I’m a vegetarian. What if my child wants to eat meat?

“Imposing your vegetarianism on your child in your home would be like imposing your vegetarianism on your friends in their own homes. Your home is not just your home, it is also your child’s home. If it is all right for you to impose your ideas on your child, why is it not all right for her to impose her own ideas on you? To think yourself justified in imposing your ideas on someone else, you already have to be not taking that other person seriously as a separate individual.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


      

“I am a vegetarian for ethical reasons. I do not consume meat, and I believe it wrong to use my money to buy meat. I do not allow my kitchen equipment to be used to prepare non-vegetarian food. I do not allow meat in my house. I have adult meat-eating friends and they totally respect this and do not expect me to cook meat for them and they do not bring meat to my house. What if my child does not share my ethical concerns and wants to eat meat? I do not want to do the wrong thing by allowing meat in my house, let alone cooking it for my child.”1

This position is boundary violating. It mistakenly treats the child as if she is not a separate individual whose life is her own. Your child is not a pet you own or a part of you, she is a person in her own right.

The same rights-based argument (“my money” to be used to buy meat, “my kitchen equipment”, “my house”) could be used to justify any coercion, including coercion you would agree is appalling.

Imagine if your best friend’s husband (the breadwinner) were to lay down the law for her, telling her that she may not bring into the house the food she particularly loves, considers vital for her health and that she eats almost every day. What if he were to say to your friend, “My money may not be used to buy your disgusting avocados, broccoli, or red peppers, and don’t even think about bringing garlic into my house!” Would that be taking your friend seriously? Would you think the prohibition reasonable? Would you suggest she comply?

As it happens, my husband is vegetarian for ethical reasons too, and has a visceral aversion to meat, such that when we were out to dinner once and the vegetarian soup he had ordered turned out to have meat stock in it, he vomited in horror the moment he tasted it. I, on the other hand, am a meat eater. Thank goodness my husband scrupulously respects boundaries! Not only does my husband not forbid me from bringing meat and fish into the house, he gladly buys meat and fish for me, and positively encourages me to eat it because he knows I enjoy it. When my husband saw that I was eating fish last night for example, he said with a lovely warm smile, “Is that fish you are eating? Enjoy your fish, Sarah.” His face says that he loves to see me enjoying eating what I love, including meat and fish. He loves me just as I am! He would never dream of trying to impose his vegetarianism on me! And he really is vegetarian for ethical reasons. He just doesn’t confuse me eating meat with him eating meat.

In good relationships with adults, people do not try to impose their own ideas on the other person. They take the other person seriously as a person with his own ideas, whose life is his own. But when it comes to children, we parents tend not to take them seriously as individual persons in their own right like we do adults. We tend to see our children as part of ourselves or as being like a pet we own, such that if we were facilitating our children’s meat eating, that would feel to us like us ourselves eating meat instead of this separate person doing so. But actually, our children are separate individuals whose lives are their own not ours, and it is a mistake not to respect the boundary between where we end and our child begins.

The situation with your adult friends is not quite the same as the situation with your child. Imposing your vegetarianism on your child in your home would be like imposing your vegetarianism on your friends in their own homes. Your home is not just your home, it is also your child’s home. If it is all right for you to impose your ideas on your child, why is it not all right for her to impose her own ideas on you? To think yourself justified in imposing your ideas on someone else, you already have to be not taking that other person seriously as a separate individual.

But in the case of your child, you have yourself, through your own freely chosen actions, created obligations to her that you do not have to your adult friends. Your child is not responsible for the position she is in. She is living with you because you chose not to have her adopted at birth. That was your choice, your action, not hers. When we choose to be parents, we do so knowing that our child will not necessarily share our all our ideas, and may even disagree with some of our sacred ethical beliefs.

Your child is not you. She is a separate person, and just as your life is your own, so her life is her own. To suggest that it would be all right to impose your own preferences on your child would be to use your adult power and strength—your might—against your child. But might does not make right, does it? When an issue is decided by who is the stronger—who has the might—it is not being decided by reason, so the outcome is unlikely to be good/true/right.

When you have a child, you have to realise that the child is not you, she is a separate person with her own ideas, and if you have a problem facilitating quite possibly very different ideas and choices from yours, you should not be having children. Children are people. Your child eating meat is not you eating meat. You only experience it as distressing for your child to eat meat if you are mistakenly seeing your child as an extension of you instead of as her own person with her own life and her own ideas and values.

“It’s not just that I have ethical objections to eating meat. The smell of meat makes me vomit!”

