Adventures in Ethics and Science

In a comment on the last post, zwa asks:

I’m curious about your vegetarianism (as one myself) and whether your kids are. If yes, did they choose it, if no did you try to convince them?

My kids are 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.

Anyway, 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 the sprogs 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 20 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.
  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 the sprogs use water, getting them places frequently uses gas, and the computer and TV/VCR/DVD axis of entertainment uses electricity. 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 even checked with our pediatrician. The sprogs’ diet is providing them more than adequate amounts of all the nutrients they need.
  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.

Am I hemming in the sprogs’ ability to exercize their autonomy? Absolutely. At ages 7 and 5, they need us to hem in their autonomy to keep them alive and in reasonably good mental and emotional shape to exercize their autonomy as adults. It’s just part of parenting.

Comments

  1. #1 Rob Knop
    September 22, 2006

    Of course *protein* is very necessary, but there are other ways to get that than meat….

    My wife has suffered with anorexia on and off over many years, and getting enough protien is a big deal for her right now. At the moment, she gets most of it via chicken, eggs, and salmon, with the occasional ham or turkey cold cuts thrown in.

    If you don’t have an eating disorder that makes you instinctively scared of protien, there are other ways to get it — although as a long-time meat eater, I’ll be damned if I know what they are :)

    computer and TV/VCR/DVD axis of entertainment uses electricity.

    …and all of that is very important, especially the computer. That is, assuming you’re hoping the sprogs are going to have a shot at the Nerd-Offs of the future…!

  2. #2 Chel
    September 22, 2006

    Question. I’m a vegetarian with no kids yet. I like the idea of having a vegetarian family. But the points you laid out mostly support having a vegetarian household, though not necessarily vegetarian kids. So my question is do you try to control what they eat outside of the house? Would they get in trouble if they ate a hotdog at school? Do you tell their friends’ parents that they are not to eat meat when they are on playdates? And how do your kids feel about all of this? Do they beg you to let them order a burger in a restaurant? Have you talked to them about the reasons to be vegetarian and do they buy into it at all?

    Okay, that was a lot of questions.

    I know when I think about it if I were a kid of a vegetarian parent who was fed/allowed to eat meat, I’d be pretty pissed off when I found out where meat comes from and that my parents let me eat it. On the other hand I could see being resentful of not being allowed to eat meat if everyone else was doing it.

  3. #3 Natalie
    September 23, 2006

    We are mostly vegetarians (which means about the only meat we eat at home is fish, but we’re more flexible when going out) for environmental reasons, but I had never thought of the offsetting the kids with not eating meat argument – good one to add to my repetiore!

  4. #4 Jude
    September 23, 2006

    I’ve been a vegetarian for almost 32 years and I have 3 kids. One has never eaten meat, but my sons have. My daughter, now 25, simply never had a desire to eat meat, and she made the connection between animals and food at the age of 3 without any prompting from me.

    I’ve haven’t cooked meat in decades either, and I hate the stuff, so we don’t have meat at home. To me, it seems barbaric to feed meat to children. My sons, however, ate meat at their dad’s house when they were older. One son explained to people, “I’m an eat meater” and since that’s easier to say than meat eater, that’s what we still call him even though he’s almost 14. The other son became a vegetarian after his sister told him about parasitic worms.

    My sons always had the option to eat meat outside of my home, but even the eat-meater doesn’t ingest lots of meat. It’s totally their decision what they eat outside of my home (although I like to think I’ve given them some good guidance), but at my house, we don’t eat meat.

  5. #5 kevin
    September 23, 2006

    Being a vegetarian is good but I don’t think it should be forced on the kids.

  6. #6 zwa
    September 23, 2006

    Thanks for adressing this topic. Im curious about whether they eat meat when out of your control, or even when your not cooking. Hypothetical: You’re out at the mall, they want a hamburger. Do they consider themselves vegetarians?

  7. #7 Janet D. Stemwedel
    September 23, 2006

    The sprogs definitely consider themselves vegetarian — and are even attentive, when offered snacks at school or parties, to hidden reservoirs of non-vegetarian food, such as marshmallows (which contain gelatin, which comes from hooves and such). 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. (Hey, there are kids with allergies, too.) They are learning how to enquire politely about the available options, to decline graciously, and to graze effectively at potlucks.

    They haven’t ever begged me for meat. But, they also know that when they are grown-ups, they will be able to make their own decisions about their diets. (Same as with tattoos.) They get 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.

    As far as “forcing” a vegetarian diet on the kids, it’s of a piece with my “forcing” them to eat meals that aren’t composed entirely of candy, “forcing” them to go to school, 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). I haven’t indoctrinated them to believe that meat-eaters are evil, or that they’ll go to hell if animal flesh ever crosses their lips. Given that, what beef could anyone have with it?

  8. #8 Janet D. Stemwedel
    September 23, 2006

    Oh, while I’m here, I should add younger offspring’s current favorite joke:

    Q: What do vegetarians eat?
    A: Vegetables.
    Q: What do humanitarians eat?
    A: Humans!

    Younger offspring told that one at a College of Humanities & Arts reception and, needless to say, it slayed the humanities folks.

  9. #9 zwa
    September 24, 2006

    Given that, what beef could anyone have with it?

    Is that a pun?

  10. #10 Bob O'H
    September 24, 2006

    Given that, what beef could anyone have with it?

    Well, you’re not telling porkies, so we won’t lamb-ast you.

    Bob

  11. #11 Lab Lemming
    September 24, 2006

    No argument with reasons 1,3,4,5.

    Re #2, even if you haven’t cook meat for decades, what is preventing the better half from cooking it on his dinner days?

    Re #6, Who are you kidding?

    Imagine the teen hangout under the 101 bridge, 12 years from now. The sprogs and Those Henderson Kids are munching down pizza, when the older Henderson pulls out a sixpack.
    “Hey, you guys want a beer?”
    “Thanks, but the dominos had pepperoni on it.”

    Is there any evidence that vegitarians are less likely to crash cars or abuse substances than omnivores? My high school didn’t have a statistically meaningful number of vegetarians, but college did. Based on the blurred fragments of emmory still available, I’d say that they got just a drunk as everyone else, and may have smoked even more pot.

  12. #12 Unlearned Hand
    September 24, 2006

    A couple points from a veg married to an omnivore:

    The power of being the one who cooks is substantial. I cook, she doesn’t really, so she eats as a vegetarian quite a lot of the time. The odd meat meals she has at home come from frozen dinners, canned soup, and maybe tuna salad if she feels like making it which I think has been years now. Those tend to be lunch rather than a dinner preferred to me cooking.

    Vegetarianism and teenage excess: the worst party-animal vegetarians I observed in college were the result of hippie parents, not nerd parents. Permisiveness and laxity, not maternalism and guidance. The sprogs will be fine.

    Gelatin – hooves aren’t a particularly good source. (They just barbaque those and sell those as dog chews.) Pig skin is the primary source, which if anything is much, much grosser. And you thought gelatin and pork rinds were different food groups. Though most flavored gelatin snacks are not Fatkins-friendly because of the added sugar.

  13. #13 SteveG
    September 25, 2006

    We’re taking the same line with our kids and I’ve found two things that have kept them veggie: (1) the “that’s not nice” intuition and (2) the texture. We keep a meat free home, but say, at the folks’ house on Thanksgiving, we always offer the kids turkey. They never eat it. There is the empathy thing and the “I’ll try a little bite, but it feels weird in the mouth” thing. You forget how much certain regular practices are really an acquired taste.

  14. #14 chel
    September 25, 2006

    Thanks for the extra info about your family, Janet. It’s good to know!

  15. #15 clarrie
    September 26, 2006

    I’m a veggie. My other half isn’t but eats little meat for health reasons, so when we started living together we agreed on a veggie home and when we had a kid we agreed he’d be a veggie kid. Last year age 5 he started asking to try meat at other people’s houses so we agreed when he’s out (friends houses, parties, restaurants) he can chose meat if he wants it. He is a very enthusiastic carnivore! He loves meat and fish, and tells me I should try it too because it’s delicious. As a veggie for over 20 years, it’s a bit of a shock to sit next to your 5 year old happily devouring a chicken leg.

  16. #16 Jess
    September 26, 2006

    Lemming: Right, because nobody ever became a vegetarian to rebel against their parents. Or stopped keeping kosher. Clearly dietary choices can’t be an outlet for rebellion.

    The reductio makes for a funny image (why are they under a bridge? I never hung out under a bridge… are you sure you’re thinking teens and not boxcar hobos?), but of course Janet’s talking about kids seeking out ways to be rebellious. That they’ll have a safe one cut out for them (and maybe not have to go so far as to hang out under bridges) does not necessarily mean that they’ll turn down every instance of beer in preference of meat.

    This was almost convincing enough to make me want a veggie household, except that my other half would be sad (and he’s the one who cooks!). I get the option of no-meat dinner when I want one, so I guess any kids would just have to get the same choice.

  17. #17 Zuska
    September 27, 2006

    Vegetarianism shouldn’t be forced on the kids…but forcing the eating of meat on them is okay? In families where meat-eating is the rule, aren’t you just forcing meat-eating on the kids? What’s the difference? In one household: only meals with meat. In another household: only meals without meat. Who’s forcing what on the kids? Give me a break. For the record, I am a meat-eater. What mom (or dad) cooks, the kids eat. When the kids start working, paying for the food, and cooking the meals, they can eat whatever the hell they want. I mean, unless you are doing horrible things to them at dinner, like being compulsive about dining manners or screaming at the kids during dinner or fighting with your spouse while the kids’ stomachs churn as they push food around on the plate, they are going to grow up with very healthy and normal attitudes about food, and when they go out on their own, they’ll try new things, and figure out a diet that works for them, that will be some of what they grew up with, and some new things. Sheesh. Stop worrying so much about the sprogs being veggies. It’s not like they are starving or not getting nutrients.

  18. #18 etbnc
    October 9, 2006

    Dr. Freeride, you’ve done a good job of clearly expressing authentic values lately. I commend you for that.

    I came across this site today, and it looks useful:
    Center for Informed Food Choices
    http://www.informedeating.org/faqs.html

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