Is It Cruel to Raise My Sons to be Vegetarians?

my son the vegetarian photo by wwworks

Adam Rosenblatt says that raising his boys vegetarian is about sharpening their minds, not restricting their choices.

My wife and I had barely finished exchanging happy/panicked looks and sipping champagne after a positive pregnancy test when Parenting magazine began arriving, unsolicited, in our mailbox. We weren’t sure how they knew; but suddenly, in the eyes of marketers everywhere, we were part of that large and lucrative parents-with-young-children market, and apparently in need of some childcare tips along with our advertisements for Gerber and Gymboree. Tips on how to manage your toddler’s tantrums in the supermarket aisle, when you are still in the early stages of pregnancy, do not necessarily make comforting reading.

Here’s another thing I wasn’t sure I needed: to know what Parenting and its readers thought of my plans to raise my child vegetarian. Fourteen months after the birth of my first son, however, that’s precisely what the October 2009 issue brought me. Parenting had undertaken to poll their readers on the question, “Is it cruel to make your preschooler follow a vegetarian diet?” 63% of respondents said “yes,” and the remaining 37% said “no.”

In an odd way, I did need that poll, because it prodded me to think about vegetarian parenting and power, about what it means when you make a choices for your kids that restrict the things they can do (or eat) in the service of invisible others. In this case, those “others” are animals whose lives bear almost no resemblance to the happy barnyard pigs and cows that appear, a ceaseless happy lie, in the books on my kids’ shelves.

With the question worded any other way, the Parenting magazine poll results would almost look good for vegetarianism. After all, in a country where somewhere between seven and thirteen percent of adults identify as vegetarian or vegan (depending which polls you read), a 37% expression of some support for vegetarian parenting should be a big win.

But back to that wording: “Is it cruel to make your preschooler follow a vegetarian diet?” The magazine framed the question as one about choice and power, casting vegetarianism as a primarily restriction of choice, and vegetarian parenting as so blatant an exercise of power that it might just be cruel. With the bar set that low, those thirty-seven percent of respondents who said “no” could have been expressing nothing more than a reasonable belief that serving your kid black bean burritos instead of steak chimichangas is probably not child abuse. And as for the other 63%, well, apparently to them it is.

The first two chapters of the literary and political theorist Elaine Scarry’s landmark book, The Body in Pain, describe the ways in which ordinary language fails to express, and sometimes even obfuscates or inverts, the experience of pain. In the book’s opening chapters on torture and war, Scarry catalogues these distorting patterns of speech: for example, wartime communiqués in which inanimate objects such as helicopters and bases are described as “wounded” or “injured,” as if they had sentience, while at the exact same time the deaths of sentient soldiers and even civilian populations are referred to using abstractions such as “neutralized” or “liquidated.” Parenting’s wording of the vegetarianism question wasn’t just “harsh” or melodramatic; it enacted a neat displacement of precisely the sort that Scarry describes. The concept of cruelty, central to the concerns of many parents who choose not to feed meat to their children, was neatly detached from the experiences of millions of animals who live in confinement and misery and then die in filthy slaughterhouses every year. Then Parenting’s poll re-attached it—ta-da!—to vegetarian parents, whose cruelty the magazine invited us to consider.

Crucial to the suggestion that vegetarian parents might be cruel is the idea that they “make” their kids do something, perhaps something unnatural, depriving them of their carnivorous heritage as well as the great American value of individual choice. Vegetarian parents are accustomed to seeing their own parenting labeled in this way. It is as if Maggie and J.J. down the road went to Safeway themselves to pick out the factory-farmed turkey in their sandwiches, while poor Aiden’s mom and dad forced him to eat lentil soup. As if antibiotic-laden, processed chicken “fingers” were the natural food of our ancestors, while tofu is zapped out of an alien machine.

The simple truth lost in all of this mysticism is that most kids are not choosing the foods served to them (if they did, we would see so many more recipes incorporating Oreos) and meat-eating households are neither more democratic nor more “natural” than vegetarian ones. In fact, if we consider transparency an indispensible part of a democratic system, we should probably take into account that most parents who put a roast chicken on the table are banking on their kids not asking where it came from—or, in the event they do, that they’ll buy the familiar story about the happy barnyard (Jonathan Safran Foer, describing how the birth of his own first child turned him back to committed vegetarianism, says it was the shame of telling this false story that he—a professional storyteller—couldn’t bear the thought of).


My older son actually has some choice. He admits a tendency to “accidentally” eat the meat offerings at school lunch from time to time. I understand that elementary school is an important place for him to work out living independently of his parents: to adapt to other adult authority figures, form his own friendships, learn Katy Perry songs, and so on. I also understand that he’s surrounded by meat and meat-eaters all day at school, and that consistency, at his age, is a lot to ask. One day, he tries the orange chicken at the cafeteria; another, he attaches a sign to his bicycle that says “Stop Killing the Animals.” He is figuring out, as we all must, how to line up his knowledge, principles, and practices in a way that works for him. If he didn’t contradict himself from time to time, I’d be worried.

