Thursday, February 19, 2015

Children & Animals - Mixed Messages

I have some very good (vegan) friends who are raising their daughter vegan as well. She is almost three now, and her favorite book is Victor, the Vegetarian. She asks to have it read to her every day - though she can recite the whole story herself. She is just starting to understand what it means to not eat animals or their milk or eggs, as explained very eloquently by her parents: "The cow's milk is for her babies. We don't want to take the milk away from the babies." Pretty simple if you ask me, but to some people, it's actually considered radical to tell the truth. I had someone ask me once, very innocently, "so if you had children, would you impose your viewpoints on them and not feed them meat?" My head reeled, as there were so many ways to answer that question. 

First of all, parents impose their viewpoints on their kids all the time. It's called raising children. I don't know of many people who actually raise their children with values that don't coincide with their own. And as for the choice not to feed children meat, I can't think of a more consistent message to give to children. I grew up learning that my dog was worthy of loving but the bodies of animals who covered my dinner plate were worthless - or, rather, killed for me! Fortunately, by the time I heard that disturbing justification, I was desensitized enough not to notice. I was (implicitly) taught that the bird with the broken wing who was lucky enough to fall in my yard was worthy of saving, but the chickens and turkeys who "give their lives for us" were valuable only in so far as their flesh was tender and juicy. 

It is such a joy to watch my friends give consistent and compassionate messages to their daughter, aware though they are that we live in a culture that doesn't support these messages of truth but that encourages instead messages of domination and control. My friends have a wonderful sense of humor that has been passed onto their daughter, and we've had so much fun making up new words to animal-unfriendly songs. "Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, three bags full; One for the master, One for the dame, And one for the little boy, Who lives down the lane" becomes instead: "Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool? Yes sir, yes sir, but it's not meant for you. I have none for the master, None for the dame, And none for the little boy, Who lives down the lane." You have to sing it to appreciate the beauty of it! :) The little piggy who had roast beef (a little human projection there?) has roasted veggies, and the teacher doesn't actually kick Mary's lamb out of the school, as she does at the conventional ending of that nursery rhyme. 

Seriously, though, I grew up singing "A Hunting We Will Go," "The Bumblebee Song" ("I'm squishing up a baby bumblebee..."), "Three Blind Mice" ("They all ran after the farmer's wife, who cut off their tails with a carving knife")! Granted, I was taught some nice songs about eency weency spiders climbing up water spouts and about a mouse who ran up and down a clock, but I have to say even in those years when I didn't know these songs were reinforcing the lowly status of animals, I was none too thrilled singing about the old woman who swallowed a fly and sundry other animals. It really grossed me out! 

Some people label as "politically correct" any attempt to reframe the familiar. Every message we teach to children becomes part of them, and any attempt to teach children compassion is not, in my mind, politically correct, but it is correct. I recently watched a video of my (non-vegetarian) niece sing Thanksgiving songs whose lyrics included "Grab a turkey and stuff him in the oven." It broke my heart. She didn't even understand what she was singing, but it reinforces the fact that she is fed turkeys. But then I thought of my little 3-year-old friend and how she will never have to go through a painful period of realizing the animals she was taught to love are actually the animals who suffer so much just for her pleasure. There is no greater joy than watching her process the actions of Victor, the main character in her favorite book, who saves lambs from being killed for his supper. "Auntie Col," she'll say as she pets our cats, "we love the lambs. We don't eat them. Read it again." There really is no greater joy.

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