The other night as I was making dinner, my older son asked me where chicken comes from. I paused, as if to hold an emergency mom meeting, to decide how best to explain to a 4-year-old the concept of animal slaughter for food (or anything for that matter).
But then, almost as immediately, I was more interested in his response. I strangely found myself hoping that he would turn his big brown eyes up to me and sweetly ask, “But why would we hurt animals, Mommy?” and then promptly run to our dog, Shea, wrap his arms around her graying fur, and declare that he never ever wants to eat animals again!
Well, he did no such thing. He responded with a rather confident “yes” when I asked after hearing my “story” if he still wants to eat chicken. I said OK, but inside I was mildly disappointed. Again, this surprised me. Why on earth would I expect or hope he would denounce chicken? I eat meat. My husband eats meat. We don’t have a lot of friends who identify as vegetarians or vegans (I am almost positive my son doesn’t). In fact, had my son told me he never ever wants to eat “dead animal” again this would make school lunch prep and dinnertime rather, well, annoying.
So what exactly is going on here? Do I secretly want my children to be vegetarian? And if so, is this inspired by a genuine concern about food (or health or the environment)? It is true that I have tossed around the idea of being a vegetarian for years, and I make a consistent effort to eat meatless meals as much as possible. Yet it still remains that I do eat animals and animal products, and I support the argument that if everyone even went “meatless” sometimes, rather than all of the time, the positive impact on the planet is still significant.
But maybe this is about something else. Like the hopes and expectations we as parents unknowingly put upon our children to become “better” than us. Or the desire of wanting a child to be “wise beyond his years”—special, exceptional. Or maybe it was just a superficial way to try to catch a glimpse of the kind of person a child is and the kind of adult he will become.
I had never before had the very specific thought of wanting my children to be vegetarian. And I most definitely do not equate avoidance of animal products as the only way one can be compassionate or humane or the sign of a “good person” (whatever that means). What I really think I was momentarily looking for in my son’s response was twofold: evidence of a personal sense of empathy; and that current global problems, like sustainability and wide-spread hunger, might not exist in the future, in my then-adult son’s world.
So what does it mean that my son said he still wants to eat chicken? Did he not hear what I said? That chicken was once a living, breathing creature? And then it was killed so you could eat it? Is this some psychopathology red flag? (No.) Is future planet earth doomed? (Perhaps, but not because my son wants to eat chicken nuggets.)
A few days later, as we were getting ready for bed, I said, “Give Daddy and Shea a kiss goodnight.”
My son gave a big hearty hug to his father, but then quickly and mechanically swiped his hand over our dog’s back. Without thinking, I said, “Oh, come on, give her some real love… she won’t always be here.” WHAT?! Why did I say this? I quickly held another internal mom meeting to figure out how to climb out of this existential hole I had just dynamited open (right at bedtime). My son was expectedly confused. Why? When won’t Shea be here? I somehow fumbled my way through saying that we should just appreciate certain things now because one day we might not have the chance. I could see he was still not clear about what I was getting at, but somehow he knew it was serious and maybe even a sad thing. He genuinely seemed concerned about something but it was still vague, and I kept it lighthearted enough to be able to usher him into his room. Nothing more was said about any of this (and Mommy has learned to just let her children go to bed without any forced canine cuddle session).
Let me be transparent, if not already obvious: I tend towards the over-thinking type, but I suspect all parents are simultaneously pushing through the daily grind of keeping their children alive and relatively clean, but also silently wondering, at least at times, what kind of human beings we are all in the process of semi-creating. So, naturally, again, I thought, what does this mean that my son doesn’t want to hug and kiss our dog? Possibly nothing more than the fact that he gets hair in his mouth when he kisses her, and he doesn’t like that, as he has told me several times.
I did not initially connect these two conversations, but then I realized that my son reacted perfectly reasonably in both scenarios: He showed that he is both a realistic and empathetic child. While I wanted him to react with deep emotion about how we get the meat we eat, what he did instead was understand this matter very practically (albeit too simply, or not, but he is 4 so that is expected). He likes eating chicken, and if the chicken on his dinner plate comes from a chicken that was once clucking around, and this process (from cluck to plate) is done in a responsible, humane way (something I was sure to emphasize), then good! Let us all eat chicken!
But that weird thing Mommy was saying about our dog did elicit an emotional response, even, again, if it was not exactly clear what either I was saying or he was feeling. This is empathy! This is the kind of child I want to be raising! Sure, one day he will learn more about how we get the food we eat and that there are larger, more pressing questions to ask (and to answer). And perhaps he one day will choose to not eat meat. Either way it is fine with me. What I care about now is that he is and becomes a thoughtful, helpful person, kind to others (humans and animals), and someone who is discerning, able to approach the world with both compassion and reason. This seems like a pretty normal desire for a parent. Writing a neurotic article about what it means that your child likes to eat chicken? Maybe, not.