In Italy, a controversial proposal by a rightist politician would have vegan parents who raise their children as vegans to be put into jail.
In the BBC article the politician is quoted as saying that “there is no objection if the person making this choice is an informed adult. The problem arises when children are involved… ”
When the conversation is about parents raising their children vegetarian or vegan, the terms “forcing” or even “brainwashing” often come up. Vegan parents are thought to impose their own ideology and preferences on their children, who have not made that choice themselves, simply because they are not old enough to make conscious decisions on this (or any more complicated) topic.
As a parent, however, you cannot help but make certain choices for your children. Bringing them up as non-vegans is obviously a choice too, even though it may not seem so to many people, because meat eating is the norm today. There are no reasons however, including in the domain of health, why it should be like that. People of all age groups, including babies and young children, can thrive on a balanced vegetarian or even vegan diet. Conversely, roughly 1 in 3 children in Europe (and more in the US) are now overweight. That’s a direct result of this “normal diet” with which we raise them.
It would therefore be difficult to argue that bringing up children with animal products is in any way more valid, correct or justified than raising children without them. Hence we should have no real need for additional arguments in support of the vegan option (but of course we have them). Neither are there reasons to support the statement that children should be vegan only when they themselves have made a conscious decision to be vegans. Parents can make that decision for them.
Incidentally, my experience with vegetarian or vegan parents (I myself have no children) is that many of them do seem to have a bit of a flexible attitude regarding the diet of their babies or young children. The children will of course get information on why the parents do not eat meat, they won’t be served any meat at home and there won’t be meat on their sandwiches to take to school. But they will hear from their parents about what meat is, that other people eat it, and often that if they want to taste it out of the house, they are free to do so. Unfortunately vegan parents must constantly defend and justify their perfectly sound choices to their family, friends, teachers, doctors, etc.
It’s probably hard to give children this information in a neutral and objective way. But on the other hand: consider what parents tell their children when they spontaneously start to question meat (as many do, at a very young age). The parents will say that “the animals didn’t suffer”, that they were bred for this purpose, or that this is just the way the world is and that we have to eat meat. Is that objective information?
Eating animal products is not a neutral idea or custom. The author and psychologist Melanie Joy finds it problematic that a term such as veganism exists while there is no term for the norm (eating meat). Veganism needs to be explained, but the norm doesn’t. Melanie Joy points out that behind our habit of the daily and careless consumption of meat, there is actually also an ideology, which she calls carnism.
When we choose how to raise our children, the choice is not between the “normal option” (animal products) and the ideological option, but between veganism and carnism. Whoever tries to objectively analyze the pros and cons of both systems, may very well find that it makes more sense to raise children vegan, to give them the necessary information when they reach the right age, and then let them decide whether they want to eat animals or not.
When we respond, as vegans, to cases where a baby dies from malnutrition, we need, as always, to respond rationally. Responding emotionally or dogmatically will only confirm to politicians and others what they are already thinking: that vegans are an irrational bunch, feeding their babies an unhealthy diet for ideological reasons. A good response is a calm one, not an angry one (no matter how angry we may feel). A good response will also admit that vegan diets can indeed be unhealthy if not done right. A good response will not present a vegan diet as a panacea against all diseases of affluence, nor will it claim that vegans live umpteen years longer than meat eaters.
When it’s about children, we should be extra cautious with their diet. This applies to vegan as well as non-vegan parents. Vegan parents should be mindful of the potential pitfalls (vitamin B12 among others), and not assume that everything will be all right because veganism is just such a great and “natural” diet (the term “natural” is quite meaningless and misleading). We should also be aware that when we don’t do our due diligence in raising a baby vegan and something goes wrong, then not only is that bad for the child in particular, but also for the whole vegan movement and the image of vegan diets. Many people who eat animal products know that their diet is morally problematic and welcome any excuse to keep on eating what they are eating. The idea that not eating meat is harmful for health would, of course, be a great excuse for them. Let’s be conscientious and careful in the raising of vegan children, and not give them that excuse, for it is a false one.
If you want to read more on this topic, check out this article by The Animalist.