This son is a wildlife enthusiast; he spends months at a time obsessed with jellyfish, or raptors, or snakes. While I have learned to accept his dietary explorations, I have a harder time with the wildlife-related, child-oriented cultural production he consumes.

The Wild Kratts, his favorite superheroic wildlife rescuer brothers, introduce a different species in each episode of their PBS Kids show, and then leap from their live action bodies into animated (younger, skinnier) incarnations. Gaston Gourmand, one of the Kratts’ villains, is a dastardly chef who only wants to cook endangered species. Over on Nickelodeon, Dora the Explorer and her cousin Diego reunite wolf pups with their mothers and save dolphins from fishing nets. Yet Dora’s image is also used to sell packages of Dr. Praeger’s lightly breaded “fishies”—Alaskan pollock who are caught in mammoth nets, processed beyond recognition, and then turned into nuggets that have the friendly, rounded shRape we prefer in our depictions of fish.

In the world of Dora, Diego, and the Wild Kratts, we must only feel sorry for the dolphins caught by accident, not the fish the nets are intended to catch. No reference can be made to the animals the show’s young viewers regularly eat—who, by virtue of the fact that they don’t have talons or spit venom or shoot ink, will never be rescued. No one will ever be depicted as a Wild Kratts villain for eating a cow. So part of the hidden curriculum delivered in these educational shows is the concept Safran Foer calls the “species barrier”—the irrational wall that makes people cringe with horror at the thought of eating dog, or of unwanted dogs being euthanized at a shelter, even as they reach for a slice of a highly intelligent, emotionally complex animal that has been turned into bacon.


One of the most earnestly promoted goals of higher education, my field of employment, is to instill “critical thinking” in college students. Difficult to define, yes, but here’s a decent place to start: in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Stanley Katz suggests that college should help students “develop intellectual BS detectors.” I can think of no more ubiquitous, less questioned parcel of BS in American life than the species barrier. To be a vegetarian in this factory-farming society means becoming sensitive to its regimes of visibility and invisibility: to the attention lavished on dogs and cats while cows and chickens are tortured and killed, to the way words like “cruelty” and “choice” are selectively applied. In other words, to be a vegetarian among carnivores—that lifestyle I am “forcing” on my kids—is to develop one heck of a BS detector.

I may not be sending my kids to weekend tutoring or bombarding them with flash cards. But I care about their success. As we sit around the table and occasionally talk about what we eat (and related issues, such as why people we love eat meat, and why we love them anyway), I am giving them training in critical thinking that I think will serve them throughout their lives. I look forward to the inevitable day when they turn around and use this tool against me—when my ways of eating, talking, and doing business come under fire from their unsatisfied, sharp minds.

In Fast Food Nation, his survey of America’s cheap eats, Eric Schlosser famously wrote: “There is shit in the meat.” From the happy barnyard storybooks to the species barrier, there is also a helping of metaphorical BS that goes along with it. I don’t want my kids eating shit; and I also don’t want to fill their brains with bullshit so they can stomach what they’re eating. Is that so cruel?

Photo: wwworks / flickr 

You might also like:  “Happy Cows” Video, Masculinity, and Why I am a Vegetarian

About Adam Rosenblatt

Adam Rosenblatt is the Assistant Dean for Global Engagement and an Assistant Professor in the Core Division at Champlain College in Burlington, VT. He is author of the forthcoming book, “Last Rights: Forensic Science, Human Rights, and the Politics of Mass Graves” from Stanford University Press. You can follow him on Twitter @humanrightsprof.


  1. Jason Harrison says:

    Thank you for writing such a nice article.

    As someone raised on the “Standard American Diet” I recently learned how bad for our personal health, our environment and for our pocketbook, it is to consume animal products.

    The even if you have money for the best raised and “produced” animal flesh, you’re still consuming so many animal hormones and molecules that have detrimental effects on human health.

    So I predict that the question will become: why are killing your children with meat?

    Might take a few years….

  2. Brandi L says:

    Wonderful article and analysis- the kind of work and perspective that motivates me to seek a more thoughtful and intentional lifestyle, and to seek my PhD. Thank you for the inspiration!

  3. Our two boys, both in elementary school, decided to become vegetarians on their own, and they are pretty hardcore about it, too. That being the case we decided to do it together as a family and have never looked back.

    It’s been a few years now and I have never heard a single person confront us or believe that we’re doing something harmful, but we also live in an area where vegetarians run rampant, so perhaps there is safety in numbers (like a herd).

  4. ooooh cruel?!? That is an extreme word isnt it! I am vegetarian, my other half is vegetarian, therefore the food we eat at home is vegetarian. I have three children, and they are all absolutely free to make their own choices. My eldest who is 17 is a meat eater, my ten year old is a vociferous vegetarian- (far more than I have ever been) and my youngest is only 2 so hasn’t reached the age of conversing about it.

