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“Forcing” my kids to be vegetarian.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I’m a vegetarian, which is probably not a total surprise.

I study and teach ethics. I’m uneasy with the idea of animals being killed to fulfill a need of mine I know can be fulfilled other ways. In the interests of sharing a world with more than 7 billion other people, and doing so without being a jerk, I’d rather reduce my toll on our shared resources. And, I never liked the taste of meat.

My kids are also vegetarians, and have been since birth — so they didn’t choose it. I have imposed it on them in a stunning act of maternalism.

OK, it’s actually not that stunning.


Why am I imposing a vegetarian diet on my children? For the curious, here are my reasons for this particular parenting choice:

  1. The family dinner table isn’t a restaurant. The choices are to eat what I’m serving or not eat it. This was the deal, at least when I was growing up, in omnivores’ homes (including the one in which I grew up). I may encourage my offspring to try dishes of which they are skeptical, but I don’t view feeding them as an activity that ought to push my powers of persuasion to their limits, nor do I view it as an opportunity with which they should build the capacity of their free will. I’m cooking, and what I’m serving has no meat. That’s what’s for dinner.
  2. I’m in no position to do good quality control on a meat meal. I haven’t cooked meat in about 27 years, so I’ve pretty much forgotten how. I’m not going to taste a meat dish to adjust the seasoning. My paranoia about food-born pathogens is such that I’d probably cook the heck out of any piece of meat I had to cook … and my concerns about carcinogens are such that I wouldn’t even be doing it in a potentially appealing way like blackening it. Plus, aesthetically, I find meat icky enough to handle (and see, and smell) that actually preparing a meat dinner would cost me my appetite, and possibly my lunch.
  3. Meat is expensive.
  4. Meat production uses a lot of resources … as does raising a child in the U.S. Having opted for the latter, I prefer to opt out of the former. This is not to suggest that I look at other people and do a mental audit of their impact — I swear, I don’t — but I do look at myself that way. Bathing and hydrating my offspring and washing their clothes uses water, getting them places frequently uses gas, and the computer and TV/DVD/computer axis of entertainment (and homework) uses electricity. Their homework uses paper (and we sometimes lean on them to use more paper to show their damn work). Call the vegetarian diet a do-it-yourself partial offset of our other impacts.
  5. Meat consumption is not a requirement for human health. I checked this very early in the game with our pediatrician. My kids’ diet is providing them more than adequate amounts of all the nutrients they need for their physical and cognitive development.
  6. A parent-imposed vegetarian diet enables a satisfying range of (non-lethal) options for teen rebellion. Think of how convenient it would be if, as a teenager, you could defy a parent’s values by simply buying a can of chicken soup, as opposed to having to wrap a car around a tree or to figure out how you can get someone to buy you beer. Yes, this is meant mostly in jest, but consider how many young people do make a transgressive act of challenging their parents’ values as embodied in their diet — whether embracing vegetarianism, choosing to stop keeping Kosher, or what have you.

Have I hemmed in my kids’ ability to exercise their autonomy by raising them vegetarian? Absolutely.

Even at the relatively advanced ages of 14 and 12, they still need us to hem in their autonomy to keep them alive and in reasonably good mental and emotional shape to exercise their autonomy more fully as adults. This is just part of parenting. My “forcing” a vegetarian diet on the kids is of a piece with my “forcing” them to eat meals that aren’t composed entirely of candy, “forcing” them to go to school, to do their homework, to bathe, to wear sunscreen, and to sleep at least a few hours a night. I don’t believe it is an outrageous imposition (as indeed, they seem to LIKE most of what I feed them).

We live in a community where there are many different dietary customs in play, whether for religious, cultural, or ethical reasons, so they have plenty of friends who also don’t eat particular things. (Of course, there are kids with allergies, too.) They have learned how to enquire politely about the available options, to decline graciously, and to graze effectively at potlucks.

My kids haven’t ever begged me for meat (although they occasionally express sadness that restaurants have so many fewer options for vegetarian diners than for meat eaters). They also know that when they are adults, they will be able to make their own decisions about their diets. (Same as with tattoos.) They understand that there are some rules they have in virtue of their being members of a household, but that those are subject to change when they establish their own household.

