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 na├»ve 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.