If you don’t eat meat, should you enforce vegetarianism on your children? According to Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett, who grew up with a father who allowed no meat in the house, parents who enforce dietary regulations on their children should think twice as doing so can have a very unintended result.
Because her father did not let a sliver of chicken into their house, meat came to seem “all the more delicious and tempting” to Coslett. When she was older and on her own, Coslett writes that she committed “as many unethical culinary sins as were available to me – foie gras, veal, little baby chickens, the works – often while wearing a fox fur stole.” Forbidden fruit (or rather, flesh) is always more appealing.
Coslett was spurred to write about the “enforced vegetarianism of her childhood” out of sympathy with the recent case of a 5-year-old British boy whose mother, out of fear that his strict vegetarian diet would be broken, did not let the child see his father for more than a year. In September, a judge ruled that the “boy’s welfare outweighed his mother’s fears, and warned her that her son will be sent to live with his father if she failed to comply with the court’s decisions over parental access.”
Can Parents Go Too Far in “Enforcing” Vegetarianism?
Based on Coslett’s account, you have to wonder if, in about ten years, the 5-year-old boy will be chowing down on spareribs and pork chops.
Coslett’s experience growing up in a household where vegetarianism was “enforced” and then eating her share of meat once she was older recalls that of some of my younger cousins. By the time we were teenagers, their mother had been a vegetarian, a vegan, a macrobiotic and an avoider of every possible mass-produced food item U.S. companies can dream up. I remember the wistful look that one little cousin shot at the sandwiches my mother and I were eating while dutifully consuming the lunch my aunt had ordered for him, brown rice and a no-yolk, no cheese, omelet.
I became a vegetarian on my own when I was a teenager for ethical reasons. Not eating meat was also a way of declaring my autonomy in a large Chinese American family who always served plenty of chicken, pork, fish, etc. at (quite frequent) family gatherings.
I’ve stayed away from meat for the past three decades, but my younger cousins now eat anything. I kept their experience in mind while raising my (now teenage) son, Charlie. While he likes a hamburger and some seafood, he generally avoids meat.
Years of feeding Charlie a strict gluten-free, dairy-free diet (some parents of autistic children have claimed that this was extremely helpful for their children) taught me that forbidding a child from eating something is often the best way for them to want it. One too many episodes of Charlie snatching a stranger’s bagel led us to decide to take him off the gluten-free diet (though we still avoid giving him dairy, which has clearly caused him severe stomach distress). The result has been that Charlie now says “no” to bagels, yes to rice and beans and fresh fruit — that he eats a reasonably (he is a teenage boy!) healthy diet.
I’m sure Coslett’s parents, the mother in the case of the 5-year-old boy and my aunt all intended to do the right thing and give their child a healthy start in life. Perhaps the best a parent can do is, rather than forcing a child to be a vegetarian, to show that going without meat is just as routine as eating meat; to have options available (I prefer not to cook meat but still do for Charlie and my husband) and to minimize the diatribes about “eating healthy.” (The university students that I teach have made it very clear that the best way for them not to eat something is to pronounce it “nutritious” and (words every parent has to have used at some point) “good for you.”
Along with concerns about health, there are plenty of environmental and ethical arguments for not eating meat. Meat consumption is on the rise around the world and some scientists are warning that we need to eat less or risk endangering the global food supply and using up precious natural resources, including water.
If children learn about all this and are able to come to their own conclusions about what to put on their plates and into their stomachs, could they be more inclined to go meatless?
Photo from Thinkstock
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