“Where do lamb chops come from?”
I’m not sure my grandmother ever planned what she was going to say when I, her then-six year old grandchild, made the connection between the cute, fuzzy creatures in my storybooks and the piece of meat on my plate. This situation hadn’t presented itself before; my mother grew up on my grandparents’ farm, so she knew dinner had been running around the chicken coop a few hours earlier. My grandmother herself grew up during the Great Depression, so there was never much meat on the table to ask about.
Now the time came when she, like all adults who have children, was going to have to explain that some of the animals I liked visiting at the petting zoo were also some of the same meals I said were delicious. Her answer to my question about where lamb chops came from? “The butcher,” she said. (She should have been a politician.)
The subject of eating animals, and the complexities around telling children the truth about that, has been in the news lately because of a children’s book called Vegan Is Love. Written and illustrated by Ruby Roth, the book knocked Fifty Shades of Grey off the public’s gasp-meter not because of fictional sadism, but because of factual tales of pain. Simply put, Vegan Is Love tells the truth: lamb chops were once cute, fuzzy lambs. Lots of other adorable animals, such as rabbits, suffer in cosmetic testing laboratories. Circus animals are often beaten to perform for enthralled kids.
The reason for the furor over the book are layers of difficult questions: Will knowing that animals are often mistreated for our use cause them to make choices that could harm themselves? And is it appropriate for children as young as age 6, the book’s intended audience, to know what goes on in the real world?
The first question is easier to answer. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association) has endorsed vegetarian and vegan diets for everyone from infants to adults. (For clarification, vegans neither consume nor use any animal products, not even honey. Vegetarians may wear leather and eat eggs and dairy, and some people eat fish and still call themselves vegetarians.) Vegan and vegetarian diets are safe—but even those who subscribe to hardcore vegan ethics will admit that the lifestyle isn’t easy. There’s a lot of nutritional supplementation.
What authors of any book on veganism or vegetarianism rarely admit is that this way of eating may not be for everyone. Vegan diets rely heavily on nuts, seeds, and grains. This would hardly be appropriate for children who are allergic to nuts, or who have celiac disease. Studies can’t even be cited with any sense of reliability, because there are studies that say children will thrive on a vegan diet, and others that say they won’t.
Nutrition would seem, at first glance of message boards filled with concern, to be at the center of the debate about Vegan Is Love. Parents are worried that their children, after exposure to the beautifully illustrated, ugly facts in the book, will refuse chicken nuggets and send themselves into compassion-based malnutrition. (Author Roth defends the diet, and her book, in this blog entry.)
Then there are the parents who have asked whether it’s appropriate to let children know that the animals they love—and love to eat—come to cruel ends after lives filled with suffering. Maybe the real question is whether this information should be coming from a book instead of a trusted parent, or, in my case, a grandparent.
Or maybe the true heart of the controversy is that parents themselves didn’t know the extent to which we abuse animals in our use of them. Maybe parents, who love both lambs and lamb chops, are as frightened by the revelations in Vegan Is Love as they think their kids will be. Maybe the answers to children’s questions about the facts in this book, just like questions about death and the recession, terrorism and school shootings, are difficult to give because they’re equally hard for adults to face.
Just as it’s up to each individual to decide what to eat or wear, it’s up to every parent to think about how they will answer the tough questions children are going to ask. Answers may be difficult to form, but parents shouldn’t shy away from them. When those trusting little faces look up to you for information, be grateful for the chance to talk with them, and in whatever way you convey the information, let them know the ultimate truth: how well-cared for and loved they are by you.