Occasionally someone brings up the possibility that, having been fed a vegetarian diet from birth, my children won’t have adequate enzymes for the digesting of meat should they try to become meat-eaters later. I have no idea if this concern has good empirical grounding. Anecdotally, I know enough long-term vegetarians who have fallen off the (meat) wagon without developing any inability to scarf down a burger and digest it like a champ that this possibility doesn’t keep me up at night.

I haven’t indoctrinated my kids to believe that meat-eaters are evil, or that they’ll go to hell if animal flesh ever crosses their lips, in large part because I don’t hold those views either. They are simply part of a household that doesn’t eat meat. Given that, what beef could anyone have with it?

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An ancestor version of this post was published on my other blog.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. JustyMikes 2:11 pm 09/6/2013

    Honest question: If you’re “uneasy with the idea of animals being killed to fulfill a need of mine I know can be fulfilled other ways,” then why be vegetarian and not vegan? The dairy industry directly contributes to slaughter (most male calves become veal), and the repeatedly impregnated dairy cows demonstrably grieve when their newborns are taken away. The suffering associated with dairy is greater in many ways. I’m interested in where you draw the ethical line and why.

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  2. 2. M Tucker 3:29 pm 09/6/2013

    I would not call what you are doing indoctrination. It is the same practice that others who do eat meat engage in. I find it unusual that you would need to defend your choice because of people who are unable to mind their own business.

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  3. 3. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 4:04 pm 09/6/2013

    @ M Tucker:

    In my experience, people take the visible presence of children in one’s orbit as an invitation to tell you exactly how you ought to be raising them (or, sometimes, to tell you how selfish it was for you to have had them in the first place).

    That said, given the influence of philosophy on me, I tend towards reflecting on and analyzing my parenting choices a little bit more than I might otherwise. Some of those things I do are chosen on the basis that you have to do something, but it turns out that the reasons behind our dietary orientation as a household are ones I endorse.

    @ JustyMikes:

    I spent a few years as a vegan, and many days what we eat is vegan. I recognize that that would be even more environmentally friendly and would cause even less harm to animals (though it wouldn’t eliminate harm to animals from our diet completely).

    The short answer as to why I lapsed back into ovo-lacto land is that I was a pregnant grad student having trouble pounding enough protein before my cramped stomach said I was done. Even sneaking powdered milk into most of my meals, I was on the edge of the pregnancy nutritional recommendations, I was on a serious budget, and I was very short on time. Working out the legume and grain combining to get the same job done would have destroyed me.

    Among other impediments to establishing a vegan household now: whey. Read some labels and you will discover it has been snuck into more products than you can imagine.

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  4. 4. The Dude 6:20 pm 09/6/2013

    Hi Janet…After being sick for 5 months with West Nile and Mono last year, my 15 year old daughter decided to become vegetarian for purely health reasons last January. Her weight had ballooned from inactivity and her energy level was dismal. At first she occasionally ate a little fish or chicken, but now its all fruits, grains and veggies.

    It has worked out very well for her, although she was very grumpy at first. The most interesting thing is that she is now a morning person, being the first to get up every day and going to bed earlier also.

    She makes her own meals and my wife now only cooks for 2.

    The irony here is that I’m a rancher and I raise Angus. I also hunt and fish for food.

    I’m not really very comfortable with the idea of “forcing” your children to do anything. For us it is more like putting her in a position where she is intelligent enough to make good decisions and us being good role models for her to follow. I feel like she has made a good decision to become a vegetarian even though I eat meat every day.

    By the way, I bet you would be jealous of my garden and orchard. I grow enough fruits and veggies to last all year and still give some to friends and neighbors.

    Cheers!

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  5. 5. ironjustice 7:37 pm 09/6/2013

    Your children are raised as you are, your morals and your ‘nature’, it is a logical progression. If they decide to eat meat it will because they haven’t been instilled with a good enough set of reasons why they shouldn’t eat meat. Unless, you instill in them , the animal has a right to live, just as they do, and that is why you don’t wear a leather belt to work, other than that, no they aren’t wrong to ask to eat meat it just means they haven’t taken up your ‘nature’ which is environmental. It is not unhealthy for them to be vegetarian, just as you cannot convince anyone it is not unhealthy for them to eat meat, or can you? I was able to convince my son Jesus was vegetarian. You could try that one.

