Vegan mother-of-two Charlotte Meyer Zu Natrup talks about telling her children the truth about where meat comes from
It finally happened. A moment that I have anticipated and thought about for years. Since before my children were conceived. Since before I knew that I would be trying for children. Since I finally gave up trying to delude myself that it was ‘OK’ to eat some animals but not others. When I gave into the feelings that I had been kidding myself about for years. The feelings about how wrong it is to ship sentient beings off to slaughterhouses just because we crave a burger or hanker after a chicken curry.
I have wondered for a very long time how I would respond to a child if they asked me where their dinner came from.
Jess, Florian and I are in the supermarket doing our weekly shop. Jess has recently achieved a new height of responsibility and now pushes her own toddler-sized trolley around with us as we shop. I am torn between wildly celebrating and throwing my hands up in horror at these trolleys. On the one hand they can keep a toddler engaged as we traverse the long aisles to the checkout. On the other, it is rather like handing a small weapon to a monkey and saying: “Here, let’s see what you do with that.”
Jess has been delighted by them. There have been good days where she has wowed me with her maturity by correctly selecting foods from the shelves and putting them in her trolley. And there were very few putting-everything-in-the-world-on-top-of-the-raspberries incidents, too. Simultaneously, there have been darker days when she has propelled the trolley as fast as possible bowling-ball style so that the elderly shoppers have become bowling pins and the shins of other customers have turned dark with bruises.
We are in the meat aisle. Jess, picking up a cellophane-wrapped piece of meat. I think it is bacon but I am no connoisseur.
‘Was ist das?’*
‘I think it is bacon, Jess.’ If she were two, I would have been satisfied with this reply, knowing that there would be a thousand or so similar interrogations before we got to the checkout. At that age she was more interested in identifying objects. Now she is three and I have committed myself to giving explanations to her answers. ‘From the piggy, Jess. Oink oink.’
‘It’s a piece of the piggy’s back. They cut it out of his back.’ I need to be explicit. With toddlers I have found that you need to be as clear as possible.
I had been perturbed about these discussions. My fear had been that I would be seeking to persuade my child to think a certain way, to make up her mind for her. This, to a certain extent, is the unavoidable landscape of parenthood. It is impossible to raise someone and not influence how they view their existence. Every decision that I have made in my life so far and that I will make, impacts on her, to a greater or a lesser degree. Being raised vegetarian is part of this, as is, for example, learning English and German because her parents are English and German. However, something about the discussion of where meat comes from, for me, was different. It did not feel like just another unintentional part of my life that holds sway over hers. It seemed like an instance where using my parental power to influence all her further decisions seemed manipulative.
It is confusing. As a parent, I do wish to imprint on my children. I am very strongly of the opinion that they should not walk out into the road in front of a car, now or ever. I will do everything in my power to ensure that they understand this wish and follow my commands on the matter. What is the difference here then? I know that eating meat, eggs and dairy are both bad for their health and cruel to animals. So why do I stop myself from spreading the persuasion on here as thick as vegan butter icing on a toothsome vegan cupcake and making the message stick?
I feel some hesitation here might be natural and that it is only exacerbated by the opinions of other parents around me. These range from the more mild-mannered parents who only raise their eyebrows at my ‘foolish’ ideas, to those with stronger views. The former perhaps only suppose that I am raising my children in this way in order to follow a new fad and thereby compete in the award that all parents seem so dedicated on receiving these days: The Undoubted Best Parent Ever Hitherto Let All Parents Bow to Your Wisdom Award. There are also the more vocal parents who speak up against what they seem to feel is my indoctrination of my children into a third rate lifestyle.
And the key word there is ‘indoctrination’. Other parents fear that we indoctrinate our children and I would argue against this. I do not indoctrinate but I am entitled to show my opinion. This does not disappear because I believe in something different to everyone else. And this will be the case for the rest of their lives. I will not manipulate my child when they come to me and tell me the decisions they have made in life, even when I disagree, but I will give my opinion and I will try to support them in coming to their own conclusion.
In the process of soothing myself on this matter, I scouted online to see what other vegan and vegetarian parents said to their children about meat and animals. I found some good advice and a general consensus that the truth could be told, gently, without the use of graphic pictures from slaughterhouses. I agreed entirely.
What kept coming up in my research, however, were articles aimed at meat-eating parents. Articles which addressed the dilemma of how to break the news to little Charlie. How to tell him that what was on his plate was a friend of the cow whose nose he had stroked at the local petting farm. Or a companion of the bunny whose exploits he had read about in a book. Basically, how to convince children that it is OK to eat meat. They were a frightening and an illuminating read. Why was I worrying about influencing my children, when what I was telling them was the truth? I was being honest, and as long as I didn’t employ terrible shock tactics that would scar them, then I could take a certain amount of assurance from this fact. What was persuasive, and a form of indoctrination, were the lies that meat-eaters were constructing to make the ‘Let’s Eat Meat Dance’ seem fine to their children.
And so, back to Jess who is still standing behind me in the refrigerator aisle, with a piece of pig in her hand and a sad little face. She is trying to compute what is going on.
‘That makes Piggy sad, Mama?’ she asks.
And I get down on her level, remove the piece of pig from her hand and pick her up.
‘Yes, Jess. It does make the pig sad and it kills him. Some people like to eat pig. We don’t. We like to take care of animals’.
And that is enough for one day. Jess and I can discuss this again in more detail at a later date. For now, we rescue Dummer Bunner (Florian’s toy) once again from the fridge, and head to the checkout with our shopping.
*What is that?