I’m a vegetarian. What if my child wants to eat meat?

Sarah Fitz-Claridge

“I am a vegetarian for ethical reasons. I do not consume meat, and I believe it wrong to use my money to buy meat. I do not allow my kitchen equipment to be used to prepare non-vegetarian food. I do not allow meat in my house. I have adult meat-eating friends and they totally respect this and do not expect me to cook meat for them and they do not bring meat to my house. What if my child does not share my ethical concerns and wants to eat meat? I do not want to do the wrong thing by allowing meat in my house, let alone cooking it for my child.”1

This position is boundary violating. It mistakenly treats the child as if she is not a separate individual whose life is her own. Your child is not a pet you own or a part of you, she is a person in her own right.

The same rights-based argument (“my money” to be used to buy meat, “my kitchen equipment”, “my house”) could be used to justify any coercion, including coercion you would agree is appalling.

Imagine if your best friend’s husband (the breadwinner) were to lay down the law for her, telling her that she may not bring into the house the food she particularly loves, considers vital for her health and that she eats almost every day. What if he were to say to your friend, “My money may not be used to buy your disgusting avocados, broccoli, or red peppers, and don’t even think about bringing garlic into my house!” Would that be taking your friend seriously? Would you think the prohibition reasonable? Would you suggest she comply?

As it happens, my husband is vegetarian for ethical reasons too, and has a visceral aversion to meat, such that when we were out to dinner once and the vegetarian soup he had ordered turned out to have meat stock in it, he vomited in horror the moment he tasted it. I, on the other hand, am a meat eater. Thank goodness my husband scrupulously respects boundaries! Not only does my husband not forbid me from bringing meat and fish into the house, he gladly buys meat and fish for me, and positively encourages me to eat it because he knows I enjoy it. When my husband saw that I was eating fish last night for example, he said with a lovely warm smile, “Is that fish you are eating? Enjoy your fish, Sarah.” His face says that he loves to see me enjoying eating what I love, including meat and fish. He loves me just as I am! He would never dream of trying to impose his vegetarianism on me! And he really is vegetarian for ethical reasons. He just doesn’t confuse me eating meat with him eating meat.

In good relationships with adults, people do not try to impose their own ideas on the other person. They take the other person seriously as a person with his own ideas, whose life is his own. But when it comes to children, we parents tend not to take them seriously as individual persons in their own right like we do adults. We tend to see our children as part of ourselves or as being like a pet we own, such that if we were facilitating our children’s meat eating, that would feel to us like us ourselves eating meat instead of this separate person doing so. But actually, our children are separate individuals whose lives are their own not ours, and it is a mistake not to respect the boundary between where we end and our child begins.

The situation with your adult friends is not quite the same as the situation with your child. Imposing your vegetarianism on your child in your home would be like imposing your vegetarianism on your friends in their own homes. Your home is not just your home, it is also your child’s home. If it is all right for you to impose your ideas on your child, why is it not all right for her to impose her own ideas on you? To think yourself justified in imposing your ideas on someone else, you already have to be not taking that other person seriously as a separate individual. 

But in the case of your child, you have yourself, through your own freely chosen actions, created obligations to her that you do not have to your adult friends. Your child is not responsible for the position she is in. She is living with you because you chose not to have her adopted at birth. That was your choice, your action, not hers. When we choose to be parents, we do so knowing that our child will not necessarily share our all our ideas, and may even disagree with some of our sacred ethical beliefs.

Your child is not you. She is a separate person, and just as your life is your own, so her life is her own. To suggest that it would be all right to impose your own preferences on your child would be to use your adult power and strength – your might – against your child. But might does not make right, does it? When an issue is decided by who is the stronger – who has the might – it is not being decided by reason, so the outcome is unlikely to be good/true/right.

When you have a child, you have to realise that the child is not you, she is a separate person with her own ideas, and if you have a problem facilitating quite possibly very different ideas and choices from yours, you should not be having children. Children are people. Your child eating meat is not you eating meat. You only experience it as distressing for your child to eat meat if you are mistakenly seeing your child as an extension of you instead of as her own person with her own life and her own ideas and values.

“It’s not just that I have ethical objections to eating meat. The smell of meat makes me vomit!”

There will be a way to facilitate the child’s wish to eat meat that works for you too, unless you feel justified in violating your child’s boundaries and you simply want to impose your wishes on her. If I were vomiting at the smell of meat, I would be sure to find friends and neighbours and family members with whom my child could eat meat regularly. And at home, I would have someone else or the child herself prepare and eat the meat while I was out. If I had a problem with meat touching my kitchenware, I would have a special vegetarian set of kitchenware and keep it separate from the rest of the kitchenware, kosher style, and if I did not want my kitchenware going in the same dishwasher as meaty items, I would wash up my special vegetarian kitchenware separately. I would also try to find a way to get over my irrational nausea reaction to the smell of meat. I might try psychotherapy or hypnosis. I might search the internet for possible solutions.

What I would not want to be doing would be to use my nausea hangup to emotionally blackmail my child in to going along with my vegetarianism. There is always a way to solve the problem (unless you think that it is right to coercively impose your own ideas on the other person).

“That’s all very well for you to say, but for me, what you are suggesting is like telling me to help my child murder someone. I assume you would draw the line at murder?!”

The thing is, eating meat is not illegal, let alone murder. When you choose not to have your baby adopted, you know that that child might well develop ideas conflicting with your own. It is common for people to eat meat in our culture, so that is quite likely to be something your child will want to do. Children are not pets you can feed according to your own preferences irrespective of theirs, they have their own preferences, make their own choices, have their own ideas. We have to be willing to facilitate our children’s preferences, even when their preferences conflict with our ethical beliefs.

“What if my child did actually want me to help her murder someone?”

See: What if my child wants me to help her murder someone?

See also: Vegetarian parents, meat-eating child

Notes

1. Whenever I get this question, it always reminds me of one of my first ever speaking engagements about children (1989). I had thought I had been invited to speak at a well-known organisation, but it turned out to be a militant animal rights group with a similar name. While I was waiting to begin speaking, I overheard two people, one of whom appeared to be in charge, talking in low voices about a violent attack their group had made on a building in which animals were being used for research. Having heard about the attack on the news, and realising that I was going to be speaking to violent terrorists, I was terrified. There was a particularly hairy moment in the Q&A in which a questioner started asking about my own views about animal rights, and the inevitable “What if my child wants to eat meat?”

I was trying to calculate whether I could make a run for it and get out alive. So how did I answer that question then, given that I literally feared for my life? I argued that children no more want to do the wrong thing than adults do, and that they are just as capable of being persuaded by true ideas and good arguments as adults, so (unless parents and children are at war due to coercion) reason would prevail. (I must admit that at some point, I also asked “Why would anyone want to eat meat?” as a rhetorical defensive manoeuvre.)

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘I’m a vegetarian. What if my child wants to eat meat?’ https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/i-am-a-vegetarian–what-if-my-child-wants-to-eat-meat/