By P.R. Ganapathy
Like lots of Indians, I was brought up vegetarian by my vegetarian parents. When I reached adulthood, I stayed vegetarian, and even experimented for a few years with its more extreme version – becoming vegan. My wife is vegetarian too, so our 5-year-old son doesn't have much of a choice in the matter. At this time. Or so we think.
The first big dilemma we faced is whether we should bring him up vegetarian or not – at least till the age of 18, at which point he's free to make his own choices. Several friends (most of them non-vegetarian) feel we're being unfair; denying him choices and biasing him so that he's more likely to stay vegetarian at 18 than turn non-veg. If fact, for this same reason, some of our vegetarian friends allow their kids to eat the occasional Chicken Nugget.
The second, more frequently faced dilemma, is how to answer his innocent question about why he can't also get a plate of Chicken Nuggets when we're eating with friends at a restaurant. We grope for an answer that his 5-year old mind can grasp, and yet one that does not cause him to judge his meat-eating friends harshly.
There were several approaches available to us, ranging from diktat ("This is the way it is") to empathy ("We like animals and don't like to kill and eat them"). Explanations based on distant religious diktats ("We don't eat meat because we're Hindus") were unlikely to cut much ice, given that we're not at all religious in the first place. The health benefits are perhaps too complex for a 5-year-old to grasp.
We chose the empathy argument, and thus far, it has worked well. He showed a natural affinity for animals in general, and farm animals in particular. The occasional trip to Ardenwood Farm, Happy Hollow Park or Lemos Farm in Half Moon Bay to gaze at the benign goats or chicken reinforced that affection. It also increased his recognition that these animals were sentient beings with feelings and emotions and therefore, killing them was wrong.
If fact, Vegan society websites recommend this sort of approach, but their tone strikes me as being too strident, too righteous. I fear that when he views his and his friends' actions through this lens, he'll end up judging himself "good" and his friends "bad". That's not the sort of judgmental attitude I'd like him to develop. I try to keep emphasizing that his friends are free to make their own decisions, but I dread the day when he asks a friend "How can you kill and eat an animal?"