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  6. 6. johnoro 9:39 pm 09/6/2013

    Unfortunately, there is no free lunch. If the diet contains a significant amount of agricultural products, and for many it does, then one shares responsibility for the loss of ecosystems to agriculture and the resultant uncountable loss of animal life. It may seem easier to avoid responsibility for this loss, but it’s not.

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  7. 7. rkipling 10:24 pm 09/6/2013

    Human’s evolved as omnivores, and that works for me, but I can understand the dietary choice to be a vegetarian. If you are down to checking for traces of “impurities” in packaged foods, I’m curious if you agree that being a vegan is a political choice?

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  8. 8. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 10:35 pm 09/6/2013

    @ rkipling,

    The years we were vegan were an exercise in operating within constraints — and literally, that was a large part of the motivation, given how easy it is to be an ovo-lacto vegetarian in the SF Bay Area. So, we read labels. Was that political? Maybe, broadly construed. We certainly didn’t proselytize, though.

    Also, I guess I wasn’t willing to describe our diet as vegan if it actually wasn’t. I had a roommate once who described herself as “vegetarian, but I eat fish, and chicken, and pork.” Words mean things! (Don’t get me started on “literally”!)

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  9. 9. rkipling 10:49 pm 09/6/2013

    Thanks. No criticism was implied. I’m studying your thinking process. It’s interesting.

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  10. 10. veggiedude 11:59 pm 09/6/2013

    You asked the question “Why am I imposing a vegetarian diet on my children?” as if it was a negative. You could have well have said “Why am I not imposing a meat diet on my children?” And there are many logical reasons not to.

    A commenter asked “I’m curious if you agree that being a vegan is a political choice?”

    Actually, it is perhaps more biological than political. Neuroscientists discovered vegans have more empathy than others.

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  11. 11. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 12:49 am 09/7/2013

    @ veggiedude:

    I have been surprised by the number of people who have suggested (or even told me outright) that raising my kids vegetarian is something unfair that I am doing to them. Which is why I frame it that way, even though I reject the premise that it’s any more unfair than the menus omnivore parents “impose” on their kids.

    Also, let the record reflect that there are jerks of all dietary persuasions — vegans included.

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  12. 12. rkipling 2:55 am 09/7/2013

    My point was that if someone, who doesn’t have a food allergy, is concerned to avoid any trace of food which would violate a vegan diet, then I view it as a political choice. For example: Avoiding a food product because it contains < 1% whey can't be nutritionally justified. At that level it couldn't matter, except emotionally.

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  13. 13. Alison Cummins 10:27 am 09/7/2013

    In what way can offering vegetarian food and explaining why be “forcing” a child to be vegetarian? The child will eat with friends and neighbours, will share lunches at school, will eventually have money to buy snacks and food. Unless you are taking on the job of strictly supervising all your children’s interactions and enforcing home rules and standards outside the home, then no, you aren’t forcing your kids to be vegetarian at all.

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  14. 14. Alison Cummins 10:49 am 09/7/2013

    rkipling, let’s say that soap and lipstick and pet food contain less than 1% of fat from people who died without money to pay for funerals. The state gives the bodies to the same plants that process euthanized pets and livestock that can’t be sold for human consumption.

    1) If you chose to buy only “human-waste-free” products, would that be based on politics, disgust, or a principled ethical choice reflecting your feelings about the value of an individual? Would you be participating in an organized boycott, declining to participate in this particular economic cycle or simply acting on personal preference?

    2) What if the human bodies disposed of in this way included those of people who died while in custody?

    3) What if processed human products were used in some food products, like the polish applied to apples? The human fat would contribute <1% of the nutritional value of the apple, so that can’t logically be part of the reasoning. Would it be ok to eat the apple if it were peeled?

    4) If you chose to buy these products, would that be a political act?

    I’m not entirely clear on what “political” means to you.

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  15. 15. rkipling 2:06 pm 09/7/2013

    Ms. Cummins,

    SYOLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE????

