Raising Children and Animal Activism (Part Two)

Continuing the conversation about the choice to have children from Part One, I wanted to write a post specifically about having children and animal activism. I was at a NARN (Northwest Animal Rights Network) meeting this weekend and one of the speakers asked us to remember that we can all make an effort to be more compassionate and less judgemental when interacting with non-vegans and those outside the animal rights community. No one in the room, after all, was born vegan. Becoming vegan for all of us was a process and being compassionate and open-hearted is always a more effective method of interacting than being judgemental and self-important. This comment did get me thinking about being more compassionate (as was intended), but it also got me thinking about being born vegan. Most of us were raised eating meat and dairy.

I believe that teaching children to eat meat in the United States is an act of violence. I know this might sound radical and I certainly don’t think it’s an intentional form of violence — it’s the result of nutrition guidelines influenced by the meat and dairy industries, it’s the result of “Got Milk?” and “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner” campaigns, it’s the result of an extremely long history of thinking meat eating is healthy, and it’s generally the result of tradition. But at some point or another, children find out that meat comes from an animal and this, I think, is where the real violence occurs. Many children I’ve encountered were/are disturbed to find out that a burger comes from a cow or that that nugget they’re eating was a chicken. Children have to be taught the belief that it is ‘okay’ to eat certain animals; children do not innately understand this. Part of this, of course, is due to our level of disconnection from our food. Most of us are not farmers and so do not grow up understanding what is involved with producing the food we eat. But, drawing on my dissertation research, even children raised on farms (where animals are raised and slaughtered for food) have to be taught how to relate to animals as food. This is one of the main underlying functions of 4-H programs. Practically, 4-H teaches children the ins and outs of raising an animal and farming animals, but one of the major moments of 4-H is when the time comes to sell the animal the child has raised. At this point, the reality sets in that this animal that the child has cared for so carefully and proudly will be sold for slaughter and that this is just “the way things are”.  That it’s just part of “growing up” to accept that certain animals are “here to be eaten”.   

I think a lot of children have experienced some kind of meaningful connection with animals and many families readily acknowledge the value and richness of living with animals in our homes (dogs, cats, etc). Thus, I think it’s disingenuous for parents to say to children that it’s okay to eat certain animals because “that’s what they’re here for.” This indoctrinates children at an age before they really understand what’s happening into the violent system of exploiting animals for our taste preferences. It also indoctrinates children early on into the widespread institution of discrimination — children are taught that it is acceptable to discriminate (and use at will) an ‘Other’ based simply on their species membership.

This is a long way around to talk about the choice to have children or not as an animal advocate (or any kind of activist, really). From my experience, it seems that a majority of animal rights and environmental justice activists choose NOT to have children and I’m really not sure if this is good or bad. There are many different (good!) reasons for this choice, I think. Certainly, from an ethical standpoint, having children (particularly in this U.S. culture of over-consumption) can put undue strain on the environment by bringing another consumer into the world. Having children versus adopting children brings up a similar ethical issue to the breeding animals versus adopting from a shelter (in other words, why breed more when there are so many without homes already?). Raising children can certainly take time and energy away from activism and I think this is not a trivial matter. We have such a small amount of time here on the planet to make a difference and do good and spending time raising children inevitably means that a huge portion of your time and energy is occupied by activities not related to working to end human or animal suffering.

On the flip side, raising children could potentially be a wonderful form of activism in itself. To raise a child with more evolved values about human/animal/environment relations could make a huge difference if that child grew up to believe in those values and be an activist him/herself. To raise a child who is sensitive to the plight of animals AND humans, who is raised to lead a more compassionate life…this could be a great gift to that child and to the world at large. But of course, there is always the chance that the child grows up to be a hummer-driving, meat-eating, neo-Nazi…we really have no control over how our children turn out. We can do our best to instill values of compassion, open-mindedness and love, but the world is a crazy place and kids grow up to be their own people.  I think, then, the choice to have children cannot be dependent on who we hope they will grow up to be. We have to be prepared to raise a child and have them reject every value we’ve taught them and be okay with that. With this unknown, there remains the ethical question of whether or not we can justify bringing someone into the world who might do more harm than good.

Another factor I think about, too, is the impact on the child of raising them with environmentalist, vegan, animal/human rights values. I know how much pain and heartbreak I’ve experienced personally confronting the realities of humans’ capacity for oppression, cruelty and violence. But that’s been my choice to confront this stuff. I was already here on the planet, sucking up resources and so I think, for me, it’s unequivocally a positive thing that I started to think about these realities (better to confront this stuff than to ignore it or pretend we don’t have a responsibility to try to make a difference). Bringing someone into the world who will be raised to learn these truths is a somewhat  depressing thought. And while I think it’s certainly better than indoctrinating children into supporting and reproducing a system of violence through meat-eating, etc., raising children with this knowledge and teaching them (in age-appropriate ways) to face the harsh realities of the pain humans cause is a kind of violence in itself.

