‘Mama, Do Police Eat Animals?’ A Preschooler Navigates a World of Contradictions and Confusion


The other day, my 5 year old asked papa and I, “Do police eat [animal] meat?”
“Yes Sun, most do,” I replied.
“Why? I thought they weren’t supposed to do bad things,” Sun said.
In Sun’s mind, police are supposed to protect and keep everyone safe, including animals. He does not understand why most police officers would eat non-human animals.
Oh my, how to I explain this to a five year old? How do I first explain that we live in a culture dominated by capitalism and that the intention of our militarized police state is not necessarily here to protect people and non-humans animals; that they are part of a system of domination and oppression that keep the 1% and their interests/investments/wealth ‘protected’; that the 1% are invested in speciesism, as well as racism, classism, and sexism to name a few? And how do I then try to explain that eating non-human animals vs. not eating non-human animals isn’t a simple binary of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’?
But, he is 5 years old, and he and his little sister are the only ones at their nursery school whose ‘protein’ for lunch is plant meat. He notices these things and starting to ask pretty critical questions about what he observes his friends and peers doing.

The other day, I found out that Sun had ‘learned’ from his friends at the playground that ‘squishing ants is okay.’ Me and my husband were disturbed by this. We had both taught him to never kill or harm insects or spiders unless they were obviously hurting him (i.e. pulling a deer tick off of you). He has witnessed us peacefully and politely removing insects and spiders from the house, over a hundred times. While transporting the beings outside, he has heard us explain to him, over and over again, why it is so important to not kill or hurt them. We have spent a lot of time asking questions like, “You wouldn’t want a dinosaur to come along and squish you or your sister, would you?” And he has agreed with us many times that that isn’t something he would like to experience. We have even heard him explain to Eva Luna, his 2.5 year old sister, that she too shouldn’t hurt insects or spiders because, “Eva, how would you like it if someone squished you? Then you’d be dead and never see us again. We ‘d be so sad.” He seemed to get it.
But then, on Easter Sunday, while walking on our family hike, I heard him tell Eva Luna not to step on a beetle crossing in front of his feet. He said, “It’s not okay to step on insects….but it’s okay to squish ants.”
Hold up! Say what!?
I knew several of his friends at the playground were squishing ants for fun, and I had told Sun that what they were doing was wrong and not to do it. He seemed to get it at the time. However, after telling Eva Luna this during our hike, I said, “Where did you learn that from? Have you been killing ants at the playground?” He admitted that he recently had because his friends had done it. I asked him how many times he had done it and he said it had been more than once.
I told my husband and we both told him we were very disappointed as well as upset with his actions. We explained to him that what he had done was uncompassionate and that we didn’t care what his friends do: you simply don’t kill or harm insects and spiders.
Later that night, Oliver (my husband) sat with him to find videos of dying ants on YouTube so Sun could understand what it means to kill another being. However, I don’t know if he really understood the implications of “killing for the sake of killing”, even if it’s “just an ant.”
My mind has been spinning around on how to address his questions about police, animal meat eating, and also his own actions that contradict everything I have told him and everything he has seen me do. Yes, I know he is only 5 years old, and yes, though I’m his mom and telling him all these things, he will ‘stray’ and be influenced by a mainstream world in which it’s okay to eat animals without thinking deeply about it, it’s okay to treat females as sex objects, it’s okay to be hetero-sexist, etc.
Any suggestions on how to give him the tools he will need to think critically and act in a way that is more compassionate and mindful, despite what everyone else is doing? I’ve already read him Ruby Roth’s vegan books for children, many times. I know I can only do my best, as it may very well be that he still decides to do the exact opposite of everything I try to teach him.

24 thoughts on “‘Mama, Do Police Eat Animals?’ A Preschooler Navigates a World of Contradictions and Confusion

  1. I do not have any advice for you, but I do want to say you are doing a wonderful job of trying to teach your children about compassion for all living beings. I now have an idea of what I’m not looking forward to. I’m sure it will be an ongoing discussion as they get older and more roadblocks appear that society will put in their way. A good way to look at it is other people’s contradicting actions will always remind us why we do what we do and inspire us to educate others. I wish you all the best.

