I am proud that my little girl is growing up. (I think my spouse is also proud but a little sad, too.) But looking at the menu I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by what felt like a sudden growth-spurt into overdrive. The menu included Salisbury steak, chicken fingers, green bean casserole, and macaroni and cheese. I mean, whoa there, slow down! We’re all happy watching my little girl thrill over the joys of picking mushy pieces of cooked vegetables and cereal puffs from her high chair tray. Now we’re suddenly going to feed her Southern-fried fare?
In addition to this sense of whiplash at our child’s rapid transition to adult food, it presented another dilemma for her mother and me. As is the American tradition, every one of the meals on the calendar was structured around a meat dish. Which, for a lot of Americans, is fine. But our little girl’s parents are vegetarian. So: do we raise a vegetarian or not? Because that is now on the table, and we’re going to have to start our vigilance early.
Neither I nor my spouse was raised vegetarian. We made these decisions in our adult lives together, she several years before me. The decision, for both of us, was a mixture of many things: healthy eating, personal taste, a sense of larger responsibility in reducing our carbon footprint in the world, disgust at the horribly unsanitary and inhumane conditions in the American meat industries, and recognition of our luxury to make better choices. I don’t believe that consumption of meat is de facto immoral, and I recognize that there are many people in the world who don’t have the luxury to choose to subsist on a meat-free diet. But we have that luxury, and it’s a choice we’ve made and stuck to, and we can easily see and experience the personal benefits for our health. But do we make this decision for our child?
Now, before you carnivores start to argue with me, let me state that I do not believe that meat is an essential element of a young human’s diet. In fact, there is plenty of biological evidence to suggest that the human digestive tract is not designed for carnivorous consumption, and that the physiological elements of a carnivore’s gastrointestinal system (that of a dog or cat, for instance) is missing in the human GI system. And there are no essential nutrients unique to meat. A human being can not only survive but thrive on a meat-free diet. (Let me also claim here that, despite some moral concerns about the dairy industry, we have made our peace with consuming milk and eggs.) So it isn’t a question about whether or not our little girl can survive without meat; I believe confidently and unequivocally that she can.
My wife and I had a brief conversation about it; she was less conflicted than I am, and I let her decisiveness carry me. “She can make that decision when she’s older,” my wife said assuredly. So this morning, I told Ms. A. to go ahead and start feeding our little girl some school food to see what she likes. I’ve still wondered to myself if this is the best decision, and I’m mostly convinced it is. And ultimately, it’s not about health or even about being responsibly green citizens. (I am discovering that, unless you are independently wealthy, nothing presents more mind-boggling challenges to a strict liberal environmentalist lifestyle than having an infant.) To me, it’s about making an informed decision. My spouse and I both made these decisions for ourselves late in our adult life, and that’s worked out well for us. Eating meat as children didn’t destroy us, nor did giving it up. As is often required when making a lifestyle change that is against the cultural norm, it is a decision we spent a good deal of time considering so that we can explain it for ourselves and comfortably embody these values with people who differ. And, truthfully, it isn’t even as big deal as it sounds as I describe it; other than limiting our options at restaurants and corporate dinners, being a vegetarian is not the most culturally confrontational of lifestyles.
Except when it confronts us – as it did when raised with the prospect of our child’s diet. We’ll most likely still have a meat-free home for a good while, but I agree with my spouse: it’s about making a decision for oneself. We’ll raise her in a Christian household, too, but ultimately her faith will be a decision she needs to make for herself, and that’s not a decision that can be made without some years of growth, experience, and maturity. We will always be clear with her about the values and beliefs we adhere to as a family, but we’re not going to seal her off from anyone who thinks or believes differently. That would dishonor her developing capacity to reflect and process on her own experiences in the world. So dish up the Salisbury steak (in very small pieces)! And if she asks us one day why we never eat meat at home, we’ll tell her. And if her best friends growing up take her to McDonald’s, well, we’ll allow that, too. And who knows – maybe our investment in being vegetarian might disappear altogether in the investment of raising a child.
It’s strange: I mean, we’re just talking about food here. But when you’re a parent, there’s no end to these little crossroads that point out the significant influences in a young person’s life and how invested we are in providing our children with the values that will help them be healthy people who make healthy choices on their own. And that always means risk. Not only the risk that they may disagree with your values, but the risk that in so doing you may discover that your own values weren’t necessarily the best.