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On “Imposing” Our Beliefs on Our Children

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It’s fascinating, how what 98% of Americans do with their children is called “parenting” and “guidance.” It can also be referred to as “transmission of culture,” with its handing down of the trappings, rituals, holidays and even mutilations of religion and ethnicity.

But what I do is “imposing” or “forcing” veganism and atheism on my child. It’s not parenting; it’s considered behavior that’s irresponsible at best, and abusive at worst.

As far as atheism goes, I’d rather my child have a healthy skepticism that is fact driven and science driven. I’d rather stress personal responsibility and the realistic notion that life isn’t fair and owes you nothing. And that we have the ability to change our lives and circumstances (and that that is a statement of privilege). You know what would be irresponsible? For me to tell my daughter that there’s some invisible being who, if he desires, can control anything in the universe he wants to control. Including her life. That she needs to respect that being, or else. Or even worship that being, who may or may not exist. That she might suffer tremendously in her life, and that the Being With Ultimate Power is actually doing her a favor by making her suffer. By choosing her to suffer in the manner in which she suffers. He has his reasons.

My parents did their best to raise my sister and me. They did nothing controversial and my sister and I grew up more or less just like most of our friends on suburban Long Island. We were presented with animals to eat and wear. We ate and wore them. We were presented with animal bodies to celebrate over at holidays. Animal skin to wear on our feet.

When my husband and I first adopted Baby Sky, several friends and relatives asked, “are you going to make her be a vegan? And what happens if she decides to eat meat later on?” Essentially, my parents made me eat and wear dead animals. I grew up respecting dogs and cats, but not other animals. Animals existed for my entertainment in zoos, water parks and at circuses. It wasn’t in the consciousness of my parents that the values they were transmitting were marked by disrespect for others. They were simply raising us as best they could within the mainstream culture.

One could also say, however, that they were imposing their beliefs on us. They were forcing us to be consumers of animal exploitation industries. I’m not sure if it technically takes a level of intent to force or impose beliefs, or if you can do it by default by not offering other options or not encouraging critical thinking. Saying, “we eat animals, because that’s what we do” may make no sense whatsoever, but it’s the reason many people continue to eat animals. To do or think otherwise, to acknowledge the absence of logic or empathy in that reasoning, is to open a door that cannot be closed, regardless of the behavior that follows.

When I was in my teens, I told my dad (who was driving the Catholic bus, while mom drove the bus headed toward Buddhism) that I wasn’t going to go to church until girls could be priests. I’d been thinking about the set-up of The Church and didn’t like it. I had good reasons, which were listed, listened to and respected, and I stopped going to church. And when I discovered what animals went through on their way to becoming our meals, I made appropriate changes in that direction as well.

I’m raising my daughter with a clear, stated ethic: Respect other beings, as no one exists for your benefit. I’m forcing that on her just as much as the omnivores next door are forcing their ethics on their children, through their words and deeds.

It’s transmission of a culture that I’m proud of.

If Sky reaches her teens and decides that animals do indeed exist for our benefit, and that there is a god whom she’d like to worship (and furthermore, that her name is spelled Skye), we’ll deconstruct those notions together and she will do what she will do. But I won’t feel like I had done her a disservice by raising her with a heart for justice and a mind for inquiry.

15 Comments Post a comment
  1. Eileen #

    I really enjoyed this article. I find it odd when people consider that I raise my son as vegan as forcing ethics on him…which I don't at all. I only teach him to be compassionate and tell him the truth about where all foods come from. Now he is 4 and every once in a while he may want to try something at a friend's home and I don't stop him, he usually asks if it has cow milk and I tell him it does or doesn't. Every parent/family raises children usually in a manner that they feel is the best according to their own knowledge and belief system. Thanks for writing a nice article clearly stating this.

    October 8, 2011
  2. + 1

    October 8, 2011
  3. Richard #

    great points. great thoughts.
    i agree with you completely.

    October 8, 2011
  4. Suede #

    Bravo!

    October 9, 2011
  5. Michael #

    Vegans are one of the most singularly irritating subsets of people on the planet. Blimp sized egos and a sense of self importance that makes the mind spin, all projected on the creatures we share the world with. Heads up Mary. It's YOU that you think is too vastly essential and super special to be a part of any greater life system. Veganism is far more about ecocentrism and arrogance than it is about empathy or humility.

    October 10, 2011
  6. Steve #

    So just to get this right, when a child eats meat we are forcing ethics on them, but when we bring them up vegan we are teaching compassion? Are we really sure these points of view will guide others to make a vegan choice?