There will be a way to facilitate the child’s wish to eat meat that works for you too, unless you feel justified in violating your child’s boundaries and you simply want to impose your wishes on her. If I were vomiting at the smell of meat, I would be sure to find friends and neighbours and family members with whom my child could eat meat regularly. And at home, I would have someone else or the child herself prepare and eat the meat while I was out. If I had a problem with meat touching my kitchenware, I would have a special vegetarian set of kitchenware and keep it separate from the rest of the kitchenware, kosher style, and if I did not want my kitchenware going in the same dishwasher as meaty items, I would wash up my special vegetarian kitchenware separately. I would also try to find a way to get over my irrational nausea reaction to the smell of meat. I might try psychotherapy or hypnosis. I might search the internet for possible solutions.

What I would not want to be doing would be to use my nausea hangup to emotionally blackmail my child in to going along with my vegetarianism. There is always a way to solve the problem (unless you think that it is right to coercively impose your own ideas on the other person).

“That’s all very well for you to say, but for me, what you are suggesting is like telling me to help my child murder someone. I assume you would draw the line at murder?!”

The thing is, eating meat is not illegal, let alone murder. When you choose not to have your baby adopted, you know that that child might well develop ideas conflicting with your own. It is common for people to eat meat in our culture, so that is quite likely to be something your child will want to do. Children are not pets you can feed according to your own preferences irrespective of theirs, they have their own preferences, make their own choices, have their own ideas. We have to be willing to facilitate our children’s preferences, even when their preferences conflict with our ethical beliefs.

“What if my child did actually want me to help her murder someone?”

See: What if my child wants me to help her murder someone?

Notes

1. Whenever I get this question, it always reminds me of one of my first ever speaking engagements about children (1989). I had thought I had been invited to speak at a well-known organisation, but it turned out to be a militant animal rights group with a similar name. While I was waiting to begin speaking, I overheard two people, one of whom appeared to be in charge, talking in low voices about a violent attack their group had made on a building in which animals were being used for research. I had heard about the attack on the news. I was going to be speaking to violent terrorists. 😳 There was a particularly hairy moment in the Q&A in which a questioner started asking about my own views about animal rights, and the inevitable “What if my child wants to eat meat?”

I was trying to calculate whether I could make a run for it and get out alive. So how did I answer that question then, given that I literally feared for my life? I argued that children no more want to do the wrong thing than adults do, and that they are just as capable of being persuaded by true ideas and good arguments as adults, so (unless parents and children are at war due to coercion) reason would prevail. (I must admit that at some point, I also asked “Why would anyone want to eat meat?” as a rhetorical defensive manoeuvre.)

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘I’m a vegetarian. What if my child wants to eat meat?’ https://takingchildrenseriously.com/i-am-a-vegetarian–what-if-my-child-wants-to-eat-meat/

4 thoughts on “I’m a vegetarian. What if my child wants to eat meat?”

  1. I agree with you on nearly everything in this blog, but I think in this post, you are not taking animals, or vegetarians, seriously. There is no such thing as “meat”, there is only the flesh of murdered sentient beings, which people mistakenly interpret as food, due to a millennia-long history of cultural brainwashing, and use lots of euphemisms for to avoid realizing what they are doing. There is nothing irrational about having a horrified vomiting etc reaction to someone consuming the flesh of a sentient being.

    And whether eating meat is illegal, which you for some reason use in an argument in this post, is besides the point. It is immoral. I think the problem here is that you’re rooting your morality in the idea of problem solving and knowledge growth, and you see non-coercion as a byproduct of this; but coercion is *fundamentally wrong, always* (while occasionally being necessary *only* to prevent greater coercion, as in the cricket bat example), and it just so happens to also get in the way of knowledge growth, which is another way it is harmful – not the other way around. Animal agriculture is a form of coercion.

    Animals are not fundamentally different from human children, other than in being doomed by nature never to become like human adults with the power to promote their own welfare. Would you refuse to intervene if someone you love was eating the flesh of a child? I’d like to hope not! It’s true that the behavior is rooted in having a theory which disagrees with yours and needing to seek the truth together, but let’s be reasonable here – some truths are more obvious than others!

    And your husband, if he indeed acts the way you describe, is *not* a vegetarian for ethical reasons, or else he would *not fail to attempt to intervene whenever anyone supports the exploitation, murder, and objectification of innocent sentient beings*, including you. Morality is far more important than relationships. It is abhorrent and hypocritical to claim to be an ethical vegetarian and not actually act on it – and equally abhorrent and hypocritical to take one kind of less-powerful sentient being (children) seriously and not another (animals).

