In the past year or so, I’ve had to start explaining to Rian (4 years old) about what being vegan means, so I thought I’d do a blog post about how that is going for us. I’ve always said that I won’t lie to my kids about what happens to animals, but will try to explain it to them, in an age appropriate way. I also always said that I will never force them to be vegan (not that that’s even possible), but that I will simply give them all the information, and explain why I am vegan, and leave it up to them to decide (when they are old enough) if they want to be vegan or not.
We first introduced talking about veganism by reading V is for Vegan by Ruby Roth, since Rian was a toddler. It’s a children’s book, for very young children, which explains what vegans do and don’t do, and the reasons why, in a simple way that won’t upset children. It introduced simple ideas for him, like we don’t eat our friends, cow’s milk is for baby cows, eggs come from a chicken, etc. I think it’s quite educational in general, I mean it’s amazing the amount of people who never think about why a cow produces milk or what an egg really is. Rian found the idea of eating animals ridiculous at that age, and just didn’t think it actually happens. Not drinking cow’s milk and eating chicken’s eggs seemed to make sense to him. He already knew what breast milk was because he was breastfed and he saw me feeding Oran, so it was easy to explain that cow’s milk was cow “boobie milk” that is meant for their babies. It’s interesting to see when a toddler thinks it’s ridiculous to drink the milk of a cow but most of our society see it as normal.
For a while now Rian has known that some animals eat some other animals. He has learned about this from books and TV and asks me a lot of questions about which animals are carnivores, herbivores, etc. He found the idea of animals eating each other quite upsetting, especially at first, but I think this is a normal age to learn about that so don’t feel it’s too early. I’ve noticed that a lot of TV shows say things like, “lions eat meat”, instead of “lions eat animals”, and Rian didn’t know that meat means animals, so I told him that because I didn’t want him having the wrong idea. I also explained how the carnivores need to eat meat, and they are not bad for doing it, they need to do it to survive, because he thought they were “bad animals” for eating other animals.
Our household has been completely vegan for all of Rian’s life, so he hasn’t really ever noticed people eating meat or other animal products. Of course he has been around other people eating animal products, but he never noticed or asked for non-vegan food or anything like that. So he didn’t actually know that humans eat animal products, and I had to tell him that. It has been on of the hardest things for him, because he hates the idea that some humans eat animals, and gets upset and denies that it’s true. Some people might think that it’s cruel for me to tell him since it upsets him, but like I said, I want him to know the truth, and I think all children should know. I tell him that it doesn’t mean people are bad people for eating animal products, many of his loved ones aren’t vegan. I explain that people just don’t feel the same way about it as we do. He has asked me why people eat meat, and I can’t know the reasons for sure, but explain that perhaps they like the taste and enjoy eating it, and they don’t feel that there is something wrong with eating it. It’s a good opportunity to ask Rian what he thinks about it.
Of course I’ve explained that we don’t eat animals, cow’s milk, eggs, honey or anything that comes from an animal. The reasons I’ve given are very simple ones, and easy to explain to children, “because it’s not kind to the animals” and “because animals don’t want to be eaten”, and “that belongs to the cow/chicken/bees”. Rian just understood this straight away.
I also try to say to Rian, “this is why I feel this way, what do you think?” so that he can think about how he feels as an individual. I want him to be vegan, but I want him to be vegan for his own reasons, and to know why I am raising him vegan, not just to do it because I tell him to. He says that he doesn’t want to eat meat or milk or eggs, etc. and I haven’t told him to say that, it’s what he really wants, so I guess that makes him officially vegan now! But I think that a lot of 3 or 4 year olds would say the same if you asked them, “would you eat a chicken?” if they hadn’t gotten to like the taste of animal products already.
I also had to explain what the word vegan means to him, so I simply explained that we don’t eat animals, or anything that comes from an animal, and we just eat plants. Rian said just the other day, “it’s not nice to eat animals, and that’s why we’re vegan!” I’m always amazed at how simple it is for him, he just gets it.
