My role as a parent is to, among other things, be a moral guide for my son. To enable him to make “good” decisions as I have defined as “good”, to prevent him from harming himself and, maybe more importantly, to prevent him from harming others. As a vegan parent raising a vegan child, I am faced with the challenge of managing all three of these tasks in relation to what my son puts into his body and the effects his food choices has on others.
Unfortunately, my son’s mother made the decision to stop being vegan and stop raising him vegan, despite being vegan for countless years leading up to her pregnancy, being vegan during her pregnancy, and staying vegan for the first 2 years of our son’s life, without any harmful consequences. I can’t speak to why she made this decision, but I found out when August began mentioning his visits to Ben and Jerry’s for desserts. I must assume she has made this decision out of convenience, or maybe identity, of not wanting to be bothered with the challenges or obstacles that come with living vegan and raising a vegan child. I absolutely don’t understand why she abandoned those ethics, but there is nothing for me to do about this except continue on with my son as I planned from the beginning.
So when he is with me, he eats vegan and when he is with her he eats vegetarian. He does well and doesn’t ever object to the foods I give him, not out of a 5 year olds ethical perspective anyways. Sometimes, he just doesn’t want my oatmeal. Yeah, I know, I’m having him checked out.
Anyways, it is terribly unfortunate that parents abandon the ethics they have developed for themselves once a child enters the picture. I see this happen often with any number of issues. It’s as if the daily efforts of raising a child trump all the moral guidance we idealistically envisioned passing on to our children, and just keeping our kids alive becomes success enough. I am unreservedly proud to say that my family does not adhere to the lessened standards that come with parenting. My wife and I raise her son and my son as vegans and have managed to meet the challenges that come with the effort with ease and creative solutions. We discuss our decisions not to eat animals with our kids whenever the opportunity is appropriate. We make sure they have vegan treats at the ready when they go to party’s, so as not to feel left out. We make healthy lunches to take to school instead of relying on mass-produced school “food”. We have food prepared when they stay over at friend’s houses, or send them to friends who respect our decisions and accomodate our ethical wishes. Everything has come along smashingly and we continue to prove that raising a child despite social norms is NOT difficult.
Still, I sometimes hear the tired lines defensive others give to parents raising their children with ethics that are out of the social norm. It’s suggested that I’m “forcing my beliefs” onto my child, that I’m not allowing him the freedom to make his own decisions, that I’m funneling him down a path that leads to ostracizing and ridicule, all because I want him to take care of himself and others with his dietary choices. It’s sad, but the unstated default is that animals SHOULD be eaten and suggesting otherwise sets one up to be chastised for holding strong to a set of beliefs, and open to judgement. It’s as if telling your kids to eat their hamburger, even if they are disgusted at the thought, ISN’T forcing beliefs upon them or not allowing them the freedom to make their own decisions. When I compare how I guide my child’s moral decisions and how other’s do the same, I fail to see where I’m going wrong.
Parenting is not cut and dry though. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’ve explained veganism to my child and he has made the decision not to eat meat or dairy because he doesn’t want to harm animals. Sometimes, as a parent and moral guide, I draw the line. If he wants something that isn’t vegan, I simply do not allow it. I know the very thought turns some parents off and the visual they get is a nazi-esque depiction of the dictator parent seeking to create a rigid little army of perfect children, born in their own ethical image. This couldn’t be further than the truth and if we extend this behavior restriction outside the vegan issue we’ll see all parents engage in this behavior, for good reasons. The role of a parent is to draw lines for their children, to guide them morally and protect them. If a child is physically harming another child on the playground, a parent forces the child to stop. If a child is engaging in violent fantasy play (for some, gun play as an example), the parent steps in and redirects their creativity. If a child is adventurously walking on a dangerous ledge, the parent pulls them away from the risk for their own safety. We would never say this sort of behavior modification is “forcing one’s beliefs” upon their child. No, it is simply a matter of moral guidance or physical protection of the child or others. There is never even the thought of discussing this. But when it comes to an ethical perspective that is outside the norm, suddenly everything is up for scrutiny and judgement. This is simply not acceptable.
So as a parent, I engage in restricting my child’s decisions, especially when it comes to eating animals. This is not a behavior I deem as flexible in acceptance.
To further clarify. My role with my son is to keep him from self-harming behavior, whether that is running into the street, jumping off a cliff, or putting destructive substances into his body on a daily basis. Humans are the ONLY creature on earth that continue to drink mother’s milk after the process of weaning, and from other animals at that. Evidence continues to mount that humans experience negative health repercussions from the accumulative act of ingesting and processing animal and milk proteins after the age of weaning. Cancer studies have shown that it’s not even so important how you eat as an adult when you get cancer, but rather how you ate as a kid growing up that left your body succeptible to cancer growth. Then there are the unhealthy amounts of cholesterol and saturated fats in dairy that clog and wreck our bodies. I do not see milk as a friendly substance that humans can ingest without negative effects. We may manage them to a degree, but the risk of accepting them into our bodies is far too high and the benefits of eliminating milk are far too valuable to ignore. For that very reason, I do not see eating not vegan as a debatable issue with my child, just as I don’t see him running into the street as a debatable issue. It is my job as a parent to protect his physical health, as well as guide him to value his health all the same, and that informs my decision to implement veganism as a parent.