  2. Explain that people have different opinions and moral values, and that they can disagree with yours without necessarily being evil. Then explain that there are different opinions and moral values that are inherently evil, and discuss what they are.
    Unless you are of the opinion that stepping on ants is as bad as genocide.

  3. In a vegetarian video from the early 1980s, a psychologist says that small children play with stuffed animals, toy animals, watch animal cartoons on television, and can identify more closely with the animal world than with the adult world. She says many young children freak out when they learn where meat comes from, and if left to their own, most children would be vegetarian.

    Perhaps thinking along these lines, McDonald’s advertising tells children hamburgers grow in “hamburger patches.” The real truth (factory farming, slaughterhouses, bloodshed, etc.) is not as pleasant.

    Geoffrey Giuliano worked for an ad agency in Toronto, Canada portraying McDonald’s advertising figurehead Ronald McDonald for “basically a year and a half,” travelling to personal appearances for “The Ronald McDonald Safety Show.”

    A statement dated “Fall/Summer 1990” in which Giuliano decried “concerns who make their millions off the murder of countless animals and the exploitation of children for their own ends” was submitted on behalf of the plaintiffs in the 1991 London McLibel case.

    In an interview he gave in London some years later, Geoffrey summed up his negative experience playing Ronald north of the border. “There’s no question that I was manipulating these children. I was a highly paid, highly trained, highly polished actor. Every show was a performance and I had a mandate to get that message out there, and yeah, it was not too hard – anybody can manipulate a child. I just went home one night, and I said, ‘I cannot do this, I can’t live with myself if I continue to do this.'”

    The author / actor has spoken widely regarding his turbulent term as the McDonald’s clown and the shadowy ethical implications of factory farming and animal rights for organizations like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Giuliano has been an ardent vegetarian abstaining from meat, fish and eggs since 1970. In 2001 Giuliano published the book, Compassionate Cuisine, authored by then wife Vrinda Devi.

    Geoffrey Giuliano’s words about “the murder of countless animals” and his campaigning for organizations like PETA as well as his wife Vrinda Devi authoring a book entitled Compassionate Cuisine, all indicate that Krishna devotees are vegetarian first and foremost based on compassion for animals, rather than because certain foods cannot be offered to the Deities and that animal rights organizations like PETA are tolerant of and willing to cooperate with those who are not yet strictly vegan.

    “…the murder of countless animals and the exploitation of children…There’s no question that I was manipulating these children,” said Giuliano. “…anybody can manipulate a child.”

    Giuliano’s words bring to mind the words of musician Michael Cassidy (Mangalananda dasa), in the late ’70s, reflecting the words of his spiritual master, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896 – 1977), decrying the modern secular public educational system as “spiritual slaughterhouses”:

    “As a child I had no knowledge
    “No way to understand
    “My father kept me sheltered
    “He would hold me in his hand

    “You know I was protected
    “With no threat from anywhere
    “I drank my mother’s milk
    “And I didn’t have a care

    “But it didn’t last forever
    “I was soon sent off to school
    “Where the teachers gave me poison
    “And I drank it like a fool

    “They said that Mother Nature couldn’t give us what we need
    “That explained the factories, the smog and dirty streams

    “They pointed to the charts to show the population boom
    “To justify the murder of their children in the womb

    “They gave us all the facts explaining economic war
    “Like a fool I listened, I won’t listen anymore!”

    McDonald’s (which test-marketed a veggie burger in California over a decade ago) is merely giving the public what it thinks it wants.

    Several years ago, a series of e-mail exchanges between animal activist Lauren Ornelas (Viva!) and John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, prompted Mackey to go vegan. He later commented in Veg-News (a slick, trendy, vegan periodical) that companies like Whole Foods can put vegan products on the market, but there needs to be an actual consumer demand for these products, if they are to succeed. That’s capitalism.

    (Mackey, a libertarian-leaning entrepreneur, later incurred the wrath of the American Left by expressing opposition to health care reform in the Wall Street Journal.)

    To change things at the corporate level, we have to change things at the grassroots level: i.e., consumer demand. We have to educate the public.