Oran is also there when I explain all these things, and I feel like it’s also appropriate for his age too, because I don’t talk about anything too graphic, so I am also talking to him about it, though I’m not sure how much of it he understands yet (at almost 2 years old).
Rian has been asking me about death recently, and how people die, what it means, etc. So he also asked me if animals die when people eat them. I told him that they do (again not wanting to lie to him) and he was quite upset by this, and said, “animals don’t want to die”. At this stage, I don’t think he knows that animals are killed specifically for people to eat, just that they are dead when they’re eaten, and he doesn’t know that animals die for milk and eggs to be produced for humans (male calves and chickens, and older cows and hens). But I feel like that would be too upsetting for him at this age, so I haven’t gone into any detail about that. All he knows about farms is from children’s books and TV, he knows nothing about factory farms or slaughter houses. It’s actually a bit strange when you think about how children’s books and TV show farms just as a place where animals live, but don’t say why or that the animals get killed eventually. So we will have to talk about that some day in the future, or maybe he will figure it out some day. I’d like the be there when he finds out, though I’m not looking forward to breaking it to him.
I also try to teach the kids things like how we should be kind to animals, that they can think and feel like us, that we are animals too, that other animals are not that different to us. Non-vegans may see it as brainwashing, but all these things are facts. It took Rian a while to believe that humans are animals too. People always talk about humans, animals and plants, as if we are separate to animals. I remember when I was a kid some of the other kids I knew didn’t know that we are animals. I think some adults don’t realise it either. So I think it’s good for kids to know this.
I also talk to them a bit about healthy eating, and get them involved in cooking, so hope to teach them how to prepare vegan food and that a plant based diet can be very healthy.
As for explaining what we can and can’t eat, I haven’t found that to be much of a problem yet. The kids are so young that I’m always with them, or they’re with other family members who know what they can have. They also haven’t asked for anything non-vegan much, because they’re used to the food they eat all the time. So, for example, they eat vegan sweets, so if we’re in a shop, they want the ones they’re used to, and only ask for them. Sometimes they ask for things that look similar to the vegan products they eat, like milk chocolate, non-vegan marshmallows, or once Oran pointed at cow’s milk to ask for it. In these cases we simply go find the vegan version of it, if possible. At parties, I make sure to bring some vegan sweets and cake, unless I know there’ll be something there they can have. If they see other children eating sweets, I can simply give them some vegan sweets, and so far they haven’t been bothered by having something slightly different. I also explain why we have different things, like, “that chocolate has cow’s milk, this is the vegan chocolate” so that they are learning all the time and that hopefully will help them when they start going places on their own more. I’ll have to learn as we go when they start going to parties without me and things like that. Maybe they will want to try something non-vegan, and I won’t be there to stop them, and I won’t get upset with them or anything. It’s all a learning experience for them too.
As the kids get older, I want to continue to talk to them about veganism and to learn together, because there’s a lot more I can learn too. I also want to teach them what the reality of farming, and slaughtering, animals is like, when they are older. I have been on farms myself from small dairy farms to intensive farms, and I’ve seen videos of animals being slaughtered, so I know what is involved. And as anyone who has spent much time around animals knows, of course they have emotions and can feel pain too. I think if they know a lot about animals, and about what producing animal products involves, that is the only way that they can make an informed decision about whether to be vegan or not. I don’t even think I’ll have to try to convince them, because I think it’s fairly likely that they will choose to be vegan, if they know all this and are already used to eating a plant based diet. Of course I will still love them if they choose not to be vegan, and I would have to accept that.
I want people to know that we do not teach them to judge those who aren’t vegan, or anything like that. And we never want to force our children to feel the same way we do, simply to try to teach them what we believe is right (and ultimately let them make their own decisions), like all parents do for their children.
So that is how much we’ve talked about being vegan so far. I’m really interested in hearing from other vegan parents about how that’s going for you, especially if your children are a bit older, because I have all that to come in the future. So please leave a comment if you want to share about your experience of talking to kids about veganism.