Our family is big on having kids in the kitchen because of the wonderful benefits of mastering valuable skills as well as spending quality time together. But it’s also important to us that our kids know where their food comes from. One of the great benefits of having an urban garden is the joy of including our kids in growing the veggies and herbs that show up on our table.
But what about meat? Should children be exposed to the nitty gritty of how their chicken dinner arrived on their plate? Our culture shies away from discussing death in general, and this avoidance can be seen in our attitude toward animal death, as well. Many children don’t make a solid connection between the meat as food and the animals it came from. And many adults don’t consciously connect the two either! It’s very easy to pick up a tidily wrapped up chicken breast from the grocery store without considering that it was from a living, squawking chicken. But is failing to expose our kids to the truth about their food doing them a disservice? Does avoidance of these difficult issues keep them from developing an understanding of food ethics?
I passionately believe that teaching children to honor and respect God’s creatures is very important. And that includes modeling an appreciation for the animals that contribute to our meals. As we are not a vegetarian family, I want to show respect for animals by educating our kids about the meat we eat, showing our kids how animals should be treated (not left to wallow in their own feces in a CAFO without windows or freedom to move!), and humanely slaughtered with dignity.
But what does that look like? I firmly believe that the manner in which each family handles this information should differ depending on each individual child’s needs and sensitivities. My son is not a sensitive child, so we deal with this issue differently than a family with children who might become more upset or disturbed by tackling these topics. (Our daughter is only 18 months so we haven’t had this conversation with her yet.)
The question of how much a child should know came to the forefront for us recently when some of our older layers (we keep backyard chickens) were sold to a friend for their meat. Our son is 4 and we discussed whether it was appropriate for him to see them slaughtered or whether it would be too much. We decided that exposure to the circle of life is important and that it would be deceitful of us to not tell him what happened to the chickens. So we talked with him about the plans to slaughter the three chickens and asked if he wanted to be there to watch. He said yes and seemed excited that he was asked to participate.
When the time came, he watched one chicken be slaughtered and then said, “I don’t think I want to watch anymore. I didn’t like the way the chicken’s head looked after it died.” So, I took him inside, snuggled up on the couch, and we had a great conversation about death. “It’s really sad when something dies, isn’t it?” I asked him. “And sometimes it can feel scary or disturbing. Mama and Daddy feel like that, too. It’s hard for Daddy to harvest the chickens. It’s ok to feel upset. Are you feeling upset?” He said yes and we continued to talk about death, animals, and the important of treating animals well and causing them minimal pain at slaughter. “Did it hurt the chicken to die?” he asked. “Daddy knew how to kill the chicken without causing it to suffer. It was over very fast because we don’t want the chickens to feel pain.” He took it all in and then we started talking about something else.
When we were slaughtering our meat birds recently, I wanted to be sensitive of our son’s needs and desires so I asked if he wanted to be there. “I don’t think I want to watch,” he said. I told him that was fine. We could stay inside and color. When the time came, though, he decided he did want to participate. He seemed very comfortable and made commentary like, “The chickens are being very brave!” I was so proud when I heard him say to a chicken, “Thank you for becoming food for us.” A sacrifice is being made in order for our family to eat meat and I’m so glad that he is starting to understand that and appreciate the animals that make it possible.
That evening when we made a chicken stir-fry, our son was more aware than ever of where his food came from, but that didn’t spoil his appetite and he asked for seconds.
I’m glad that we can offer our kids an example of happy chickens with the chance to roam, enjoy sunshine, and revel in their chicken-ness! And we’ve discussed the differences between the life our chickens have and the terrible conditions at factory farms. I’m glad that our children will grow up appreciating how much it takes to have meat on the table. If we continue to be a meat-eating family, I want to impress upon our kids the important of respecting animals and honoring them as God’s creatures and introduce the complicated issues of food ethics.
Have you discussed food ethics with your kids? Do they know where their meat comes from?