Whether in day to day conversation, the media, or in the context of my employment, which concerns both non-human animal rights and women‘s rights, I frequently come across the notion that it is wrong to raise children as vegans.
Some of these arguments are based upon misconceptions that it is not possible for infants and toddlers to obtain all necessary nutrients on a vegan diet, fuelled by examples in the press of underweight babies and vegan parents being investigated by child protection authorities. Whilst it is true that a high degree of dietary care with is needed to ensure that young children need to nourish and develop healthily, that is true for all infants, vegan or not, and whilst some parents unfortunately do not fulfil their duties in this manner, many of these reports are sensationalist rather than accurate reports. Take for example, a 2016 case from Italy, in which a child was reportedly removed from their vegan parents on the basis of veganism-induced illness, ignoring the fact that the child was ill due to a heart defect.
Looking past such propaganda, together with research and dedication, one can see that it is indeed possible for persons of all ages to live healthily whilst consuming a plant-based diet. Finding a supportive paediatrician may be difficult, and this is one area where campaigns for change are very important, but outside of medical services, parents and childcare workers can find much useful information from organisations from sources such as the Vegan Society‘s advice for different life stages.
I‘m not qualified to delve into detailed nutritional advice, but with the knowledge that expert guidance is available, let‘s assume that young vegans can be perfectly healthy. What is, then, the other opposing position to raising children in this manner? It‘s the notion that veganism is a choice, and that neither parents, pre-school teachers or other adults in contact with those too young to have developed reasoning skills has the right to impose their own ethical stances on society‘s youngest members.
Now, having studied human rights and ethics at university, I can empathise with the point of view that certain beliefs are personal and can only be adopted when a person is old enough to fully comprehend the decisions which they are making. I have argued in support of children being able to reaffirm or choose a religion from the age of around 14, depending on the level of critical thinking and logic taught per the local education system, and after long consideration, come to the conclusion that forcing a person to become vegan is unethical; even if paternalistic concerns for their health and utilitarian approaches to animal rights may tempt one otherwise.
Yet, for several reasons which shall be listed in no particular order of importance, I feel that it is acceptable to raise a child as vegan. Utilitarian reasons are certainly relevant: even if the child has the right to decide, is it just for hundreds of factory farmed animals to suffer to indulge one person? Is one child more significant than the harm the meat industry does to the environment? Some would say no, whilst others may find their close connection with the child so great that they struggle to consider the wider factors.
Another reason relates to the potential future choices of children; even though I could let myself off of the hook by claiming ignorance, the fact that I consumed animal products for fifteen years still plays on my conscience today, something that will not affect adults raised as vegans upon their active choices to retain the philosophy. Certainly the possibility exists that vegan children will want to try eating meat or dairy out of curiosity or rebellion, or as a result of having developed their own ethical compass, and I have to admit it would pain me if I had a child that turned to vegetarianism or omnivorism. However, that would be their choice as an older child or adult (with the knowledge that these foods should be introduced slowly to avoid sickness), and I am inclined to believe that it‘s better to err on the side of veganism for the sake of the moral compasses of those who choose to remain so.
Then one can consider parents and guardians, as well as teachers and childminders, as responsible for teaching moral and compassionate behaviour to young children. Recognising that toddlers do not yet possess the skills to make choices for themselves, society has already entrusted a great deal of decisions on behalf of such young persons to their parents. We already determine how much sugar offspring should consume, in which activities they should partake, and for how long they should sleep, up until we determine that they are capable of deciding for themselves. Do parents not also have this duty with regards to ethical dietary considerations? Why is it acceptable for a guardian, based upon their own convictions, to teach a child that stealing is wrong, yet unacceptable to pass on the belief that exploitation of other species is immoral?
Furthermore, the child‘s future capacity as a moral agent should be kept in mind. Many raise children to be aware of the harmful consequences of smoking tobacco, so that when they are older they can make a truly informed decision as to whether or not to begin smoking. Yet it is more controversial to raise a child with the knowledge that eggs come from hens being kept in concentration camp-like conditions, which allows them to make an informed decision about whether or not to consume eggs in the future. Control often leads to rebellion, but education, openness and honesty pave the way for mature decisions.
Another objection I have heard is that giving children different food to eat than their peers will lead to bullying. From my experience, that may have been true 25 years ago, but has greatly changed, and will change further. Regional differences can be found, but all in all we live in a world where firstly, recognition of dietary differences due to allergies and religion give a helping hand to having both children and adults alike take ethical diets more seriously, and secondly, vegan hot dogs and snack bars are ever more available, reducing jealously-induced requests from very young children who want what their omnivourous friends are eating, until the differences can be explained in an age appropriate manner. (Though at this age of course chaperones and supervisors need to be made aware of who is a vegan.)
Personally, I envy vegan children for growing up with the diversity of vegan food, and not having to struggle to start abstaining from certain foodstuffs. I envy them for never having contributed to the suffering of other species, for being raised in such a healthy manner, and for being raised with age appropriate knowledge of what the meat and dairy industries are truly like, and how to healthily feed themselves in a manner which does not contribute. I envy them for learning compassion at such a young age, and I envy them for having a cruelty-free way of living presented as normal, rather than an extreme alternative.
These children still have their right to choose, but their choice is a fully informed one, and that is something which I find hard to morally oppose.
Photograph courtesy of pudgeefeet, used under the terms of the Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).