    In an opinion piece in the now-defunct Animals’ Agenda from the late 1990s, Ingrid Newkirk, Executive Director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), pointed out that the meat and dairy alternatives, veggie burgers, soy “ice creams,” etc. found nowadays in leading supermarket chains didn’t magically appear on the marketplace. They came about through consumer demand.

    1. “In a vegetarian video from the early 1980s, a psychologist says that small children play with stuffed animals, toy animals, watch animal cartoons on television, and can identify more closely with the animal world than with the adult world. She says many young children freak out when they learn where meat comes from, and if left to their own, most children would be vegetarian.”
      How different are animal cartoons these days? Do they no longer show the ones with Tom the cat hunting Jerry the mouse and/or with Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs Bunny and/or Daffy Duck?

    2. “In a vegetarian video from the early 1980s, a psychologist says that small children play with stuffed animals, toy animals, watch animal cartoons on television, and can identify more closely with the animal world than with the adult world. ”
      Also, is the “animal world” of those stuffed animals and toy animals and animal cartoons closer to the world of actual non-human animals or to the adult human world?
      How many of the cartoons are like How to Train Your Dragon where the animal characters act like animals (they don’t talk, etc.)?
      How many of the cartoons are like Tiny Toons Adventures where the animal characters act like human characters wearing furry suits (they do talk, etc.)?
      http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00283/full (we don’t need to pay to read the whole paper!) has a whole study on this:
      “Do cavies talk? The effect of anthropomorphic picture books on children’s knowledge about animals
      Patricia A. Ganea1*, Caitlin F. Canfield2, Kadria Simons-Ghafari1 and Tommy Chou3
      1Applied Psychology and Human Development, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
      2Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Boston University, Boston, MA, USA
      3Department of Psychology, Florida International University, Miami, FL, USA
      “Many books for young children present animals in fantastical and unrealistic ways, such as wearing clothes, talking and engaging in human-like activities. This research examined whether anthropomorphism in children’s books affects children’s learning and conceptions of animals, by specifically assessing the impact of depictions (a bird wearing clothes and reading a book) and language (bird described as talking and as having human intentions). In Study 1, 3-, 4-, and 5-year-old children saw picture books featuring realistic drawings of a novel animal. Half of the children also heard factual, realistic language, while the other half heard anthropomorphized language. In Study 2, we replicated the first study using anthropomorphic illustrations of real animals. The results show that the language used to describe animals in books has an effect on children’s tendency to attribute human-like traits to animals, and that anthropomorphic storybooks affect younger children’s learning of novel facts about animals. These results indicate that anthropomorphized animals in books may not only lead to less learning but also influence children’s conceptual knowledge of animals…”

  4. I had a very similar experience 4 years ago with my then 7 and 11 year olds. They were being exposed in school to the dominant culture and being influenced by it. I finally made the decision to pull them out of the school system and homeschool them. Now they’ve connected with a set of homeschooled friends, many of whom are being raised with “subversive” ideals like Veganism and anti-race and sexism. They’re also much happier and more fulfilled without the constant pressure of the dominant culture bearing down on them all day long. We spend a lot of time in nature, discussing topics like justice and compassion and they’ve both become more critical thinkers instead of the obedient little drones they were being taught to be all day long in school. There was only so much de-programming I was able to do after they’d been indoctrinated at school for 6-7 hours a day. If you’re in a position to homeschool – even just for a few of those formative years – I would highly recommend it.

    1. I agree with Sarah. The issue is peer pressure and there will be more of it as he grows up. Confronting peer pressure is an unfortunate part of life. Just wait until he enters high school!! As a parent, the only thing you can do is teach your kids what you want them to value in life. Sometimes they will succumb to peer pressure (it happens), but as time marches on, and you continue to reinforce what is important, they will develop a resistant identity that allows them to challenge these kinds of situations.

      1. I think that you can teach them as well to think about their interactions with their friends and to not follow blindly or give up on their beliefs in exchange for being part of the group.

        I have come to think that for POC a certain distancing from caring too much about what others think of you or how they slot you into social networks is healthy.

        With my girls I try to help them develop a sense of self that will allow them to stand on their own even when others are doing something else.

        I think this may be working with the older girl. I cannot yet tell with my younger who is generally more interested in the acceptance of other people. But we’re working on it.

