Daddy Eats Dead Cows
Can a meat-loving father raise vegetarian children?
My wife, Cyd, is an unlikely vegetarian. Her mother is a genius with a chicken or a pot roast, and their small apartment in New York remains a kosher carnivore's delight. For nights out, her family could walk to temples of meat like Sammy's Roumanian Steak House and the Second Avenue Deli. But as a young girl, Cyd decided that eating meat was unethical, and she resolved that someday she would become a vegetarian. The summer before college, she worked to acquire a taste for eggplant, chickpeas, and other staples of the meat-free diet. She became a fine vegetarian cook; today she can do indescribable things with lentils.
From the time we met, I admired Cyd's commitment to vegetarianism. I had taken baby-steps toward vegetarianism myself: After reading Peter Singer's Animal Liberation in my mid-20s, I had given up chicken, which seemed to me the most cruelly abused of all the factory-farmed animals. Yet when, during our courtship, Cyd said that having a vegetarian household, and doing our best to raise vegetarian children, was important to her, I hesitated (or, rather, picked a long, loud fight). I didn't object to the meat-free household, and she was not asking me to abstain from meat in restaurants or at friends' houses. But trying to raise vegetarian children seemed to be buying trouble. I immediately generated a list of potential problems: Would it be healthy? What would our parents think when we asked them not to serve the grandchildren tuna fish? Would our children feel left out, abstaining from hot dogs at ballgames and birthday parties? Most important: Would they seem like freaks?
Now that I am a parent of two little girls, one of whom is old enough to be eating big-people food with gusto, I realize that the concerns I had were actually pretty trivial. Dr. Storeygard, our pediatrician, assured us that as long as the kids get enough protein and fat, they'll be fine. (Vegans, who don't eat milk or cheese, have more reason to worry.) The family fears have come to naught, too. Our parents, siblings, and friends have all been very sensitive to Rebekah's dietary restrictions, and they keep her happily stuffed with noodles, hummus, and broccoli. And it's already become clear that for every vegetarian child, there are about 10 with food allergies, so if Rebekah ever feels bad forgoing a Hebrew National frank, she can commiserate with the girl who can't eat peanuts or with the poor lactose-intolerant babe who will never have ice cream.
Keeping the girls from meat, and from ridicule, while they're young—that's turned out to be easy. But vegetarianism will prompt other parenting questions, and I haven't solved all of them yet. For example, what will we do when the girls have social events that don't include parents? Someday soon, they will be going out for pizza with their friends, and Cyd and I won't be there to order the veggie toppings. Will they be permitted to order meat? Obviously, they'll do what they want, but if what they want is to eat meat, will they have to hide it from us?
Cyd has a stock answer to this question: "When they're old enough," she says, "to explain that they know the animal has been murdered and that they want to eat the murdered animal anyway, then they'll be permitted to do so." She's kidding about the language (I think), but she's dead serious about the principle. Only when they're old enough to understand the ethical question will they be permitted to answer it for themselves.
Cyd's rule seems right to me. Eating meat isn't like cheating or stealing, which parents should always forbid. Nor is it like eating junk food or watching trashy TV, treats that children should learn to enjoy in moderation as the guilty pleasures they are. Rather, eating meat is a serious ethical choice but also a personal one. It can't be treated cavalierly (like junk food), but it can't be universalized (like the rule against cheating). Environmentally disastrous factory farming is, I think it's safe to say, always wrong, or at least always undesirable. But what about eating free-ranging, kindly treated, "happy" meat? What about eating meat that would otherwise be thrown away, as some "freegans" do? These questions admit enough ethical debate that a teenager, even a 'tween, may decide for herself.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.