    Well okay. I see your point. Maybe there is a better word than political. What I meant is the same as I understand you to mean. The decision seems to be made on a non-nutritional grounds. Aren’t we saying the same thing then? I guess I was thinking about my daughter’s venture into veganism. Her decision was political and short in duration. I offered no comment on her decision before or after.

    I don’t see what Dr. S is doing as forcing her children either. It seems odd to me that other parents would care. It’s curious what challenges people?

    You said basically the same thing four times. The permitted amount of rat scat troubles me more than a hypothetical. I didn’t mean to upset anyone or challenge their beliefs. My curiosity was an intellectual one. But now that you raise the point, there are probably more vegan NPR listeners than vegan Fox News viewers. That’s just a guess. I’m a commentator chameleon myself.

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  16. 16. Alison Cummins 10:03 am 09/9/2013

    rkipling,

    In my experience, very few people are vegetarian primarily for reasons related to nutrition (and if they are, they’re mistaken).

    There is ritual purity, where people stay clear of “unclean” things. Most of us have poop as an automatic unclean thing, but as social learners it’s pretty easy for us to pick up a list of things that are unclean; these things then disgust us. There are people whose temperament is such that ritual purity is very important. They’ll eat strictly organic, avoid gluten and MSG, wash their hands as soon as they enter the house and carry around hand sanitizer and generally be constantly memorizing the latest list of things that are bad for you. Depending on who you hang with, animal flesh, secretions and byproducts can be on the list. This isn’t actually about nutrition.

    Veganism can be a way for anorexics to pass as normal, as well as a way of hijacking their “unclean” reflexes to make it easier to avoid food.

    Often there’s post-hoc rationalization. Once you have chosen to be vegetarian for principled reasons, it starts to feel right and you extend the rightness to other areas like health.

    Depending on where you started from as your default diet, the vegetarian diet you learn may in fact be much healthier than what you think of as a “normal, meat-eater’s diet.” For these people, it is a nutritional thing. In terms of their own health though, it would be fine for them to eat meat (not bacon or spam) as long as they ate lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. It may take them a while to figure this out.

    It may be indirectly a nutritional thing by way of economics if you can afford a high-quality vegetarian diet but not a high-quality meat-containing diet. These folks don’t usually call themselves vegetarian though, but they’ll say they eat mostly vegetarian meals.

    Given what I know about vegetarians (I’m a pescatarian myself) and nutrition (I did my BSc in nutrition) I think I’m just puzzled about the link you assume there must be between the two.

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  17. 17. rkipling 10:33 am 09/9/2013

    Alison Cummins,

    Thank you for explaining more about it. I had thought it was more about red meat being unhealthy.

    The ritual purity people seem a bit OCD and might benefit from counseling, but I’m great with whatever works for them.

    Your point about anorexics was particularly interesting. I have not read much about them and was unaware of the “unclean” aspect to that disorder.

    Thank you again for taking your time to explain this. Sometimes it’s difficult to ask questions in a way that isn’t interpreted as criticism.

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  18. 18. Alison Cummins 2:26 pm 09/9/2013

    rkipling,

    If people are concerned about cholesterol and short-chained fatty acids in red meat, eggs, butter and high-fat milk, they can eat read meat once a week, limit themselves to two eggs a week, substitute Becel margarine for butter and eat low-fat milk. Then they can go to town on chicken and turkey breast and fish for the rest of the week. That’s a prudent diet, not vegetarianism.

    You’re right though, for some people it’s all-or-nothing. Instead of cutting out the bacon and limiting red meat it’s easier for them to eliminate animal products entirely and just go vegan.

    Humans are omnivores and we’ve been able to colonize the entire terrestrial surface because we’re so adaptable in what we eat. Because there are so many ways for us to eat and be healthy, a normally healthy person making a concious choice to eat in a particular way is doing it for reasons other than health (even if health is part of their thought process).

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  19. 19. Alison Cummins 2:27 pm 09/9/2013

    (just saw a bunch of typos/spelling mistakes there. sorry)

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  20. 20. rkipling 2:36 pm 09/9/2013

    it happenss knot to worry

    Link to this

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