Vegetarianism and Animal Rights: Explaining to Children

Welcome to the June 2014 Carnival of Natural Parenting: Kids and Animals

This post was written for inclusion in the monthly Carnival of Natural Parenting hosted by Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama. This month our participants have shared stories and wisdom about kids and animals.

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When my cousin Samantha was three years old and I was in college, I was visiting her family and we were eating chicken for dinner when Samantha asked, “What is chicken made of?'”

Her mother took a deep breath and said, “Well, chicken is made of a chicken.

Samantha’s eyes widened. To make certain she really understood what her mom was saying, she asked, “Chicken, buk-buk?” making a pecking motion with her hand. Her mom confirmed that the meat on our plates was indeed parts of a chicken who once pecked and said buk-buk. Samantha didn’t freak out, but she was surprised and sad and didn’t eat any more chicken at that meal.

The idea that people can eat animals startles many children when they first hear about it. Some parents want to prevent children from knowing that meat is animal flesh until they’re much older, to prevent objections that might complicate family mealtimes. I don’t like the idea of hiding such a basic truth about food from the people to whom it’s served, so I’m glad I witnessed Samantha’s response to this fact a decade before I became a mother; it gave me plenty of time to think about how I would handle my children’s questions about meat-eating.

My partner Daniel and I are mostly-vegetarians who eat fish sometimes and other meats infrequently. This is a bit harder to understand than 100% vegetarianism, but our son Nicholas, now nine years old, has done pretty well at learning what we do and don’t eat in our family. (See our multi-week menus for more detail on what we eat.)

We chose this diet for health and environmental reasons…but we’ve found that our son’s love for animals is at least as compelling a reason, in his eyes. Nicholas gets very upset about humans’ careless harming of animals and often talks about how everything has feelings. While he includes plants and even non-living things among the things that have feelings (arguing, for example, that one should not holler, “Stupid rock!!” after stubbing one’s toe because the rock’s feelings will be hurt) he shows greater concern for the feelings of animals.

Without overdoing the gruesome details, we’ve told Nicholas about factory farming and industrial meat processing and have allowed him to see some photos and documentaries. His main concern is the terrible treatment of the poor animals who spend their whole lives crowded, sick, and miserable, only to be murdered by machines.

Now, it’s not that I don’t care about that. The mistreatment of factory-farmed animals worries me, too, and I think that our society’s tolerance of such animal abuse on such a vast scale is a grievous sin. But when animals are raised in a more natural and healthy way, I think it is morally acceptable to kill and eat them. After all, we have to eat something, and eggplants have feelings too, and butternut squashes are really very cute, and did you know that carrots are still alive in your boring crisper drawer and even when you peel and stab them?! We humans can’t make our food from the sun; we can live only by eating other living creatures. Animals, plants, rocks, all parts of the Earth and the universe deserve respect and should be used wisely, but that doesn’t mean never using them at all.

Still, I encourage Nicholas to express his compassion for animals by minimizing his eating of animal foods, because loving animals is an idea that really grabs him right now, and it isn’t a wrong idea.

He was four years old when the documentary Food, Inc. was in theaters and my friends were talking about it. He insisted that he wanted to see it, even though I told him it would show “animal killing factories” and it would be gross. I finally agreed to take him to see it. Nicholas felt strongly that, although the “humane” chicken operation shown in the film might make safer meat, “Those chickens were saying, ‘Ow! Ow! Ow!’ too. Eating chicken meat means a chicken got hurt.” That was the most important point, in his mind.

However, the health and environmental concerns got through, too. Nicholas could see that the mainstream system raises sick animals and processes them in an unsanitary way. He learned that it is possible for a cheeseburger to kill a little boy. He learned about the many kinds of pollution produced by large-scale farms and understood that these could harm animals beyond the food animals themselves, as well as harming people.

By four years old, Nicholas already knew that eating corn is a wiser use of our resources than feeding a lot of corn to a chicken until it grows up and then eating the chicken. We’d also told him that meat contains some stuff that gets stuck in your blood vessels, so if you eat too much meat they can get blocked up so your blood can’t get through.

He had heard our criticisms of the low-quality food at his preschool, and we were sending a substitute food (beans or veggie burger) for him when they served meat. We told him it is not polite to tell other people their food is bad, especially while they’re eating–just say, “We don’t eat chicken in my family.” As a preschooler he needed a lot of reminders, and he did slip up a couple of times and get into trouble for it, but we did our best to teach him good manners.

Most of our friends and relatives eat meat. We’ve explained that most people have been eating meat all their lives, so they are used to it, they like the taste, and they don’t quite know what else to eat. We can share our vegetarian food with them and encourage them to consider cooking these meals themselves sometimes, and maybe they will eat less meat. Everyone makes their own choices, and we have to be polite even if we disagree, and try not to worry about them.

It’s worked out pretty well for us. We now have a nine-year-old who sometimes asks to order chicken in a restaurant but generally accepts our low-meat diet with enthusiasm. He actually enjoys bragging to his friends that he has never eaten a hamburger or hot dog!

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Carnival of Natural Parenting -- Hobo Mama and Code Name: MamaVisit Code Name: Mama and Hobo Mama to find out how you can participate in the next Carnival of Natural Parenting!

Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  • What Animal Rescue is Teaching My Children
  • Tips on Picking the Perfect Kid-friendly Dog — Lactating Girl at The Adventures of Lactating Girl shares some tips she’s learned on how to find the perfect child-friendly dog for your family.
  • All New Animals Are “Woof” — Baby Boy is still learning animals. Life Breath Present doesn’t yet have any at home, but he still believes that all animals are “woof.” Here’s the proof.
  • Dude, where’s my Horse? — Adora loves horses, but Erin at And Now, for Something Completely Different really doesn’t. However, Adora’s longing wins out; learn about their interactions with horses here.
  • Weighing the Pros and Cons of a Family Pet — When is a family ready for a pet? Donna at Eco-Mothering discusses her worries as well as the benefits of adopting a dog, including how it will affect her seven-year-old daughter.
  • Parenting Challenge–Learning from Animals–running the emotional gammut — Survivor at Surviving Mexico writes about the emotional learning her family has experienced through sharing their lives with animals.
  • Puppy Love for our Family — In case you didn’t catch it from the blog title, Pug in the Kitchen, the family pet is an integral part of Laura’s family and home life!
  • Pets & kids: The realities — Lauren at Hobo Mama lays out the benefits and drawbacks of pet ownership when young kids are involved.
  • HOW PETS CONNECT WITH EMOTIONS: KIDS & PETS AFTER 9-11 — Parenting Expert Laurie Hollman at Parental Intelligence discusses the importance of pets in lowering stress after traumatic situations, why children choose certain pets, the loss of a pet, and the role of parents in teaching care-giving to animals in a warm, gentle way.
  • It’s not our house without a dog! — Amy at Me, Mothering, and Making it All Work describes why giving a loving and disciplined home to at least one shelter dog at a time enriches the life of her family, and has become a vivid memory in the minds of her children.
  • Canine Haikus —Kids, dog, haikus, at
    Dionna (Code Name: Mama).
    Pet-centric poems.
  • Beanie’s BunniesOur Mindful Life‘s Sofi Bean has gotten her first pets!
  • Montessori Care of Pets — Deb Chitwood at Living Montessori Now tells about her experiences with kids and pets and shares Montessori resources for pet care.
  • How to Nurture Your Child’s Awareness of Spirit Guides — Jennifer at Hybrid Rasta Mama hosts a post from her regular contributor Lauren of SpiralElixir.com. Lauren looks at the concept of animals as spirit guides and how deeply children are connected to this realm. She also encourages us to open ourselves up as parents to the reality that children are naturally more connected to the animal world, giving us ideas on how to nurture their relationships with their Spirit Guides.
  • No Puppy! — Meg at the Boho Mama shares her tips for dealing with toddlers and the (very real) fear of animals.
  • Year of the Pets — Jorje of Momma Jorje wasn’t sure she ever wanted pets again, but things have changed a lot this year!
  • 3 Reasons Why Keeping Backyard Chickens is Good for my Toddler — Bianca, The Pierogie Mama, started keeping backyard chickens for the benefit of their eggs, but what she wasn’t prepared for was what they would teach her two year old daughter too.

Visit Works-for-Me Wednesday for hundreds of tips on parenting, food choices, and more!

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

17 Responses to Vegetarianism and Animal Rights: Explaining to Children

  1. Have you see the viral YouTube video that went around of the 3yo (or thereabouts) child who figured out they were eating an animal? It is in Spanish, but it ends with the mom basically crying and saying they wouldn’t have to eat anymore. Very touching🙂

  2. Life Breath Present says:

    What an interesting child. He seems full of compassion and wonder, both excellent qualities to have. I haven’t ever thought of how to address the where does food (specifically) meat come from discussion with a child. Now I have some pondering to do myself. Thanks!🙂

  3. While we are definitely omnivores in our house, I do understand why some families and individuals choose to support the rights of animals by abstaining from meat products. It sounds like you are doing an awesome job authentically communicating your reasons to your son and helping him to communicate with others about your choices in an informative and respectful manner. Very cool!

  4. Pingback: Beanies Bunnies « Our Mindful Life

  5. I love this! Kids can be so black & white in their thinking, but it so often forces me to look at things again in that very clear way instead of letting everything be muddied by my adult logic. My husband and I were mostly vegetarian (“flexitarian,” we went with — we ate no meat when it was our choice but would accept meals with others that included meat) for quite a long time until I was pregnant (and anemic). But we have other eating choices we’ve made as a family and have had the same talks with our older son about being polite about others’ food choices. I love that your son knows so much about where meat comes from and how animals are raised. I’d like to teach my kids more about that aspect of our food choices, to explain why we choose the types of meat we do.

    • 'Becca says:

      Yeah, anemia got me eating a turkey sandwich once a week while pregnant. Moderation in all things…. Now that I am feeling stronger after giving birth (iron levels to be retested soon) my protein cravings can be satisfied with nuts or beans.

  6. Pingback: Tips on Picking the Perfect Kid-friendly Dog | Adventures of Lactating Girl

  7. Pingback: Weighing the Pros and Cons of a Family Pet | Eco-Mothering

  8. Pingback: Parenting Challenge–Learning from Animals–Running the emotional gammut | Surviving Mexico

  9. Survivor says:

    What a balanced and thoughtful way you have shown your child some of the pros and cons of meat consumption. We are a meat-eating family, however we raise most of our own meat. My 12 year old son helps with the butchering and has since he was 4. We understand that animals are sentient beings and that not only do their lives have value, but their deaths should be humane as well. Having such an intimate relationship with our food certainly prevents us from overeating!

  10. Pingback: Montessori Care of Pets | LivingMontessoriNow.com

  11. Pingback: Puppy Love for our Family |

  12. Pingback: Talking about Meat with preschoolers - Mothering Forums

  13. Pingback: Forcing Children to be vegetarian - Mothering Forums

  14. Pingback: All New Animals are "Woof"

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