    2. That’s why you want to teach them both “if all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you…?” and “if none of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you…?”
      Sometimes peers do the wrong thing and acting differently from them is the right thing. Sometimes peers do the right thing and acting differently from them is the wrong thing.
      Think of that set of homeschool friends you arranged for your children to have. They’re being raised vegan, they’re being raised anti-racist, they’re being raised anti-sexist…and they’re your child’s peers.
      How would you like it if your child becomes a meat-eating, racist, sexist teenager in order to resist peer pressure from their homeschool peers (and “be politically incorrect!!!” and “not follow sheeple!!!” and however else rebelliously right-wing youngsters phrase it)?

      1. I think I’d rather that they develop a strong sense of self without direct reference to what others are doing or not doing.
        I’d like them to be able to draw on what they know about a situation and what we’ve taught them to decide what’s right for them.
        In my experience what other people do is key in helping find different ways of doing and looking at things but not in deciding who you are at core.
        My children actually don’t have any kids they interact with, in school or elsewhere who are being raised as they are.
        I hope that limiting the mass media in our household and questioning facets of it when we do encounter it, plus encouraging them to question others’ and their own actions in general will result in the kind of critical thinking that will prevent them from becoming blindly rebellious or choosing a cringe-worthy path as a teen or young adult.
        But only time will tell.

  5. I have absolutely no experience with this kind of thing or children, but I would think asking him why he decided to participate in the ant killing – was it that he believed it was okay or did he just feel like it was peer pressure or was it something else? Would he have done this had it just been him alone? Maybe its a matter of helping him figure out how to not just “go along with the crowd” and be okay with being different. That can be a hard thing to figure out.

  6. Vegan children’s books are good, Ruby Roth. I would also point out that people who eat meat are naive or ignorant and the type that tends to follow what most people do because of societal pressure of wanting to be a part of a group. But that doesn’t make it right. It’s best to follow the road of right and compassion but sadly most people are not enlightened out of ignorance, as we all are better off without meat but most people just don’t understand this or don’t want to out of societal pressure or selfishness because meat taste good to them and they don’t care about animals as much as we do. Hopefully there will come a day when people are no longer being violent towards animals and we all learn to love and respect animals. We are blessed to already know this and act accordingly.

    1. “Vegan children’s books are good, Ruby Roth. I would also point out that people who eat meat are naive or ignorant and the type that tends to follow what most people do because of societal pressure of wanting to be a part of a group.”
      What about most of the people his own age who eat meat?
      For a lot of *them* it’s not naivete or ignorance or conformity at all.
      It’s *eating what their parents feed them* because they have *neither* the grocery shopping control their own diets yet *nor* the reading comprehension skills to know how to eat healthy balanced vegan diets (for example, replacing animal protein with beans or seitan) instead of unhealthy vegan diets (for example, spitting out the meat and eggs Mommy or Daddy served without knowing how to cook beans or find seitan).
      Some might say that they don’t count because they’re little kids. You can’t just say little kids don’t count when you’re pointing something out to a little kid, not if you want that little kid to get the point!

  7. This would be a very specific and literal suggestion, but maybe he distinguishes animals and insects life. Maybe you can take him to a library to look at books on ants. Not necessarily ones for children but those for advanced students. Even though he won’t understand the content, the images- with their detail and seriousness- can be fascinating and impressionable. Children’s books are great and give (human)ity to other creatures but more scientific accounts can be a reminder of the complexity of a different being. I’m sure you can find some old style high school movies on insects on Youtube. Also, E.O. Wilson is an ant expert so looking for information related to him could be helpful. He’s a great speaker and encourages interest in studying insects.
    A friend of mine has a “snapy” brand humane bug catcher from Peta website (i’m sure it’s sold elsewhere). The neat thing about it is one of the windows is a magnifying glass, so you can take a moment to look at it before releasing it outside.
    I know this response is so specific but I think it goes with the idea the more we know about another the harder it is to mistreat them. We talk a lot about cows and chickens but not ants and worms. Thank you for sharing this story with us, it’s very touching and your son seems so thoughtful and caring.

