I never intended for the $1 toy to be a source of ethical debate.
Liam and Kellen were advised they could each pick one item from the dollar store. Their first selection was a “ninja” set complete with a toy version of brass knuckles. As much as I like to encourage their creativity, I could not imagine a reasonable play scenario for preschoolers that involved brass knuckles. I told them to pick again. This time, they came back with a bow and arrow set. The bow was just a piece of plastic with an elastic band; the arrows had suction cups on the ends to conceivably stick to the walls. The cheap toy would likely break within the hour, but until that time, they could play knights, or Leaf Men, or Green Arrow. I agreed they could have them.
Later that afternoon, Kellen fell asleep leaving Liam and I to play with the bows. Liam gave me the rules of the game. He was the hunter who would shoot the deer, and I would barbeque it (hmmmm, I think there is another post in here about how a feminist is raising sons already identifying with these gender roles. Anyway). I did not realize Liam knew what hunters were or that they killed deer.
I don’t remember the specifics of our play, but at some point I began to wonder if Liam realized what it meant to be a hunter and kill a deer. Our conversation went something like this:
“What happens when you shoot the deer?”
“Why would you want it to die?”
“So we can eat it.”
“Would you ever kill a deer for fun?”
“No, only for food.”
“Do you think animals have feelings?”
I left the conversation there. Liam stood up to go on his pretend hunt, stopped, and looked at me.
“I don’t ever want to kill an animal. I am going to pretend I’m killing bad guys.”
I have no idea why this made me feel better. It shouldn’t. But it did. In our pretend world, at least bad guys have done something wrong. Animals are innocent. I can’t even reasonably say that though. We eat meat. I am a meat eater.
A few days later, we somehow found our way back to this conversation, even though the bow had been forgotten with the arrival of a new set of magna tiles.
I was preparing breakfast, and I asked Liam what he wanted to eat.
To my surprise, he said “I never want to eat an animal.”
“Ok,” I said. “But we do eat animals sometimes. Meat comes from animals. Chicken used to be a chicken. Beef comes from a cow.” As I said this, tension and conflict coursed through my brain. I wanted him to understand what we eat and where it comes from, but I also didn’t want him looking at his plate and seeing a slaughtered animal. He’s four years old.
“Well, what if you never eat meat?” I am flabbergasted that he puts this together and asks this question.
“There are people who do that. They are called vegetarians. They eat foods that come from plants.” Ok, not completely accurate, but the conversation has me a bit flustered.
“I want to only eat plants, not animals,” Liam decides.
“Ok,” I say, and I mean it. I spend the morning looking up new recipes and reading articles about sources for protein other than meat. I email my husband to give him a heads up on the conversation. We have a rule in our house that you don’t have to clean your plate, but you do have to eat one bite of everything. I didn’t want a conflict over the rules at dinner. Ben is on board too.
I’m sure I could have easily avoided the conversation, but I didn’t feel right doing that. I believe that children should know meat is not some ingredient you buy at the store, like flour or rice. There is an honest responsibility that goes along with eating meat. I also believe that Liam, though he is only four, has a choice in whether or not he wants to put meat in his body.
When I was around six years old, we moved from Colorado Springs, to the outskirts of a rural town. Our home was on ten acres, and we started a small family farm. My parents planted a large garden with peas, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, lettuce, and carrots. We fixed up a coop for chickens so we would have fresh eggs. Daisy and Lucy came into our lives- two small calves, one black and one brown. They wandered our acres and ate the field grasses.
My parents made it clear from the start that Daisy and Lucy would be raised for food. They were not pets. But we played in those fields every day. We rode on their backs and fed them grass, and grew to love them as friends, the way kids do.
I remember the day it came time to slaughter them. A man arrived at our house in a truck. My mom took me and my younger brothers inside and told us not to go outside. A few minutes later, I heard a loud shot. I knew what the sound was, so I didn’t look outside right away. But eventually, curiosity got the best of me and I couldn’t help but look out our patio door.
The memory is hazy. The cow was suspended upside down. I don’t recall how- some sort of attachment on the truck. There is a pool of blood underneath her collecting, and running like a river down into the field. I only looked for a second, but that was too long. I ran crying to my mother.
The truck returned a few days or weeks later with stacks of neatly wrapped white packages that filled our basement freezer. The packages signified differing messages. I did not want to see the lives of those animals ended in that way. I loved them. But it also meant our family would have food for a long time- not an easy feat with six children. Even then, I could see honesty in what my parents were trying to do- living by their own means as much as they possibly could, and teaching us to do the same.
I would not eat the meat for weeks. The rest of my family raved about how flavorful and tender it was, but I refused to take a bite. One night, my mom made pizza. What child can resist pizza? I asked if it came from Daisy and she said no. As I ate it, she gently said “see how good it tastes,” and told me the truth. The meat had come from the freezer. It was the best meat I’ve ever eaten. I know she meant well, but I felt tricked by her method. But I also felt betrayed by myself for liking it, for continuing to eat it and never looking back.
Last night, Liam asked if he could have a piece of pizza from the fridge. I said yes, and retrieved the container holding the leftovers. I handed him a piece but before he took a bite I said “That pizza has pepperoni on it. Pepperoni is meat. Are you ok with that?”
He said “Pepperoni used to be an animal?”
“Yes. In this case, it is turkey pepperoni, so that meat came from a turkey.”
He shrugged and took a bite, unable to resist the power of his favorite food. That’s alright with me. He’s a child. His convictions don’t have to be solidified. But my resolve in teaching him does. Some day, he will have to make all these choices for himself, and I want to know I gave him the information to do that. It’s not so great being the one having to answer all the big questions, especially when you don’t always have the answers.