Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On My Indoctrinated Vegan Child...


Not too long ago, my son made quite a debut online. He was actually “trending” around the holidays. A video project that we created for his class to demystify veganism grew into something much larger when my husband posted it on YouTube and I shared it on Facebook. I knew that a few of my friends would have a good kvell but had no idea that it would take on a life of its own. Who would guess that there would be a large number of people interested in hearing a nine-year-old talk about his life as a vegan? Through the sudden intimacy the Internet forges, my son’s simple, heartfelt message managed to spread far beyond his classroom, and I found myself encouraging isolated parents raising young vegans in rural towns in the South, getting support from amazing activists in Madrid, reading messages filled with so much love - yes, love - and enthusiasm from all over the world. All because of a video we didn’t even think to make our son brush his hair for (and we won’t make that mistake again). 

We let that wave of good cheer wash over us even while I was looking over my shoulder in expectation of the ripple of bitterness swelling up behind us and, indeed, when it arrived, it threatened to knock my legs out from under me. A popular website with a lot of followers picked up and posted my son’s video and within a minute or two, the inflammatory comments started rolling in.

Never mind that my son didn’t even speak negatively about eating animals or meat-eaters: he simply talked about his life. For that matter, people who eat animals were not addressed at all in his video. I have learned that there is little that can get under the skin of privileged people more than to make them feel that they are not at the center of attention. He was simply talking about his life and that managed to be threatening and offensive to people. This didn’t surprise me too much because I remember this phenomenon from my years of hanging out with feminist activists: I found it fascinating that the women who were not interested in men in the slightest – not to be attractive to or sleep with - got far more of a rattled, defensive reaction than those who were openly critical. I can only think that this indifference threatens the foundational privilege of being the center of everything more. This is another exploration for another day, though.

What I was most taken aback by, though, was the charge leveled against us of indoctrination. I’d heard that hinted at before (“But aren’t you going to let him decide for himself if he’s going to eat meat?”) but there is something about that first experience of having a bunch of strangers pitch insults against you as a parent and as a person that makes it much more viscerally felt. We were dangerous and extreme. We were irresponsible and using our son to advance our agenda. We were indoctrinating an innocent child. 

Let’s consider the word “indoctrinate.” One could successfully argue that veganism promotes a particular worldview and certain values. It is undeniable that my husband and I embrace the core values central to veganism – constructing our lives so that we operate from our convictions about compassionate living – as central in our son’s development and education. There are very few examples of groups of people who tailor their lives so as to be harmonious with their values.

Wait a minute, though.

Every time someone opts to go to a McDonald’s Playland with her children, this is a form of supporting one’s values with her actions, isn’t it? In this case, the values might be a desire for familiarity, speed, convenience and affordability. Those are not necessarily values based on convictions but they are still values of a different sort. When people pack turkey sandwiches for their children, give them string cheese and chocolate milk, doesn’t this also communicate values and possibly indoctrination? Don’t the scrambled eggs and bacon also send an implicit message? This is food. This is what we eat. This is okay. People are being naïve or dishonest if they don’t acknowledge that there is a message with that, and that even if the message is unspoken, it is still thoroughly relayed.

Yes, my son is being raised with particular values. I never have pretended otherwise. Does this mean that he is brainwashed? Hardly. We are raising him to ask questions, to not be afraid to think deeper, to think critically about our privileges and the status quo. As a child, was I educated about the food we ate? Was I given an alternative? No. We are a vegan family because these are our values as parents and anyone who thinks that the mere act of raising a child around certain values is indoctrination is not considering what all parents are supposed to do. Whether we do it actively – through discussion, exploration, and learning - or passively – through communicating our beliefs by our actions - all parents are almost certainly raising our children with certain core values. My husband and I are very mindful of this responsibility.

As opposed to someone who is indoctrinated, I would say that my son’s eyes are wide open. He knows that chicken nuggets were living beings at one point. He visits chickens in person at the sanctuary we go to every year; he knows where nuggets originate. When his friends are eating cheese and sausage pizza in the cafeteria, he understands that the milk and sausage come from animals. He is under no illusions about this. He knows that hamburgers are parts of cows ground up together: is he under illusions about this? Further, he is able to use this understanding about how products are sold to us as “normal” and “natural” and apply it to other aspects of consumerism. Instead of being an instrument of indoctrination, I’d say that veganism is giving our son a point-of-entry for critical thinking.

Most children love animals. To eat them, most children are misled, misinformed or stifled as they develop and questions emerge. Wouldn’t raising a child as an omnivore then create more of a fertile ground for indoctrination? There are many pernicious forms brainwashing can take. Some people don’t think twice about letting corporations do it. Others trade critical thinking and compassionate living in favor of entrenched privileges, habits and traditions. Raising a child without illusions about or indifference to others’ exploitation and misery is not indoctrination, though. Let’s be clear on that.

It is raising a child with values.

30 comments:

Karen Beth said...

Bravo. Perfectly put.

Jo Tyler said...

Ditto, what Karen said. :-)

veggieleven said...

great vid. posted it some weeks ago on veggieleven FB.
Ang great blogpost. Raising children is indeed always making choices for your children, and preparing them for one day, they can make good informed decisions themselves!

Rhea Parsons said...

