The Universe of Discourse

Fri, 04 Jan 2008

Katara is not a vegetarian
I just had a long vacation and got to spend a lot of time with Katara, which is why she's popping up so much all of a sudden. I seem to have gotten into Mimi Smartypants mode. I will return to the regularly-scheduled discussions of programming and mathematics shortly. But since I seem to have written two articles in a row ([1] [2]) on the subject of telling kids the difficult truth, I thought I'd try to finish up this one, which has been mostly done for months now. Also there was a recent episode that got me thinking about it again.

I went to visit Katara at school last week, and stayed for lunch. I was seated with Katara and three other little girls. As the food was served, one of the girls, Riley, made some joke about how the food cart contained guinea pigs instead. This sort of joke is very funny to preschoolers.

My sense of humor is very close to a preschooler's, and I would have thought that this was funny if she had said that the food cart contained clocks, or nose hairs, or a speech in defense of the Corn Laws, or the Trans-Siberian Railroad, or fish-shaped solid waste. But she said guinea pigs, and instead of laughing, I mused aloud that I had never eaten a guinea pig.

Riley informed me that "You can't eat guinea pigs! They're animals, not food."

"Sure you can," I said. "Meat is made from animals."

Riley got this big grin on her face, the one that preschoolers get when they know that the adults are teasing them, and said "Nawww!"

"Yes," I said. "Meat comes from animals."

Riley shook her head. She knew I was joking. A general discussion ensued, with Katara taking my side, and another girl, Flora, taking Riley's. In the end, I did not convince them.

"Well," I said, mostly to myself, at the end, "you girls are in for a rude awakening someday."

Now, I know that not everyone is as direct as I am. And I know that not all non-vegetarians are as concerned as I am about the ethics of eating meat. But wow. I would have thought that someone would have explained to these girls where meat came from, just as a point of interest if nothing else. Or maybe they would have made the connection between chicken-the-food and chicken-the-farm-animal. I mean, they are constantly getting all these stories set on farms. Since three-year-olds ask about a billion questions a day. they must ask around a thousand questions a day about the farms, so how is it that the subject never came up?

Katara was accidentally exposed to a movie version of Charlotte's Web on an airplane, and the plot of Charlotte's Web is that Charlotte is trying to save Wilbur from being turned into smoked ham. Left to myself I wouldn't have exposed Katara to Charlotte's Web so soon—it is too long for her, for one thing—but my point here is that the world is full of reminders of the true nature of meat, and they can be hard to avoid. So I was very surprised when it turned out that these two age-mates of Katara's were so completely unaware of it.

Anyway, Katara has known from a very early age where meat comes from. Early in her meat-eating career, probably before she was two years old, I specifically explained it to her. I wanted to make sure that she understood that meat comes from animals. Because there are serious ethical issues involved when one eats animals, and I think they must be considered. We may choose to kill and destroy thinking beings to make food, but we should at least be aware that that is what is happening. I'm not sure I think it is evil, but I want to at least be aware of the possibility.

I have never been a vegetarian, but I want to try to face the ethical results of that choice head on, and not pretend that they are not there. I did not want Katara growing up to identify meat with sterile packages in the supermarket. Meat was once alive, moving around with its own agenda, and I think it is important to understand this.

So I made an effort to bring up the subject at home, and then one day when Katara was around twenty months old we went to a Chinese restaurant that has live fish in tanks at the front of the restaurant, and you can ask them to take one of these fish into the kitchen to be cooked for your dinner. Katara has loved to eat fish since she was a tiny baby.

We ordered a striped bass, and then I took Katara to look at the fish in the tanks. I explained to her that these fish swimming in the tanks were for people to eat, and that when we ordered our fish for dinner, a waiter came out and caught one of the fish in a net, took it back to the kitchen, and they killed it and were cooking it for us.

As I said, I had made the point before, but never so directly. We had never before seen the live animals that were turned into food for us. I really did not know how Katara would respond to this. Some people have a very strong negative response when they first learn that meat comes from animals, so negative that they never eat meat again. But I thought Katara should know the truth and make her own decision about how to respond.

Katara's response was to point at one of the striped bass and say "I want to eat that one."

Then she took me to each tank in turn, and told me me which kind of fish she wanted to eat and which ones she did not want to eat. (She favored the fish-looking fish, and rejected the crabs, shrimp, and eels.)

Then when the fish arrived on our table Katara asked if it had been swimming in the tank, and I said it had. "Yum yum," said Katara, and dug in.

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