My role as a parent is to also guide my son to treat others as he wants to be treated (in a “duh” sense, not the christian sense). This probably plays out in the context of veganism more than any other relationship he may encounter during his days. My son doesn’t want to hurt others and is very sensitive about doing so, even accepting fault when he doesn’t want to complain to me about something in fear that it will hurt my feelings. He embodies the innocence of a child and if given the chance to pet an animal or choke it, well, you get my point. Our relationship with animals in the modern age, however, is so disconnected and mediated that it is extremely hard for him to draw the connections between Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and the cow stuck in a cage who just had their newborn baby stolen from them. I can explain this relationship to him (and have), but the disconnectedness is so powerful that his urges for sugar trump all (come on, it’s the same for adults too), so when my son recently asked my wife if he could eat like he does when he is with his mother (she brought this question to me), I replied in the negative (though we haven’t had the conversation yet). I said, “No”, not because I don’t find value in my son making his own choices in relation to foods and other moral dilemmas, but because he does not have the capacity to understand the complexity of our modern day existence and relationship to animals. Again, he sees ice cream, not a factory farm. He sees a bright advertisement with a smiling kid licking a triple decked cone, not a mother cow moaning in pain and sadness (or an uber-rich CEO laughing to the bank, or a dangerously tired immigrant getting paid next to nothing to do an exploitive job). He does not yet have the awareness, or even language, to absorb these dynamics and so it is my duty as parent and moral guide to restrict his behavior when I know it will lead to the harm of others. ALL parents do this with their kids. A toddler does not understand that hitting the other kid who wants to play with his truck is unpleasant and so the parent steps in to stop and redirect this behavior until it is learned. A child doesn’t understand that listening to mysoginistic music all day, every day can lead to an unhealthy perspective of the opposite sex and so a parent acts to redirect this behavior. A child doesn’t understand that leaving the refrigerator door open all day spoils food, wastes electricity and causes parents to spend more money than they would like to on an electric bill (oh right, like THAT doesn’t happen), so the parent stops the child from repeating this behavior. It’s not “dictator parenting” or restricting a child’s sense of independence and self-worth…it’s merely common sense. So, if my son is engaging in behavior that has a negative effect upon others I will address the situation and not allow it to continue. What could be more important than addressing this during the three times, at least, it happens each day? It is non-negotiable that I let my child engage in a behavior that will continue the pain and suffering of others by eating animal products and/or by-products.
My greatest and most challenging role, however, as my son’s parent and moral guide is in ENABLING him to make the decisions that do not harm himself or others. It is VERY easy as a parent to say, “No”, over and over and over again, but to truly have a lasting and enabling effect on your child, you must EXPLAIN why you say “No”, and continue the discussion as they develop the capacity to understand the complexities of an issue. A lot of these thoughts I’ve put down started after reading That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals, by Ruby Roth, at bedtime the past couple of nights. The book does a great job of explaining the basics of how society treats animals, the effects of doing so, and how we can (why we do) change those effects through our eating habits. Some of the pages end with questions about fairness and it always excited me when my son would confirm that treating animals poorly and raising them to eat is not nice. He really enjoyed the book and I found him flipping the pages when he woke the next morning. Reading to him about veganism and the treatment of animals is a small gesture, but the accumulative effect can not be denied and my goal as a parent is to continue having these discussions with him about how our actions effect others, both animals and human animals. Not creating undue (or unjust) harm is our greatest life’s work and lies at the foundation of our quality of life. Admittedly, there may come a time where my son breaks from my moral guidance to continue on his own path and the consideration of animals may not be a part of that. It would sadden me greatly, but I understand the process. In no way would I push back and demand he live by my dictates when I feel he has the capacity to understand or seek the complexities of the issue on his own, but I certainly wouldn’t end the conversation either. For the time being, my most important role is to prevent him from harming others, including animals, while guiding him to make those decisions on his own, just as all (ok, most) parents guide their children not to harm humans through racism, sexism, homophobia, violence, etc. and find such behaviors non-negotiable. I feel the same towards how I and those under my moral guidance eat as well.
Vegan parents, stay strong and engaged with your children. Prevent them from self-harm and harm towards others, human and non-human animal alike. Engage with them in dialogue about the complex relationships of our world and how our actions are ripples, spreading both care and harm. Do not let veganism be negotiable, for the same reasons racism is non-negotiable, for the same reasons homophobia is non-negotiable. Above all, teach your children to protect those who are deprived of protection the most. All parents, from friends and neighbors, to cows, chickens, pigs, fish, fox, and the rest of the animal kingdom are counting on our moral guidance.