The Importance of Vegetarian Culture
By S. Reneé Wheeler

My husband and I have three vegan children who have had the benefit of being vegan their entire lives. Sheehan began talking at a year, and by 18 months was selecting snacks on our weekly trips to the natural foods store. I cannot remember exactly when we first talked about being vegan, but in his weekly selections he would choose things that weren't vegan and I would say to him, "That has animals in it and we don't eat animals, so choose something else." He never had a tantrum or got upset; he would just choose something else.
I decided it was best to tell him that certain foods contained animals and not go into specifics unless he asked. My husband and I also thought it best to make friends with vegetarian families so Sheehan would have a base of friends. As he gets older, it helps his self esteem to know mostly vegetarian children. It seems very important for children to know other children who share their values. My husband and I also did a lot of tabling for vegetarianism and selling veggie food when he was young, and he was exposed to a lot of other adult vegetarians. To this day, he remembers a lot of these people and will seek them out when we attend certain events. Our children are great eaters. My advice for getting children to eat veggies is to eat them frequently yourself. Also, cook them until they are just soft and do not have a strong flavor.
To improve self identity and to help our children avoid animal-based foods when they are older, we give foods that have a non-vegetarian counterpart a distinctly vegetarian name. Soy milk has always been "soy milk" and margarine has always been "margarine," but those are easy. I wanted to avoid foods with animal names; so vegan cheese became "slice," substitute meat slices became "deli slices," soy ice cream became "Rice Dream" or "Tofutti," veggie wieners became "tofu dogs," and soy burgers became "veggie burgers." When my children are older and go to non-vegetarian houses or places without me, I don't want them to assume that our milk (soy milk) is the same as cow's milk. A separate vocabulary gives children a sense of their own identity and the importance of their choices. It also legitimizes our choices with the rest of the world. Every time those words are used, others have to stop and think about their behavior.
Since Sheehan was a baby, we have known vegans who keep rescued farm animals and we visit often. Sheehan and Caislin have gotten to know "farm" animals and we talk about them and their families and how they might feel. We also have vegan cats and dogs at home, and so they have intimate relationships with companion animals. As my children get older, they want to know where animal-based foods come from. My son first thought chicken was tofu, a pleasant thought. I told him it was a dead chicken, and we went on to talk about the chicken's feelings and the fact that it did not give its life, but rather had it taken away. Ham, beef, hamburgers, and other dead animal foods are described as dead pig or dead cow. I feel strongly about telling my children the truth with as much detail as is appropriate for their age or as they desire. But it's very important to let them know that these animals had lives, feelings, were children and, in some cases, parents.
Giving our children the ability to speak freely to others about vegetarianism is also important in helping them to grow up believing their lifestyle is a valid choice. Many times I have felt uncomfortable as my son probed people about their eating habits. As adults, we do not approach strangers about such personal choices, but if we let go of our discomfort, our children can help others come to new awareness.
My son once questioned a cashier as to why the store sold dead animals. After her answer, he went on to say he would love it if the next time he came in they didn't have dead animals. I don't think we should ever quiet our children as they speak to others about vegetarianism as long as they are not abusive. Even relatives are subject to my children's questions. I work hard to let my children love their relatives and others who are not vegetarian, but at the same time make it clear that we don't agree with their decision to eat animals. There is nothing to be gained by labeling others as "bad," but we must let our children know that we do not condone or accept hurting animals for food when the world is full of cruelty-free options. Non-vegetarians frequently say that it is natural for animals to eat other animals. My children know this, but I point out that non-human animals do not have a choice.
Finding books with vegetarian themes is also vital in helping our children feel legitimate in being vegetarian. Children identify with book characters, and those who are vegetarian help reinforce vegetarianism in the "real world." I think it is equally important to screen books before I read them to my children and not read stories where animals are used as food. It is important for our children to know animals are killed to be eaten, but story time should be positive. On the occasion I have not screened a book well enough, I just change the words in the story as I read.
By helping our children to understand that vegetarianism means eating no animals and discussing with them animal lives and feelings, we make our vegetarianism a choice based on reverence for all life and not just another rule for them to follow. I know my children will probably want to experiment with eating animals when they are older, but that base of care for our fellow animals will always be there. They will be making an informed choice to harm or not harm others while most non-vegetarian children never realize that a feeling being is the source of their dinner. Our eating patterns are more social than anything, and giving our children a healthy, cruelty-free start is one of the most important things we can offer as parents. It can be done gently and without coercion if the child understands that animals have the desire to live their lives without being victims to the taste buds of humans. I consider one of my jobs as a parent a success when my two-year-old daughter says, "Mom, is this vegetarian?"