Talking To Kids About Meat Production
Being vegetarian or vegan can lead to some uncomfortable dinner table conversations. Most long-term veg*ns can recount more than a few stories of uncomfortable conversations over a meal. Even without being an “animal advocate” per se, simply being vegan or vegetarian can lead to discussions of ethics and questions about one’s motivations. These questions can be especially challenging when they come from children. In fact, some veg*ns feel ambivalent about speaking to their own kids about why they are veg*n, or even in general about where food comes from. If being veg*n is a shared family value, then knowing when and how to talk to children about animal products is a challenging, but necessary task.
This study from Australia looked at “family attitudes to meat eating and the use of animals for food production, and the ways in which such attitudes are communicated in Australian families.” As context, the authors note that Australia has one of the highest rates of meat consumption in the world. In 2012, Australians ate 44.6 kg of chicken, 32.8 kg of beef, 26 kg of pork, bacon and ham, and 9.5 kg of lamb per capita. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says that only about 5% of Aussies self-identify as vegetarians and even that figure is likely to be an overestimate: “Australians define vegetarianism differently,” say the authors, and many “vegetarians” in Australia are “strictly speaking being ‘flexitarians’ as they eat fish, seafood, and/or white meat, and some on occasion even eating red meat.”
The researchers here wanted to “develop a better understanding of how and when Australian parents tell their children about where meat comes from, whether there is any unease around these types of conversations, and if so, what is the basis of the unease.” They also wanted to know why these conversations happen, and if there were “particular triggers for these conversations such as visits to a farm or an agricultural show or media coverage, and to assess influences of other animal-related activities such as pet-keeping or fishing.”
The survey was administered to over 200 people through an online form, with the majority of participants being between 35 and 44 years of age. The families shared a variety of activities related to food production or contact with animals: 82% of participants were growing fruits, vegetables, or herbs; 66% had visited farms; 64% had seen farm animals at agricultural shows or fairs; 56% had gone fishing; 52% had visited petting zoos; and 24% had gone hunting. Eight percent (8%) of participants described themselves as vegetarian, 4% had a partner who was vegetarian, and only 1% of the sample was vegan.
When it came to discussing the production and origin of meat with their children, the results were somewhat surprising: 93% had discussed the origin of meat with their children and the discussions were triggered by anything from preparing a meal at home (67%), seeing raw meat or similar products for sale (36%), or visiting animal farms (33%). There were also less common triggers such as children’s TV programs or movies (12%), or because other children told their child and the child initiated the conversation (7%). When it came to figuring out an appropriate time to talk to kids, the response was quite varied: 37% thought that age 0-2 was appropriate, 23% would wait until their kids were 3-5 years old, and 23% preferred to wait until children were five years old or older.
What does this mean for animal advocacy? There are some notable shortcomings in the study and the authors acknowledge the inherent difficulty in studying this topic. They note that, based on studies of how young people comprehend death, “before the age of 7 it is doubtful that a child would have the cognitive capacity to fully grasp that an animal has been killed in order for meat to be produced.” This suggests that many parents (at least, in Australia) are having these conversations with their children at an age where the child likely does not fully grasp the meaning of what is happening with farmed animal slaughter.
As another limitation, the study does not describe what exactly parents say to their children about meat production and the sentience of farmed animals. For example, this study does not assess how “truthful” parents are being, or whether they are feeding their kids a generally “carnist” view of meat consumption. In any case, the study shows that parents have a substantial influence on what their children perceive about the meat production process. Ensuring children get honest and accurate information about animal farming that is not motivated by profit or tradition may be a crucial avenue for advocacy.