    I believe in giving my children freedom of choice and information – that applies to their moral, religious, political choices of all kinds, not just food. I could rant about other areas of life that parents indoctrinate their children into which seem far crueler to me, and are met with a less open mind if that child rejects those things. But I wont go too far down that route, because I think accusing parent of cruelty for their moral choices is cruel….

  5. Joanna Schroeder says:

    We love Wild Kratts, too. I think it’s one of the best kids shows on TV.

    Love this story!

  6. “and related issues, such as why people we love eat meat, and why we love them anyway”

    Sort of a ‘hate the sin but not the sinner’ philosophy. What’s next – “some of my best friends are meat eaters, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one”?

    I didn’t know that eating meat was a reason not to be loved. I love my vegetarian friends without the slightest consideration for whether they have the same food ethic as me. Fortunately they return the favour. We allow each other to subscribe to our own beliefs. Except for the guy who made his dog try to survive on constant diet of cornflakes and refused to believe it was his dog killing the next door neighbours chickens, because his dog was a vegetarian. He was just a cruel idiot, or his dog was???

    • Coby Carwile says:

      It isn’t just the fact that people eat meat but that they choose to ignore horrendous torture of animals for food that isn’t necessary. People just choose to ignore the suffering of animals and that says a lot about their morals and lack of compassion. To say nothing in the face of injustice is to side with the oppressor ..evil does not become good just because the majority accepts it.

  7. Terry Washington says:

    Is it cruel to raise your DAUGHTERS as vegetarians? Some 70% of American vegetarians are female!


  8. Danny Klopovic says:

    It might be cruel to raise children as vegetarian when dairy and eggs are still consumed as part of the diet – given that the dairy and poultry industry still entail massive suffering and needless death for dairy cows and egg laying chickens. Raising children as vegans would seem to be the ethically consistent path to go by if one is concerned about cruelty to animals.

  9. Fantastic article.
    From a medical doctor in Australia (who has been vegetarian for some time) and who is bringing up 3 kids to be mindful of what they are eating, I salute you.
    Will pass this on to my friends.

  10. Great article!

    Providing the opportunity for your children to develop critical thinking skills at an early age and to eventually choose for themselves is laudable

    • I grew up a jehovah’s witness. I think this helped develop my crititcal thinking skills.

      I DIDN”T pledge allegience to the flag (the ONLY allegience one is to pledge to is GOD)
      I DIDN’T celebrate holidays – I grew up knowing santa was fake as was the toothfairy easter bunny blah blah blah.

      I was raised NOT to blindly accept what was said to me or dictated to me. Of course this backfired on my mother because I do not follow the relgion she hoped that I would come to on my own (or any religion for that matter)

      I believe that indoctrination is slavery of the mind and by the time most people grow into adults they are spewing the same thoughts/facts/feelings that were dictated to them and perpetuates this mindlessness onto their children. Of course this is all about control. It is hard to control a nation with different points of view and who question instead of blindly accept. I’m sure N. Korea has more control over its people than America does. There is a constant push from many to go back to the ways of indoctrination and blind acceptance. Blue is for boys, pink is for girls. girls wear their hair long, boys short. Christians are moral, other relgions are either Satan working his evil ways or seen as sad lost people that need to be “brought back to jesus”. Marriage is between man and woman because marriage is about making babies.

      These are not based in logic. They are not based in reason. they are based in emotion and superstition. It is soo important that we raise our children to think for themselves instead of blindly accepting what is told them. That is when we evolve.

  11. Do you teach them that not all people thrive on a vegetarian diet and that everyone has the right to eat what keeps them healthy?

  12. We have a right to raise our kids with our own values. We tolerate all sorts of brainwashing (religion, TV, commercials, video games, school), unhealthy choices (formula, alcohol, fast food, sodas, school), dangerous choices (going around in cars, school, corporal punishment), etc., as part of a spectrum of parenting.

    I think that calling vegetarianism “cruel” is just nuts. And I am one of those knee-jerk “I love meat” types. We don’t tell our kids about a healthy, happy farm. I tell them, “I like meat, and although the way it’s produced is cruel, I willing to accept that as the price those animals pay for me to enjoy what I want.” I don’t claim it’s right, just that it’s my choice.

  13. Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful and well written article. My husband and I have been vegetarian for many years and were also starting a family. This has given me many things to think about for when we cross these bridges. Thank you 🙂

  14. Slightly sarcastic, not sure if you are judging me for enjoying all foods. Obviously you are a responsible vegetarian who makes sure his children get all the protein that they need. That should be a huge point that you make as there are some people who just decide they dont’t want to eat meat without the added responsabilities for themselves or their children (tofu hotdogs, instant mac and cheese…). The part that I appreciated the most of your article was that yes your eldest son has dabble in the forbidden territory of meat. I love that as a parent you embrace his curiousity and what he eats outside his home is an adventure of his own.

  15. I just loved this piece. Great job Adam.

    No, it is not cruel to raise your sons to be vegetarians, at all.

  16. Adrienne Thomas says:

    Great article!

  17. Excellent article 🙂

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