[Guest post by Susan Black] The decision to eat meat shouldn’t be taken lightly by anybody. Animals being raised and slaughtered for our enjoyment is a process which provokes debate and has resulted in a growing vegetarian movement. Deeply entrenched views cloud the situation and detract from the actual ethical decision, meaning that children often grow up with conflicting ideas about where meat comes from and whether they should be eating it at all.
We need to be able to educate our children so that they can make their own decisions. No parent should be force-feeding their children ideas which they are resistant to – omnivorous parents should not bully an unwilling child into eating meat, and vegetarian parents shouldn’t discourage an adventurous child from exploring animal-based foodstuffs. Both of these types of coercion can have negative effects far beyond the immediate ethical decision – forcefully changing your child’s preferred diet can have serious psychological consequences and can result in eating disorders and self-esteem issues in later life.
The question is simple. When are children old enough to make the decision for themselves? If a child is two and turns his nose up at fish-based food, is that because he objects to trawler fishing or because he’s in a bad mood? And likewise when a ten year old girl says she wants to be a vegetarian, is this just because she thinks cows are cute or because she thinks that industrial farming is abhorrent? It’s a difficult question to answer, and there’s no definitive age, but this is an approximation which might give you an idea.
Erik Erikson was a psychologist who expanded upon (and arguably improved) Freud’s theories about stages of development. He thought that rather than five (as Freud had said) there were in fact eight stages of development between birth and death. Erikson theorised that it is the third stage of development, the ‘purpose’ stage which takes place between the ages of three and six, which involves the development of a conscience and an understanding of guilt. This is the age when children should be starting to plan for themselves, dress themselves and reward themselves with feelings of accomplishment. It’s also when they should be worrying about feelings which arise from their actions – remorse, regret and repentance.
It would be easy to extrapolate and assume that it at this stage that children can make the decision whether to eat meat or not. I don’t think this is the case, though, as in order for the child to make a conscious decision he or she has to understand the process by which a living animal becomes a bacon sandwich. For a child to understand, it needs to be taught about the whole brutal process – a process which is practically a taboo in our sanitised world.
Knowledge of where food comes from is an important stepping stone into a healthy adult life. If a child is brought up thinking that food comes from the store, he or she won’t lead a healthy lifestyle. That’s why your child needs to learn more about the food chain, food processing, agriculture, ethical farming and the end of a farmed animal’s life. Without this knowledge, the most conscientious and caring child will not make the connection between a living, feeling animal and a hamburger.
To educate your child, there’s nothing more effective than taking him or her to a farm to see the animals there. Obviously it’s difficult to get your child in to see a slaughterhouse or abattoir, but once the child has seen a steak in its natural environment (a field or shed) he or she will be able to put two and two together and decide whether meat is something to get involved with.
Confusion may arise in children whose parents follow a confused version of vegetarianism, like pescetarianism or similar. Ethical vegetarians who eat fish may not make sense in the eyes of a child which has had contact with fish. Fish are popular pets, and a child is more likely to have encountered a fish than they are to have encountered a cow, a sheep or a pig.
Don’t be disappointed or angry with your child if they appear to have irrational or selfish attitudes towards meat. If he or she cares only about the cuter animals and doesn’t mind eating mussels, remember that this mindset is shared by a lot of the Western world and be grateful that your child is being adventurous with seafood. Likewise, if your child doesn’t care at all that the meat he or she eats comes from cute animals, that doesn’t mean he’s going to be a sadistic killer when he grows up. I didn’t bat an eyelid when my mother explained the biological similarities between my supper and the pet rabbit sitting on the reclining loveseat – I was too busy concentrating on the new flavours.
What’s most important of all is to be there for your child. If your daughter asks difficult questions about how an animal is killed, answer to the best of your abilities and in detail appropriate to her age. And if your son asks about ethical farming, tell him what you know and show him what to look out for on labels if he’s interested in buying meat from trusted sources. If you answer their questions correctly, levelly and fairly, without prejudice or bias, they’ll be able to make their own decisions about this delicate ethical issue. Without your even-handed approach to the matter though, they’ll either inherit your predisposition like a robot or rebel against it completely. You don’t want your child to do either of these things.
[Susan lives in north London with her two young daughters, and has recently made the jump to vegetarianism herself. When she isn’t writing, you can find her skiing in the south of France (or at least planning the next trip).]