    1. “We talk a lot about cows and chickens but not ants and worms. ”
      Yes, insects are animals too! Animals are so much more diverse, dynamic, and downright fascinating than some of the media about them, even some of the vegan media about them (like collages saying “all animals hold families sacred” but only showing mammal and bird parent-child pairs – what about all the species that lay tons of eggs and leave before they hatch?) suggest.

  8. “Oh my, how to I explain this to a five year old? How do I first explain that we live in a culture dominated by capitalism and that the police aren’t necessarily here to protect people and non-humans animals; that they are part of a system of domination and oppression that keep the 1% and their interests/investments/wealth ‘protected’; that the 1% are invested in speciesism, as well as racism, classism, and sexism to name a few? And how do I then try to explain that eating non-human animals vs. not eating non-human animals isn’t a simple binary of ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’?”
    Whatever you do, always keep in mind that 5-year-olds can’t grok abstractions as well as adults can!
    For example, does your son know what words like “capitalism,” the “investment” in “interests/investments/wealth” and the “percent” in “1%” mean?
    For another real-life example, I know someone who at age 7 honestly thought the U.S. was sending U.S. troops wearing U.S. uniforms to go fight in Iran. How’d she get that idea? During the Iran-Iraq war, her parents simply told her that the U.S. and Iran were “at war.” 7-year-olds tend to think that two countries being “at war” means soldiers from (not just backed by) both countries on the same physical (not figurative) battlefield shooting each other. Understanding behind-the-scenes support of dictators by third parties is beyond them.
    For one more example I saw somewhere else, http://autismgadfly.blogspot.com/2013/10/does-new-research-disprove.html?showComment=1381158528597#c6989160926490034215
    “… A lot of people misconstrue the phrase “not caring what anyone thinks.”
    “A lot of normal children take this out of context. A lot of teachers and parents say this without thinking of how the child would interpret this. The correct context for this phrase is to resist negative influences and peer pressure to do things that would be detrimental like promiscuous sex and illicit drugs.
    “At school, a lot of kids say these things are the popular thing to do and makes them seem cool. The idea behind this phrase was to instill the individuality to resist this negative behavior and influences. It did not mean to give up all standards with reckless abandon and to be rude and disrespectful. It took me a long time to realize what was going on.
    “Honestly, I believe children are misconstruing other pieces of advice adults give and then the adults wonder why there is so much disrespect, rudeness and behavior problems…”

  9. I think with my children my emphasis re the insects would be on the importance of not hurting or killing for fun — which is where things seem to be going on the playground.
    I think the deeper message of compassion and reverence for all living things (which are more abstract messages) may take more time to register.
    It would concern me that my child was becoming a follower, who does what friends do to fit in, without thinking through things for himself or that he is willing to override what he believes in favor of the friends’ positions.
    I would probably reiterate the distinction between what we do as a family and our expectations of him and what others may do or expect and emphasize that these may be very different and at odds with what we consider right.
    Regarding the police officers: I actually think that it is important that kids don’t think that all police officers or people in authority are good. I think letting them believe that puts them at risk.
    Generally, I try to relay to my girls the idea that not everyone is good or conscientious and that although people should do x or y that many times they aren’t interested in doing the right thing, aren’t aware of the what the right thing is, don’t care about doing the right thing, etc. Essentially that things are complicated.
    I don’t think comfort comes in thinking that everyone around you is doing what they should but in thinking through and knowing what it is you believe and how you will act on that. And I think even small children can begin to do this.
    Many times I’ve told my girls that such and such is wrong or doesn’t lead to good outcomes and explained why but that many people still do it. Then I explain why ppl still do whatever the thing is.
    Being frank about the complexities and that there are bad things in the world is esp important since the truth of the bad things that happen and the people who fail themselves and others is all around us and so apparent.
    I’d add that this is maybe more pressing for POC children.

  10. Here is a dilemma I had recently with my children that I’d wanted to share with you.

    A news report came on public radio here about a woman whose dogs had fallen through the ice on a frozen lake. She jumped in to save them. As it turned out the dogs were able to crawl out by themselves. The woman wasn’t and required rescue personnel and an ambulance before things were over.

    I felt it necessary to say something to my girls, who were listening, about this since I didn’t want them to jump onto lake ice to save an animal.

