubas, benevolent despotisms ruled over by an omniscient and omnipotent central committee (mother and father), where everyone is obliged to do things for their own good or the general good that no one does elsewhere. Such households produce hypocrisy or narrow-minds. My ex-wife converted to Anthroposophy, that is, the philosophy of Rudolph Steiner, and raised our son on a strict diet of no television and no Coca Cola. Predictable result: at age 30, he drinks Coca Cola by the litre and has the television on all day.

Wayne said...

Well I'm not sure if its a little cuba that I'm envisioning... But I suppose it could be. Its sort of like the thermastat in the house. If the child wants it to be 80 degrees in the house, I'm going to say no, it stays at 70 because I'm paying the bills, and its better for the environment blah blah blah. If they want to crank up the heater in their car, they are free to do so.

Or just like any other product that you don't consume, I don't think it would be terribly tyrannical to simply not endulge them in their desires because they want them. I don't buy guns, and I wouldn't buy one just because my child wants to go target shooting. But if they want to rent one at the range, then I'll be happy to let them. I'm not going to go buy an ATV or a sailboat, either. Neither am I going to buy meat, or cigarettes, or okra. Okra is just wrong.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, It's all very simple when kids are small. No meat in house, so they don't eat meat. No feeling of tyranny. But then the little guys start getting bigger. You encounter awful things like "kids meals" in restaurants. They're cheap and kid-sized. Do you really want your kid to be totally in the dark about what other kids consider normal? Should they never, ever try a chicken nugget? Well, I can respect someone who says No, but my worry was that kids would get to feeling very jealous about those chicken nuggets. And then they'd try them behind our backs, and feel torn and guilty...because they're actually pretty tasty. And it seemed good for them to confront the ethical issues themselves when they were old enough, and actually have the experience of making up their own minds. They did--one kid said "no more chicken nuggets" at 6 and the other at 12. It was much easier because they were used to vegetarian food at home, but I like the fact that it was their choice.

I used to think I was approaching things this way because my kids matter to me more than animals and also because I attach a very high degree of value to making good choices (as opposed to just the consquences of good choices). But in retrospect, I think there are good strictly consequentialist reasons to let kids make their own choices. They make them more firmly and I suspect they're less likely to change their minds. So in the long run you get a bigger benefit to animals, even though in the short run you're going to be paying for some chicken nuggets.

Of course I won't really know if my approach really will pay off this way--I'm just guessing based on how things seem at the moment.

amos said...

This is very amusing. I've been accused of being Fidel myself (remember that in Latin America, Fidel does not have the totally negative image that he has in the U.S.) by members of my household.
Not being a consequentialist and not always being Fidel, I value people making their own decisions over having them follow good rules.
Like Wayne, there are many things that I refuse to buy for household members because I consider them to be totally unnecessary to a good life and at the same time in bad taste and harmful to the environment. However, there are cases where I buy things just so that others can live a more normal life. Contemporary capitalist society has many many defects, but I think that participation in society, with all its defects, tends to form more complete, richer, even more autonomous persons than living in virtuous isolation.

amos said...

Wayne: I'm very ignorant about some things, and not knowing what okra is, I googled it and found that it is a harmless vegetable.
Perhaps I don't understand your subtle sense of irony, and if so, my apologies or perhaps your mentioning okra refers to some movie which I haven't seen or book which I haven't read or perhaps okra is current U.S. slang for something, but I'm puzzled. Thanks.

Jean Kazez said...

Okra is a slimy southern vegetable that's detested by many people. Actually, Wayne, if you have it properly fried (so crisp), it's not that slimy. Add ketchup, and I'd even say it's good. But I think I'm in the minority.

Wayne said...

Yeah I'm just having a little fun at okra's expense. gross stuff. Bleh. People are generally surprised that as a vegetarian, I really dislike many vegetables.... I'm not a big fruit eater, I don't like melons of any sort, I don't like celery raw, I avoid mushrooms, and I'm not ver fond of eggplant either.

Back to raising kids, I think I'd be okay buying them a happy meal or some chicken nuggets. They'll get plenty of soy chicken nuggets at home. But if they just want the toy, then I'll buy them just the toy (which you can usually do).

I think of it sort of like thanksgiving.... When I host it, I know that meateaters are among me, and I'm in the minority. I cook myself a tofurkey, and everyone else gets real turkey that I cooked myself. If my future child wants a bite, I'm not going to stop her. Is this radically inconsistent? The alternative would be that I lug a frozen football of tofu to whoever's house is hosting thanksgiving, and have them cook it, which is rather inconvenient for anyone who hasn't hosted Thanksgiving. A turkey is going to die for that night... I might as well make sure it was as close to ethically raised turkey as I can assure. So in short, I understand I'll have to make compromises, and I'm not going to try to indoctrinate my values on to her, but I get homefield advantage in this little contest of wills.

amos said...

Growing up, as everyone knows, is the period in which one forms an identity, a sense of self. It seems that part of forming a sense of self is feeling that one is normal, not weird, that one fits in, even that one's parents are not weird too. Once one feels safely normal, one can begin to experiment, to grow wings. Of course, what is not-weird varies: the limits of normality are broader in New York City than in Santiago de Chile.
When I was a child, I'd complain to my father: "but everyone does X or everyone has an X". He'd reply: "you are not everyone".
In the short run, his philosophy of child-raising was not helpful to his son's search for an identity. Perhaps in the long run, it did help and forced me to skip some steps in the maturation process, painfully, very painfully.

I tried to let my kids be as normal as they wanted to be, but they always saw me as weird. I recall accompanying Pablo to an end of year celebration in his school and he ordered me to say nothing except "hello", "how are you?" and "good-bye", to express no opinions, to ask no questions. I followed his orders, since I didn't want him to feel weird, because if others had seen his father (me) as weird, he would have felt weird.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, Good point about cooking the turkey yourself--at least you can get a nicely treated one (relatively speaking). I don't like going that route because I kind of see Thanksgiving as "the big challenge." What can you make that's truly just as satisfying as turkey? Speaking of which...I'll have to post my recipe again this year.

Amos, It's very annoying the way kids get this idea that their parents are embarrassing. One minute you're perfect in their eyes and the next minute you're not. My daughter even tells me what I should wear. Help!

amos said...

There is nothing funnier or more revealing of the human condition than an honest discussion about parenting, because it's something that is impossible to do right, that obeys no formulas, that defies all the rules, that forces you to see yourself through the implacable eyes of a child, who is so like you and at the same time, so unlike you; because it was you who taught the child the critical tools which now are being turned against you; because it makes you review your own childhood, as if you were the parent of yourself.

Alex Chernavsky said...

When you say "vegetarian", I assume that you mean ovo-lacto-vegetarian (i.e., a person who shuns flesh while continuing to eat eggs and dairy products). I don't mean to keep harping on the same subject, but there is probably more suffering in a glass of milk or an egg than there is in a steak. A single steer produces a large amount of meat, steers are generally not abused as much as dairy cows, and dairy cows live longer. And the egg industry is horribly cruel, even the so-called "cage-free" farms.

If your goal is to minimize animal suffering, you would be better-off continuing to eat meat while eliminating eggs and dairy products from your diet.

I'm being somewhat facetious here. The best thing to do, of course, is to go vegan. To quote Gary Francione, "Veganism is the one thing that each of us can do right now. Veganism is not merely a matter of diet; it is a moral and political commitment to the abolition of animal exploitation."

www.abolitionistapproach.com/media/links/p22/gary-francione.pdf

Jean Kazez said...

I completely agree that there is more suffering in eggs than in steak. This is something I emphasize in my animal rights class--our preconceptions about which foods have the highest "ethical price tag" are often wrong. So--if one is setting priorities entirely based on animal welfare, one should first get rid of the egg, then the meat. But that's a big if. There are lots of other things that influence most people. The reality is, I'm not ready yet to give up eggs, but I do spend the extra money for "cage free".