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.
In asking my vegetarian friends, however, I have found that children raised as vegetarians tend to accept vegetarianism as a fact of life. I shouldn't have been surprised, really: We all think that what we ate as young children was the best food in the world; it's only with some effort that we introduce radical changes to our diet. Vegetarianism comes easily to those who have never known otherwise. "I look at it like this," my rabbi, Jon-Jay Tilsen, a vegetarian father of four vegetarian children, told me. "Various societies and cultures have their own cuisines. And if we had been French, we'd be feeding our children frog's legs—and in other places, monkey brains. In this country they eat cows, pigs, and chickens a lot—but in India they would sooner eat their brother-in-law than eat a cow. The point is that something that seems disgusting to eat is just a matter of what you were brought up with." His children, unaccustomed to eating meat, have never expressed a desire to. Their mother, Miriam, the family's lone carnivore, told me that her kids vocally disapprove of her diet. "They tell me, 'Your body is a graveyard for dead animals,' " Miriam says ruefully.
I figure that the only good reason to be a vegetarian is that it's morally right—otherwise, why bother? Brisket tastes good! Lox tastes good! But I spoke with one vegetarian mom who discourages her children from thinking of vegetarianism in terms of animal rights. Hilary Cruz-Abrams, a friend of a friend, lives in New York, where she and her husband are raising three vegetarian children "for health reasons." The eldest, a 6-year-old daughter, has asked her why the family doesn't eat meat. "And we've been very clear with her that it's not unkind, that it's not someone committing an evil act," Hilary says. "We talk about cavemen"—how they had to eat meat to survive.
But one of the beautiful things about children, of course, is their hyperactive and keenly felt sense of justice, which easily outstrips their parents'. (Ask anyone who has watched Bambior Old Yeller with a room of children.) No matter the parents' reasons for vegetarianism, children whose consciences have been pricked are likely to find their way to animal rights; it's a better sell than "the environment" or "your health"—and for good reason. Hilary admits that her daughter's vegetarianism includes "a sensibility of 'That was a cow? I like cows. That seems unkind.' " My friend Carole, mother of two vegetarian daughters, thinks that killing animals is wrong, but she worried when her girls got a bit too drunk on the message. "It was important to us that we not teach them that vegetarianism is superior and that people who eat meat are bad," Carole told me. "But at some point when they were very young, they became militant vegetarians. When Sarah was around 3, they became quite outspoken about how meat was disgusting, and we told them to tone it down and let people eat what they want."
If my anecdotal research is right, I have more to fear from my vegetarian daughters than they have to fear from me. They'll grow into crusading PETA teens, throwing red paint on my fur-lined winter hat and torching my leather shoes. (Even their mother wears leather shoes.) I'll be left trying to explain why I still eat hot dogs at Memorial Day barbecues. And thus we arrive at the big question: If I never make it to full vegetarianism, if I remain stuck with my once- or twice-monthly meat habit, do I hide it from Rebekah and Ellie? Do I skulk off to T.G.I. Friday's with my friend Derek, wolf back a calamari appetizer and a burger, and return home feeling guilty? Will I be like one of those dads who packs the kids off to summer camp, throws on a Santana LP, and lights up a joint?
Here, I think honesty is the best policy. I will eat meat in front of them. When they are young and ask me, at Grandmom's brunch table, why they can't have that piece of lox, I will give them some version of what my friend Jay says to his son about soda: "It's not for you—it's Daddy's juice." When they are older, I thankfully will have recourse to the ethical formulation of a wise woman, their mother. "Sweetie," I will say, to whichever one of them asks, "I understand that this salmon was murdered. I rarely eat murdered animals, but as an adult I am old enough to make an exception." My daughter will doubtless be upset with me, but I suspect that her anger will be over the meat in my diet, not its absence from hers. As she bites into her grilled-cheese sandwich, she will look at me with disapproval, maybe a touch of pity. Parents can be so silly, you know.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.