    In talking and thinking about it I had to think through how I weigh the value of lives. I came to the conclusion that you might think that my thoughts were very specieist.

    When we started to talk about it, my older girl said that she thought that what the woman did didn’t make much sense since it was more likely that the dogs would find their own way out of the lake than the woman would and that the dogs had fur that would protect them longer from the cold of the lake than the woman.

    I said that by jumping in the woman put lots of other people’s lives at risk in trying to save her and also used first responder time and resources that maybe could have been used for something else. I also said that if a dog jumps into the lake and dies the family it lives with may be sad but that’s on a whole other level than if someone with responsibilities as a mother, partner, employee/employer, etc. drowns or freezes to death. Dogs also don’t usually live as long as most people in N. America will.

    I told them bluntly that in that way the two lives don’t equate. This is utterly apart from any argument on sentience or souls.

    I said that I didn’t think it made much sense in that context for her to jump in to save the dogs but could understand why for a family who depends on their dairy cow for food or their livelihood or their sheep for wool that jumping into saving them would make sense because without them everyone in their family would suffer and maybe die. I referenced a video we’d watched recently that profiled the life of a poor girl in rural Afghanistan.

    Later at Easter, my husband’s cousin’s dog did jump into the partially frozen lake at their lake house. She jumped back out. Later I asked my husband’s cousin who is the mother of a newborn whether she would jump into save the dog. She said yes without any hesitation, as did her husband (who put the disclaimer on his remark that he’d only go as far out to save the dog as his feet could still touch the bottom). I thought that was CRAZY since here is a woman whose newborn is dependent on her (she’s breastfeeding) and a guy who also has a newborn, whose wife is on maternity leave and who anyway brings in the larger income.

    I still don’t understand why they are in the mental space that would have them risk their lives for their dog.

    1. To understand their motivations, consider if you would risk your life to possibly save a human family member.
      Then you have to also add the lack of knowledge about how to effect an ice rescue; going out on the ice alone is expected to increase the number of victims requiring rescue. I’m not going to suggest a specific method of rescue, because I don’t know enough about ice rescue to be sure that I’m providing true information.

      1. I see what you mean – but I think for me whether I go out on the ice goes beyond attachment.
        People can be attached to all manner of things and creatures — but I’m not sure that that should translate into making the object of attachment worth risking your life for.
        In Japan, for example, there are many people who are attached to virtual and robotic friends and probably would jump into a freezing lake to save them. I don’t get that either.
        One of the issues with these discussions is that we speak in universals of issues that actual differ culturally and with life circumstances.
        I often think that living in N. America most people’s lives are coddled relative to say others who live in the developing world.
        Here it seems that decisions around family are celebrated as focusing on individual attachment alone versus the many other considerations that might come into it such as limited resources, the effect of the action on the rest of the family, communal responsibilities, etc.

  11. Your son needs a role model to help him stand out on his own. It is not easy to stand up on your own at such a young age. Do not beat yourself up. He has parents on one side and peers on the other. He knows not to step on bugs but getting the words out of his mouth and telling his peers “no” and “why?” is another matter. Maybe make up a story about a boy who protects large and small animals and how he deals with those who do not see why he does so.

    P.S. When I read about your son’s lunch, it reminded me to suggest Aisha Tyler’s chapter from her book “Self Inflicted Wounds.” Check out chapter “The Time I Tried to Trade Vegetables for Meat” page 31. Just a heads up of coming attractions.

  12. Ooh, I just saw http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/04/im-a-diehard-liberal-it-ruined-my-parenting/!

    The *title* is a distraction (it’s not *liberalism* that ruined her parenting, it’s talking at her small children as though their brains were just as mature as hers, something non-liberals have done too!).

    The *article* is very worth reading! 😀

    My favorite part:

    “…I’m not about to swing around and go authoritarian. I am who I am.

    “Instead, I’m changing my communication style. What I had thought was explanation they deserved is actually confusing baggage they cannot parse. I’m refocusing, trying to teach the girls about priorities, about why it’s more important to go to school than color in the mornings.

    “It’s not without a fight, but it’s a reprogramming well worth it. If I could do it again, I’d wait to start on the grand-scale ideology until the girls were 10 or so…”

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