Practicing Vegetarianism and other Family Values

Anthony Weston and Amy Halberstadt

Most vegetarian parents know something of the difficulties of raising vegetarian children. Kids are sensitive to social pressure, like to fit in, and don't always have options or the gumption to create them in situations where carnivory (meat eating) is presumed.

On the other hand, at least in our experience, the job has been less daunting than we expected (we hope this is reassuring to TVSers with young children!). Some of our friends are vegetarian, and our non-vegetarian friends have been incredibly considerate when we eat at their homes. At school (Raleigh Preschool and the Raleigh School for Children), parents providing snacks have also been mindful; in three years, no group snacks included meat, with the exception of a few jello desserts, which we write off to lack of knowledge that most gelatin comes from animal sources. Rather than pressure from other children, the main reaction has been one of curiosity.

We do talk to the teachers in advance. Some of the issues that come up are subtle and take some thinking through, and also make for interesting educational opportunities. For example, when asked "why are you vegetarian?", we teach our children to answer respectfully and in a way that doesn't create a higher moral ground or to make people defensive, but we also try (and we suggest to our children's teachers that they try) to turn the question around, to ask "why do you eat animals?". People tend to ask only the questions that imply difference, and forget to flip the question onto its other side.

It probably also helps that we have no TV. In our view, parents who want to raise children in any way outside the cultural mainstream are well advised to avoid television, that greatest of all cultural conditioners, or lowest of common denominators. Not to mention all of its other negative effects: the violence, relentless commercialism, watcher passivity, and loss of time. That our children are TV-free also has been, so far, much less a problem than worried grandparents had predicted. A child's energy and inventiveness gains them friends whether they know who Grover or Barbie or Ninja Turtles are.

But speaking of Barbie, our greatest challenge has been to raise children not so afflicted and limited by gender stereotypes. We want our daughters to feel like the whole world is open to them, and not just the traditional female roles for white girls.

So, for example, we "rewrite" almost all of our books to include more female characters, to describe females in more positive ways, and to include fathers in home life. This is often not all that difficult -- a word or two here and there -- and it also serves to clarify our thinking, in return. We identify almost all of the stuffed animals in our home as female, especially the lions and bears, as a small way to counterbalance the usual masculinization of almost all toy figures and story characters in our culture.

The language in our home is also different. For one thing, we use she as the default pronoun. Animals and insects tend to be "she", as do humans in books (as long as they don't have mustaches and beards). We also do not use words that distinguish by gender unless gender is relevant. For example, like many others, we describe professional workers as firefighters, garbage collectors, etc. But, and this makes a big difference, we also do not refer to a person as a man or a woman, a boy or a girl. Our professional organizations (the American Psychological Association and the American Philosophical Association) describe such language as sexist because it makes a distinction where none is needed. No one refers to a person anymore as "that black" or "that white". So why do we continually describe others as "that lady at the supermarket" or "that man over there" or call children "boys and girls" when that is irrelevant to the situation? By doing so tens to hundreds of times a day, we convey to children that gender is the most important aspect of their own and others' identity. It is in this way that children learn to categorize who they are, who others are, and whether activities are for them or not.

Moreover, gender then becomes a peg on which other distinctions are hung, in turn. Already our first-grader is coming home asking why some people say things like "boys are stronger and girls are smarter". She does not get this from her teachers, but from her classmates, who get it from the culture, and maybe from parents too, who tend to see it as natural, inevitable, and perhaps even cute. As a result, girls tend to increasingly confine themselves to all-girl groups, and boys to all-boys groups, and they do different things. So both lose, at one fell swoop, half of the vast world of human possibility.

As vegetarians, we live outside the carnivory of the culture; as egalitarians we are trying to live outside the gender (and race) system as well. This is difficult, but as vegetarians know, standing outside the mainstream can also be very revealing. It is easier to see how much of what is usually taken for granted is actually unnecessary, limiting, and just plain bad for everyone. Our children at least learn that there are other ways; they may end up more gendered than we might hope, and they may end up eating meat. But at least these will be their choices, and they will have a sense that there are alternatives, that the common way is not the only way. In the end, that may be about the best that we as parents can do.

Anthony and Amy recommend Beyond Guns and Dolls: 101 Ways to Help Children Avoid Gender Bias by Susan Hoy Crawford. It sells for $10.95; they liked it so much that they bought a supply and sell them at their cost of $8. Call them (781-2132) for more information.