I’ve talked to a few animal rights/environmental justice activists who DO have children and who firmly believe that more activists should raise children. More advocates raising children (adopted or not) ‘grows the ranks,’ as it were, and creates a larger community of people with shared values. If Eric and I do have children, this is something I think about a lot — developing a sense of community with other like-minded people and raising children together could be a wonderful thing. 

As usual, lots of pros and cons and things to think about and nothing conclusive from my end. I honestly feel a bit exposed writing about this topic because, in some ways, the thought process feels very personal to me, but I’m really appreciating the conversation the last post generated and I’m eager to hear more of your thoughts.

What do you all think?

Join the Conversation


  1. First, I really admire your willingness to expose this personal part of your journey and life; you definitely deserve to be commended for this! Many of these thoughts are things that my husband and I have thought of as well – why bring another human onto a planet that is so messed up and when there are so many children on this planet desperate to be loved and belong to a family? On the flip-side I also see what an amazing experience it would be to raise a child in a community of like minded individuals with common thoughts, beliefs and ideals.
    I do not think there is any one good answer, but I appreciate the discussion created when we are willing to question the ‘normative’ of procreation and the expectation placed on couples, women in particular, to produce a child.

    1. Totally, Rachel! I want to do another post on thinking through adoption vs birthing children, and also another one on the pressures put specifically on women (particularly for those women who want to have a full career, too). I’m so glad to hear your perspective from the decision making process you and Nick went through relating to childrearing! 🙂

  2. Another wonderful post on this complex subject. Thank you! I just started reading _Far_from_the _Tree_ by Andrew Solomon. The author interviews families where there is a great gap between parental expectations and child realities. I’m not far into it yet, but certainly you have raised one of his crucial points – having and raising children with expectations that they will meet them is unfair, and, dare I say it, folly. So why, then?
    For myself, I can not answer that question rationally. Even after all that we’ve been through – all that I now know – I still want another child. I wish I had something more helpful to say than “perhaps the answer can not be reasoned,” but that’s the headspace I’m trying to live with now.

    1. Rain, Absolutely! That’s what my dear friend Karen says as well. She says you can (and should) make all the pros and cons lists imaginable, but in the end the decision is not a rational one. It’s one you make with your heart. The Solomon book sounds interesting! I’d love to hear more about it! Thanks for commenting! xoxo

  3. Katie, I do not agree 100% with you here. The origins of animal husbandry go back many thousands of years. Humans discovered that certain animals could be herded, and were a less risky souce of protein. Societies that had the most protein survived and produced offspring most successfully. Research some soc/ anth materials on that angle, and more on the psychological aspects of violence. Your painting with too broad a brush I fear. You are correct about raising children with strong moral character and altruistic outlook. That is crucial. That altruism comes in many forms, and you have to be accepting of those who choose to support and care for humanity too.

    1. Hi Aunt Leigh! I’m loving that you’re reading and commenting on the old blogaroo! Thank you! I have read extensively on the subject of the history of animal husbandry (since my dissertation is about the institution of farming) and I certainly do not deny that humans have benefitted greatly from domesticating and eating animals. My point here, though, has little to do with that fact. Just because humans have engaged in a certain practice for thousands of years and benefitted from it does not make it right. Humans have kept other humans as slaves, too, for thousands of years and we now readily acknowledge that this was a practice that was unethical and needed to change. The conditions under which humans domesticated animals were very different from the conditions under which we live today (particularly in this country) and we have the opportunity to evolve to live in more compassionate and ethical relations with animals than we have historically. Further, on the question of protein — historically, eating animal protein certainly enabled human survival. However, today, overwhelming research shows that it is precisely our level of consumption of animal protein that is causing such high rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes (for more info on this, see The China Study).

      As for the nature of violence, I really do think that violence comes in many forms. Certainly, it comes in obvious and familiar forms like war and domestic abuse, but it also comes in subtler and more systemic forms. Poverty, for instance, is a pervasive and devastating form of violence that shows itself in sometimes obvious, but more often subtle, ways. Farming animals is without a doubt a violent system. Animals are forcibly reproduced and bred, their babies are taken away from them, they live extremely short lives, and then they are slaughtered violently on high-speed disassembly lines. When we support that system, we are complicit in that violence. Just because farming animals is not widely understood by the general public as a violent system does not mean it’s not inherently violent and exploitative.

