Talking to Children About Veganism
(When I refer to children, students, and kids, for the purpose of this article, let’s imagine the age range of pre-school to age 11. Pre-teens and teenagers are developmentally very different from their younger counterparts, and deserve a separate conversation)
It may be unbelievable to readers who don’t know me, but once upon a time, I was an educator. Me, a teacher! Indeed, I have a decade of teaching under my belt, working in private schools, public schools, summer camp programs, after-school programs, church youth groups, and my personal favorite, pre-k. A lot of factors went into me leaving what I once thought was my calling and starting a career as a writer and vegan communicator, but in my heart, I’m forever a teacher. I have a strong passion for animal rights, and it’s time we have a realistic conversation about what it means to teach that topic to children.
You may have seen the news that a fifth-grade teacher in Michigan faces disciplinary action after showing his students footage of an undercover slaughterhouse investigation made by Mercy For Animals, who conduct such investigations routinely. The video shows pigs and piglets being mercilessly abused; kicked, punched, screamed at and smacked by out of control slaughterhouse workers. It didn’t take long before I was asked what my opinions were on the matter, and if I myself would do the same thing in a classroom. I wouldn’t, and other vegans find that to be shocking. The animal rights community is angry that a teacher might find himself in trouble for showing disturbing footage, even though we know, as activists, that the violence depicted is the norm. What could possibly be wrong with exposing them to this?
Listen, I get it. Kids need the truth! They DESERVE the truth, but I simply don’t think that footage from a factory farm is necessary when making a point to a child. I wouldn’t find it appropriate to show fifth graders bodies mutilated by the holocaust either, nor would I condone showing a film where a child was being physically abused. Kids are incredible and kind if we allow them to be. They have a natural predisposition to protecting and loving animals, and it’s our job as adults to help them learn empathy and exercise that skill like a muscle. They simply don’t need to be shown a video in order to care that animals are being hurt. Also, more power to any fifth grade who takes on ethical veganism in an unsupportive family, but that’s certainly not the norm, and it seems that all that came out of this teacher’s actions were a bunch of pissy parents and upset kids.
In the most recent classroom I worked in, I worked with first through third graders, so the children were just then starting to learn the basics of how to form an ethical outlook on the world. I’m asked all the time, did I hide my own veganism? No. Never. Unlike adults, children are very receptive to vegan basics, as they haven’t yet been completely socialized to take part in speciesism. Some of my most delightful moments were during lunch time, when a child might offer me something from the lunch spread and talk the “is it vegan” checklist out loud to themselves, careful that whatever they served me was Ms. McGrath friendly. When students approached me and asked why I didn’t eat chicken or ice cream or cheese, I kindly told them I thought it was wrong to take things from animal’s bodies in order to nourish myself. Children are curious, and they pressed me. I felt no qualms telling them that yes, bacon does in fact come from a living being, and the chicken nuggets were, indeed, from a chicken. One year at summer camp, we kept a rooster named El Diablo on the property and the children doted after him. Wednesday night was fried chicken night (from which I happily refrained) and a six year old looked up at me in horror. “Is this El Diablo?!” he asked, already halfway done with a wing. “No,” I answered gently, choosing my words carefully, “but the chickens we eat are just as sweet as El Diablo.” The little boy stared at his plate distastefully.
There are so many wonderful and age-appropriate tools out there to start conversations with children who are not our own. As much as we want to throw “age-appropriate” out the window when we know how violent animal exploitation is, we need to consider what is going to make the biggest impact on a child’s life and give them the mental tools they need to make ethical decisions as they are able. As adults, we can’t simply show videos and describe slaughter in detail and expect a young child to process it in a way that will make them effective advocates later on. Remember, trauma isn’t necessary in the recipe for empathy, but kind conversation is. Children are intelligent, ask them questions and let them work through the answers with gentle guidance. A coworker of mine is raising his three year old vegan, and he tells me how proud his daughter is to protect all animals after he pointed out the similarities between the family dogs and the animals we eat. Children’s books such as “V is For Vegan” and “Vegan is Love: Having Heart and Taking Action” by Ruby Roth are also both great ways to get the wheels turning in the head of a child you really care about.
We needn’t wring our hands too much over safeguarding the innocence of children, but we need to extend compassion towards them when talking about big ideas. As vegans know, veganism has to potential to be a life-changing undertaking, so let’s equip children with knowledge in the most effective ways we can.