“And nothing inspires as much shame as being a parent. Children confront us with our paradoxes and hypocrisies, and we are exposed. You need to find an answer for every why — Why do we do this? Why don’t we do that? — and often there isn’t a good one. So you say, simply, because. Or you tell a story that you know isn’t true. […] The shame of parenthood — which is a good shame — is that we want our children to be more whole than we are, to have satisfactory answers. My son not only inspired me to reconsider what kind of eating animal I would be, but shamed me into reconsideration.”


Jonathan Safran Foer in “Eating Animals”, 2009

 

 

As parents, we define our children’s eating habits and impart values. After all, food is a lot more than simply a means of taking on nutrients: Our eating behaviour forms an important part of our identity.

 

“Tell me what you eat and I tell you who you are.

 

With this in mind, what messages do parents who put meat in front of their children send out?

That the law of the jungle applies, whereby the weakest among us can be treated and mistreated on a whim? That it is completely normal to love cats and dogs but eat pigs and cows? That a cute little cat deserves our love, care and compassion, while a fish, which does not arouse our protective instincts in this way, can be denied its capacity to suffer and right to life without a second thought? That certain animals are our friends and others food (producers), or even – at our choosing and depending on what benefits we can derive from them – both? That ignorance about, and indifference towards, the consequences of our own actions and consumption are OK? That it can never be wrong to do what the majority does and has always done? That it’s much easier to bury your head in the sand and go with the flow rather than to critically engage with ideas that are sold to us as the norm and to question age-old traditions?

If dogs, cats or any other animals we call pets were treated in the same way as pigs, chickens or any other animals we call livestock, society would be dismayed and outraged. What is the explanation for this? And how can we explain this to our children? How can we instil in young children a sense of empathy towards animals and how can they be taught respect towards the environment and the other humans as well as non-human beings they share the planet with when the consumption of meat is seen as entirely normal? How are they supposed to gain a sense of what healthy eating is when they are served food that, in most cases, they would refuse to eat if only they were able to make the connection between the meat on their plate and its provenance?

Studies have shown that children who exhibit a comparatively high IQ are later much more likely to go vegetarian than less intelligent children. Of course, there are many reasons why people choose to make this step (e.g. the health benefits offered by a vegetarian diet), but the fact that, from a purely intellectual and rational point of view, it is just supremely paradoxical and illogical to want to stroke certain animals but eat others is certainly an important factor for many.

 

The US psychologist Professor Melanie Joy has coined a word – “carnism” – for this ideology that“enables” humans to engage in selective empathy and conditions them to eat certain animals but not others (see video below). Carnism, which is the precise opposite of veganism, is a violent ideology – since meat cannot be procured without slaughter – and an invisible belief system that most people are born into, with which they grow up and that many never question. This definition implicitly emphasises the immense responsibility that we as parents shoulder as communicators of values: parents who want to be an authentic role model for their children must be acutely aware of their own values and be able to explain – both to themselves and to others – why they consider it right and proper to practice these values in their everyday lives.