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“Forcing” my kids to be vegetarian.

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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.

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

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