    I would like you to try to analyze this dissonance in your belief structure and seriously ask yourself whether you are being hypocritical, or whether I am really just a hysterical internet commenter who ought to be written off and ignored. I’d like to hope you take *me* seriously, too, and recognize I’m not trying to harangue you or coerce you into agreeing with me – I just hold my opinions on this topic with very high credence and put a lot of emotional energy into them.

    Reply
    • This is such an interesting, thoughtful, intelligent comment, and I greatly appreciate you having taken the time to post it. Indeed, it has inspired me to write a piece about hypocrisy, but that is a side issue here, so I will try to stick to the core of our disagreement here.

      My first thought, when I read your comment, is that it is surprising that you are not yourself in prison given your theory of what constitutes murder. If I were to see people murdering other people, I would defend the victims any way I could, including using deadly force if necessary. If there were children being farmed for meat, I would at the very least go around freeing the children and helping them get to places of safety.

      If society and the legal system did not agree with my theory of (i.e., were mistaken about) what constitutes a person, or if I were mistaken in thinking that the beings I was saving were people, my actions would undoubtedly land me in prison.

      You say:

      coercion is *fundamentally wrong, always*

      but then immediately give an exception to the above rule:

      (while occasionally being necessary *only* to prevent greater coercion, as in the cricket bat example)

      – and evidently in the case of your child wanting to eat meat (though apparently not in the case of adults, as evidenced by the fact that you remain at large vs in prison?) you consider that to justify coercion.

      You might say that you do not have a different rule for adults vs children, and that you would never buy meat for an adult either, say, but that would be making the mistake of pretending that your obligations to a child of yours are the same as those to an adult, but they are not. When you have a child, you do so knowing that you are living in a world that has yet to see the light about what you see as the evil of eating animals. You are having a child knowing that many people in the world choose to eat meat, and that the child you are freely choosing to raise instead of having the baby adopted might well adopt the general culture’s ideas about eating animals instead of your own ideas. Your child is not you. Your child is a person in their own right, and they have their own ideas which will undoubtedly differ from yours in many important respects. Whilst coercionist parents feel perfectly justified in coercing their children, you are claiming that you think coercion is fundamentally wrong, and yet you think your theory justifies coercing children in the event that they do not share your theory about meat eating.

      If I had your views about meat eating, living in a world that thinks it is fine to eat meat, there is no way I could in good conscience choose to raise a child, because I would not think it right to misuse my power and might and position as the child’s parent to impose my dietary prohibition on my child. Children are individual people with their own ideas, just like we are. So if you feel as strongly as you do about this issue, and you do not feel able to allow your child to differ from you in this respect, then it would be immoral to have a child, because you would be doing so knowing that you are going to be putting that child into a coercive life in which even if they are making a choice most people in the society consider perfectly fine (even coercionist parents!), you nevertheless feel justified in coercively imposing your will on them on this issue. Children are not a means to your ends, they have their own ends, and if you can’t allow them to make mistakes and disagree with you and your own preferences and theories, then it is immoral to have a child.

      When you suggest that coercion is wrong in itself quite aside from knowledge, but then make an exception for “greater coercion, as in the cricket bat example” (and in the case of your child wanting to eat meat too), that raises the question of what constitutes coercion or greater coercion, or what constitutes a case justifying coercion and what does not, and how do you know that your particular theories about these matters are true, whereas your meat-eating child’s are false?

      As fallible human beings, our answers to such questions might be mistaken, and our children or other people might have better answers than we do. Coercion interferes with the creative rational process and tends to entrench bad ideas and prevent better ideas from being created.

      Your position reminds me of the “non-aggression principle” favoured by many libertarians. But when you get a bunch of such libertarians together and ask them a few questions about what seems to each of them to be a cast iron principle with obvious conclusions, they tend to have all sorts of disagreements with each other about which things constitute the initiation of force, which things warrant force, and which do not. Some libertarians who uphold the “non-aggression principle” argue that it is about force or threat of force, not just actual force. Others completely disagree with that, and think that self-defence is not justified until the fist actually hits your face, or the nuclear bomb obliterates a city. Some think intellectual property theft is aggression justfying force, others totally disagree with that. Their disagreements arise because they each have different moral theories and other theories.

      And when two people disagree, at least one of them must be mistaken. So that raises the question of how to proceed when there is disagreement, and of whether coercion to impose your own theory is morally justifiable.