Imagine criticizing someone for raising their child with honesty, empathy and critical thinking while condoning raising them with dishonesty, indifference and blindness.

The way you are raising your son should be an example to all parents whether the issue is what they eat, who they pray to or what they watch on television. The criticism is just an obvious manifestation of holding up a mirror to these parents and their inability to be proud of what is reflected back.

plantpeacedaily said...

Marla,
You know I love you and your family, but I really do think you should let Justice make all his own decisions. I can't believe you keep him from trying street drugs and driving a motorcycle. Maybe he doesn't want this lifestyle of safety, caring and non-violence.

:)

Val said...

Marla this is just beautiful! A great encouragement to all of us vegan parents of vegan kids out here.

Plantpeacedaily, you are hilarious!

Anna Graham Shonle said...

I'm with you! :)

Spooky Vegan said...

Beautifully and eloquently stated!

And he is so adorable!! :)

Anonymous said...

Very well said!! Great post!-Robyn from www.RaisingVegKids.com

Andrea Maenza said...

Great video! I hear that indonctrination comment a lot (my 6 year old son has been vegetarian since birth). In addition to the points you raise, I also point out that no matter how you raise your child (what clothes they wear, what books they read, what food they eat, what -- if any -- god(s) you believe in) we are all imposing our views on them.
I always ask "Do you feed your child dog, or horse, or cat, or guinea pig? Or even okra, kale, or seaweed?" No? Oh, then aren't you limiting your child's choices? Aren't you imposing your views on your child, thus indoctrinating him/her?
Of course we are imposing our views, everyone is.

Auntie Fireweed said...

This post is just so incredibly awesome I have tears in my eyes. And Justice, you know better than anybody else how wonderful your mom and dad are, but just so you know…tons of people you may never even meet know it too, because they are doing such a fantastic job as caring people contributing to a better world for you and for all of us. Thankyou so much for sharing your healthy, compassionate diet with others! Hooray for all three of you, and horray for veganism!!

Wes Novack said...

Excellent post, thank you!

vegangsterARNP said...

Really liked your point about how the most irritated people got were at the lack of attacking. I think there is something to that. I have noticed that when I go on the offensive say, at a demo, the people tend to back off. Or if only facts are discussed with no emotion, people do get ruffled in that way that causes them to call others "self righteous". Glad you all made the video.

Veggie Tales said...

Great insight, and a lovely video too. You should send this to vegansaurus (if you haven't already!) they have a ongoing thread of veggie kids that is a beautiful eye opener- vegan kids can be healthy, happy and intelligent(not brainwashed)!

Marla said...

Thanks, friends. It really means so much to me, as trite as that sounds. Rae, we do plan on letting him do street drugs WHILE riding a motorcycle but first he has physical therapy from us allowing him to jump off the roof. There's always tomorrow, though!

Marla said...

Very true, Andrea. I think that anyone who states otherwise is not realizing the truth.

Marla said...

Aw, auntie Fireweed! You made me all teary. Thank you for your kindness.

Marla said...

Interesting dynamics, vegangster. Definitely worth exploring...

Marla said...

Thanks, Veggie Tales! My son was actually one of the children featured on there. Laura at Vegansaurus does know about this post. Thank you!

Abra said...

I love this, eloquently put. Sometimes I think that people put too much weight into non-issues. Generally, I feel it's to cover up their own shortcomings. We need to look a little more closely in our own closets before judging the apparel of others.

Sneaky Vegan said...

I've been off the grid for a bit but now that I'm back, my first order of business is to say WAY TO GO!!! Loved the video so much I had to share it on my blog (hope that's cool!) and it's fast becoming one of the most popular posts. I'm still perplexed as to why the words "indoctrinated" and "brainwashing" only seem to apply to thoughts or values that conflict with popular opinion - because when THAT's shoved down our throats it's considered normal, educational and vital to the functioning of a "civilized" society. Sheesh. All I can say is, you rock girl! And Justice is just one adorable heap of awesomeness =)

Anonymous said...

I'm constantly getting asked if we are going to raise our baby to be vegan like I am, or an omnivore like my husband. I simply tell them our baby is going to eat healthy meals made with whole foods. I want to ask them back "are you going to raise your baby to eat nothing but processed fake food and fast food like you do?" However, this would be considered rude and judgemental. I believe what they asked was rude and judgemental!!

Caio Lyn said...

Excellent post, thank you!

Marla said...

I agree with you, Abra. Thank yoou!

Marla said...

Thank you, wonderful Sneaky Vegan! (Of course it's all right to share.) I think you are right: as long as it's socially sanctioned, it's not indoctrination. Suuuure. :D

Marla said...

Great come back, Anonymous! I support you!

Marla said...

Thank you, Caio Lyn!

Rebecca Stucki said...

This is so wonderful! Can't wait to meet you and Justice the next time you come to SASHA!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm not vegan or vegetarian but my mother is and she teaches my daughter and feeds her the same foods as her when they are together.
Unfortunately I stumbled across this post googling 'indoctrination of veganism' but I'm glad I did as now I will be more mindful and understanding of my mothers choices and really don't see any wrong with her influence on my daughter. A real eye opener for me who has often found it all quite amusing and quite probably offended my mother. Thank you

Madeleine said...

Great post on the importance of letting children ask big questions and make their own ethical decisions. Thank you!