When Children Question Why They Are Eating Animals

Helping children understand carnism

Posted Jun 05, 2016

Free/Pixibay
Source: Free/Pixibay

When Luiz Antonio, at the age of four, wants to eat his vegetables rather than the octopus on his plate, his caregiver gives the best response a caregiver can give, “Okay then, just eat the potato and rice.”  YouTuber, Flavia Cavalcanti filmed Luiz questioning why he was served an animal for dinner.After telling her that he prefers to see “animals standing up” and not on his plate, Luiz then asks, “Why are you crying?”  My heart opened with hope and joy, when his caregiver quietly replied, “I’m not crying, I’m just touched by you.” “I’m doing something beautiful?” Luiz asks, as she encourages him,  “Eat! No need to eat the octopus, all right?” 

Luiz is lucky to have a caregiver who is receptive to his empathy and who is so deeply moved by his compassion that she agrees with him - he shouldn't eat the animal on his plate. Luis at four years of age is an old soul and feels free to speak his truth, a blessing that often is not recorded, documented and shared.  A recent study https://foodethics.univie.ac.at/fileadmin/user_upload/inst_ethik_wiss_dialog/Hussar__K._2010_Children_no_Meat_-_Moral_Decision.pdf shows that vegetarianism in children, ages 6-10, relates more to moral motivations, such as animal welfare, than to personal motivations, such as health.  All of the vegetarian children included in the study gave a moral reason not to eat meat. Children who ate animals did not acknowledge morals at all. What prevents non-vegetarian children from empathizing with animals like Luiz does?

Dr. Melanie Joy’s work helps us understand the belief system that conditions people to eat certain animals. She labels this belief system “carnism which is the opposite of veganism, as “carn” means “flesh” or “of the flesh” and “ism” refers to a belief system.” She describes carnism as “invisible, people rarely realize that eating animals is a choice, rather than a given. In meat-eating cultures around the world, people typically don’t think about why they eat certain animals but not others, or why they eat any animals at all. But when eating animals is not a necessity, which is the case for many people in the world today, then it is a choice – and choices always stem from beliefs.” Learn more about Melanie Joy's work and carnism here.

When children are at the table, and express an interest in vegetarian diets they are frequently denied the choice by their caregivers. Luiz's caregiver allowed him to explore his feelings and act on a deep and compassionate instinct to not eat an animal that was killed. The study also showed that the main barrier to vegetarianism among children and young adults are their caregivers. Children are conditioned to follow the eating choices of adults in their household; when caregivers eat animals, children are often entirely unaware that eating a plant-based diet is also a choice. 

The purpose of “Children at the Table” is to share how to bring children into discussions of important questions around food. We will explore everything from the childhood obesity epidemic, to food and animal justice issues, and childhood bullying. My intention is to help children and families eat healthy, cruelty-free food as they deepen their compassion for all living things, learn how to save the planet through plant-based eating, and affirm that the food and animal justice movement is real, and making tremendous progress as a social movement. 

References:

Beliefs and Attitudes toward Vegetarian Lifestyle across Generations

Younger students (11-20) emphasize moral and environmental motivations whereas older students (41-60) emphasize health motivations

Children Who Choose Not to Eat Meat: A Study of Early Moral Decision- makingAnimal welfare Parent practices Religion Taste Health

More Young Students Go the Vegetarian Route (USA Today) Personal taste

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