      And you can’t settle that issue between those two libertarians by saying “the fundamental principle is not to have coercion”, because their argument is in effect about what constitutes unjustifiable coercion in the first place. Dogmatically defining coercion as the use of force against a sentient being assumes that we all agree about what sentience is, and if someone disagrees with your definition of sentience, or your definition of coercion, or disagrees with your exceptions (as I do in the case of children eating meat), how do you know you are right and those who disagree with you are mistaken? Are you not a fallible human being who might be mistaken? Yet you think you are justified in coercing other human beings in the name of your “non-coercion” principle.

      Given that there are differing views about all this, and given that there is only one way to progress towards the truth about which of those views, if any, is true or right, the institutions of error correction must take precedence over any other institutions. Even if you are right about which animals are sentient and which are not, and so on, if you go around enforcing your view, you will create violence. You will destroy the means of error correction, which are used not only for that, but for everything valuable.

      Do you think your issue is the last issue that will ever arise, such that if you win, there would be a world in which there is no coercion? And what makes you think that if you win this issue, you won’t suddenly find that on some other issue, another person is taking the same view that non-coercion is the fundamental thing, and telling you that knowledge doesn’t matter, and feeling justified in stopping you doing something you are doing or want to do that you do not consider coercion but which that person does think coercion? And in that case, now what? How do you resolve that disagreement? Is that person right in coercively stopping you doing something you absolutely disagree is coercive?

      If you reject the idea of resolving things through reason, all that leaves is violence. So in the name of “non-coercion is the fundamental principle”, neighbours are now attacking one another with axes.

      “The theory that truth is manifest—that it is there for everyone to see, if only he wants to see it—this theory is the basis of almost every kind of fanaticism. For only the most depraved wickedness can refuse to see the manifest truth; for only those who have reason to fear truth conspire to suppress it.”

      – Karl Popper, 1962, Conjectures and Refutations, Introduction, VI

      In the Popperian way of thinking about this stuff, we don’t just make laws because we have decided we do not like a certain behaviour, like murder, or driving on the wrong side of the road, or hitting children. The laws are made in the context of institutions whose real function is to cause bad laws and bad rulers to be removed without violence.

      That is what it is really all about. It is not about murder per se. In the history of the concept of murder, many things that were once considered murder are no longer considered murder, and vice versa. You appear to be hoping to be the next person in this sequence, of saying that certain things are murder that we currently do not deem murder. But you also appear to think that you—unlike everyone else in the past and present—are absolutely 100% right about this stuff. So sure are you that you are right and most people wrong, that you consider coercion justified (at least when it comes to your children). And that nobody will ever improve on your idea about this.

      How do you know that your view of what should count as murder is right? How do you know that you have arrived at the final truth? What makes you so sure you are not mistaken in your view of this?

      You are a vegetarian or a vegan. If you are a vegetarian and meet a vegan, or vice versa, what conception of “coercion is *fundamentally wrong, always*” is going to prevent this descending into violence?

      There are lots of issues that people go crazy about, and such people all have this view that their own issue is different from all other issues, and that their own issue uniquely justifies getting angry and using force, almost invariably including (as in your case) coercing children, and ultimately, attacking your neighbour with an axe.

      The only way we don’t end up at people attacking their neighbours with axes is by realising that we are fallible human beings who sometimes make mistakes, and that how no matter how obviously true a given idea seems to us, it could be completely false, and the fact that others (such as our children) disagree with our theory does not mean they are wrong and we are right, let alone that coercively imposing our will on them is justified in the name of non-coercion or correcting errors.

      See also: If we should take babies seriously, should we not take pigs seriously too?

      Reply
  2. By this logic, if you’re kid was torturing animals for fun, and it wasn’t against the law, you shouldn’t impose your ideal of not torturing animals on them!

    The whole point of parenting is instill your morals into your children. I strongly disagree with the answer the author provided.

    Reply
    • If everyone took your view that parents should instil their particular morals onto their children, then (to the extent that the instilling was successful) our moral theories would never have improved over time as they have done, and there would be no improvement in our moral theories in the future either. But when I tell young people now the kinds of things that children were subjected to in my own childhood (let alone further back in history), they are almost invariably shocked and appalled. Some ideas in our culture about how to treat children have been corrected, such that things that were not at all obviously immoral when I was a child, do seem obviously immoral to many people now. That bit of progress would not have happened had parents all instilled their moral ideas into their children. Making progress means change. Error correction. Human beings realising that not everything they think is true is actually true. Considering the possibility that some of our most cherished ideas might well turn out to be false. So we don’t want to be instilling anything, as I argued here.

      Reply

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