    October 10, 2011
    • Alex Melonas #

      I think the argument is, rather, that in both instances — omnivore and vegan parenting — children are being cultivated, i.e., socialized, “forced,” “transmitted” to, “imposed” upon. Vegan parents are often thought of as doing something wrong because they are “forcing” something counter-hegemonic onto their children; whereas omnivore parents are “just behaving normally.” But they’re both “forcing” — that’s the point. They are both restricting choice. They are both choosing for their children. And so on.

      So, as I see it, the next move is simple: let’s be aware of this necessary process and choose just what we want to “force” upon our children (by contrast to simply reinforcing the status quo). And, for me, I would like to have a household that contributes a little less suffering and death to this world.

      July 18, 2012
  7. Lace #

    Great article, it could have been me writing it…completely agree with all of it! We are a vegan family of 4, I have two children and we are very happy with our lifestyle, they are not missing out on anything (as meat-eaters often say), they are living compassionate happy lives!

    October 10, 2011
  8. Peter Drover #

    What I get from the Vegan community is a lot of hype and ego. The compassion they claim to have for their animal buddies doesn't seem to extend to people who eat meat and dairy. And the amount of propoganda they generate is ridiculously overblown. I am a Vegetarian myself, because I eat free range eggs, apparently that's not good enough, and my facebook page is constantly awash with propaganda about the egg industry amongst other things. Now while I do not condone battery farms in the slightest, and will not buy eggs from them, I don't want to be inundated with crap about it. I also don't want my page inundated with crap about dairy products or meat products. I've made my choices already thanks, and I want the Vegetarians and Vegans of the world to understand that I don't need refresher courses or half-truths about what it is to be what I am. I am not in it for health reasons, I am as fat as a pig, I am in it simply because I think that animals are sentient in their own ways, and I feel it is wrong to kill them, in the same way as it is wrong (Period) to kill other humans.

    October 10, 2011
  9. I think it's wonderful when parents make the effort to bring their children up as rational thinkers. The most influential teacher a child has is his guardians and it's a parent's responsibility to make those lessons meaningful in the desire for a better world.

    It's obvious when we look at our world full of wounded beings and a scarred planet that most of us never had the opportunity to make those critical connections…

    I totally admire (vegan) parents who are working to make a difference for the good – And for enabling their kids to make just choices as well.
    Thank you!

    October 11, 2011
  10. anne hoesch #

    Micheal I have no idea where you get this idea about vegans and vegetarians having huge egos and finding themselves singularly important, it seems to me, on the contrary, that this applies solely to people who choose to take the lives of other beings in order to satisfy thier cravings and fill thier bellies,or to wear the skin on something else on thier backs and feet!! what can be more egotistical than the notion that these beings are put on this earth for us to us?….this is the greatest arrogance of all!!

    October 12, 2011
  11. I really enjoy your blog; thank you for another articulate, intelligent, thoughtful, and rational piece.

    October 14, 2011
  12. Frank T. #

    As a vegetarian well on his way to veganism, it is difficult for me not try to share with others how I have arrived at my decisions. I was irritated 12 years ago when people around me encouraged me to think about my then-cherished animal-consuming choices, so I kept on doing something I knew was suspect for another 2 years. I am ashamed at my recalcitrance, but I can only do better moving forward. Now I thank them for helping me see beyond how my family — good people — taught me to consume. It's only because of my faith in the compassion of people around me that I testify about making kinder choices. I think this is true among the majority of AR activists, or they wouldn't waste their time appealing to others. I regret that some find this annoying, but also know that change doesn't happen passively. We should have the humility to try to forget about feelings and focus on the victims: Precious, innocent creatures.

    October 17, 2011
  13. Hi Peter, I believe you are a caring person, and I agree with your statement that we should not kill animals. By eating eggs you are killing more animals than if you ate beef. Free-range eggs come from hens born in hatcheries that gas, suffocate, or grind up newborn male chicks, and the laying hens themselves are usually brutally slaughtered at two years old, when their egg production goes down and they become unprofitable. This is not propoganda, and I mention this not to "innundate" you but because I think you are opposed to unncessary violence and killing, and eggs are easy to replace in the diet. Good luck and peaceful wishes.

    October 18, 2011
  14. Breanna #

    It blows my mind when ppl call vegans arrogant! WHY? Just because we dont want to eat animals because we love them so much? Geez! I could never in a million years kill an animal so I have no business eating them. I could however pick a fruit or vegetable or gather some herbs…there is no anxiety in that! We all know deep in our hearts that killing animals is wrong, its just that so many have become desensitized by our brutal culture and society. Plus, its way healthier to be vegan…so much MORE nutrients YUM YUM! And we vegans care about what you and your kids eat because when you eat vegan, you are NOT supporting an industry that is destroying our planet, therefor our own kids and grandkids will enjoy a more peaceful and clean environment. BUCK UP PPL!! GO VEGAN! Lets do something truely good for this earth.

    October 19, 2011

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