      Trying to be more compassionate is a project I’m constantly working on and failing at and working on some more. I could certainly be better at being compassionate. We all could. But I think trying to expand our circle and depth of compassion is really a life-long project that we’re never finished with. Expanding my circle of compassion to include all animals does not mean I do not care very deeply for humans and for human forms of suffering.

      1. One of the things I am consistently impressed with along your evolving educational journey is the ability to look at microcosms (such as treatment of cows at a dairy auction) and slowly expand that to look at a much bigger picture. I think Leigh has a good point about the giant paint brush – I think it’s tempting to paint the picture about violence against animals (as relating to educating during childrearing) with broad strokes and blanket statement. Especially when spending such a great deal of focus on the details of an individual, human or other creature, experience (for the sake of metaphore) painting with a single hair, the suffering of a single creature.

        While I’ve been trying to focus my own compassion (in my work and educational life) towards human rights and social/restorative justice, I thouroghly enjoy the connections I think we’ve been able to make between examining Animal rights as another form of injustice, making those connections to a broad history of human-lead oppression in all of the nasty ways it manifests.

        As a child, not a parent, I can only speak on how childrearing looks from the ‘being reared’ sense. I think that the broad stokes and perhaps even over-generalizations regarding human and animal suffering may be an effective way to breech the subject – I would find it pretty disturbing to, all of a sudden, be exposed to all of the horrible suffering that creatures on this planet endure. I really respect the honest and transparent conversation about human suffering (among other things) that we were raised with and the ability to satiate the curiousity about injustice supported (and guided) by our parents. That to me seems like a wonderful gift to give a child.

        More importantly – I think having these conversations with people from all kinds of opinions is an integral part of expanding the “compassion field”. So bravo to you, Katie, I think this is a massively complicated and tangled ball of subjects with a lot of emotion, opinion, and unknown to tackle.

        1. Well, modern slaughtering techniques are pretty disgusting, I’ll grant you that. But I don’t think it bothers me enough to stop enjoying the foods I like. I think that as far as parental influences go, what we feed our kids does not cause the violent behavior. Looking at the overall breakdown of our culture and the failure of humanity to become the slightest bit enlightened in the strict sense of the word, I think that is too much of a stretch. I think that child abuse and neglect, drug addiction (all forms) and poverty are creating more violence in our world than the types of food being served on the table the world over. There are so many well meaning people teaching, writing books, acting locally, but there continues to be less and less people appreciative of what it is just. Keep writing! I know you will!

          1. As the mother of a vegan child and a person who studies issues of animal justice quite closely I cannot resist the urge to jump in here on a few points.

            First, I’m not sure that Aunt Leigh is giving Katie’s post the most generous interpretation. I do not read anything Katie said as suggesting that there is causality between childhood meat-eating and violent behavior. I take her point to be more about participating in violent social practices. There can be no doubt that raising and slaughtering animals for food is violent work – for the animals and for the humans who work in the slaughterhouses. So, consuming animal products is participating in that violence and that should trouble people.

            Second…I am struggling to find a way to say this that does not sound too harsh… While I imagine that statistics will confirm some of the truth about the claims made regarding abuse, neglect, and drug addiction being linked to violence, pointing to such things can be a way to abdicate responsibility for one’s own choices by deflecting attention to more marginalized groups in our communities. I’m hopeful that most of the people reading Katie’s blog do not abuse or neglect their children, but reflecting about the kinds of social practices we endorse or support through our consumer habits is an essential part of living a moral life. This is true even if other people exhibit behaviors that are more obviously morally problematic according to our current social norms (like abusing their children).

            I’ll end by saying something about my own vegan mothering. I like Lucy’s point about how horrific it would be to suddenly be made aware of the degree of suffering in the world after years and years of being cloistered away from those realities. This is partly why we make matters of justice, compassion, kindness, and our role in ending violence and suffering a regular topic of conversation in our house. Transparency, to borrow from Lucy, is crucial though we must struggle to find ways to balance that transparency with our child’s emotional development. If I can help my son see that the toys he has and the food he eats and the clothes he wears come from somewhere, were made my someone, and that it is our job to care about that somewhere and that someone then I will feel I have done something right. If I can raise him to fight for alternatives to injustice and mourn the cases where there are no alternatives available then I will feel I have done something right. And sure, if he stays a vegan while recognizing that veganism alone is not enough in this world full of suffering that would make me happy too.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *