Let’s face it: most children’s stories and programming center around animals. These forms of entertainment bring animals to life, showing them with families and friends of their own, as a way to connect with children. It should come as no surprise, then, that many children are startled when they learn of the connection between the chicken in their storybook and the dinner being served.
Some children may just be amazed, but not necessarily upset by the connection. Others grapple with the idea, though, and might decide to swear off meat once they make the association. So it’s often helpful to approach this conversation carefully.
If Baby hasn’t yet asked about the origin of the meat on their plate, you may decide to leave it alone for now, and save the conversation until they start to get curious. However, when the time comes, being prepared can help to keep you from falling into an uncomfortable conversation where you’re not sure what to say. Many children are very sensitive, and while honesty is the best policy, take your child’s personality into consideration before responding to them.
One good way to start the conversation is to begin by emphasizing the importance of a balanced diet, and let them know that meat is one of the main ways many people get certain nutrients. If meat is a major part of the balance in your family’s diet, tell them that. You may choose to tell them you and your family eat many things from the world around you, and show them how you pick an apple off a tree, or even plant a small vegetable garden to convey the fact that food comes from nature.
It’s common for young children to feel guilty about eating animals, but it can be helpful to remind them that other creatures eat what’s around them, too. Tell Baby that sharks eat fish in the ocean, for example, and that they couldn’t survive if they didn’t. This may ease some of their conscience by helping them realize they are not alone in eating animals.
Some toddlers and young children do choose to give up eating meat, either for a little while or for a more significant amount of time, and if Baby decides that’s the best way for them to handle this new information, it’s important to make sure they understand that they need to get the protein their growing body requires from other sources.
Adjusting the conversation to your family
The way in which you approach the subject will largely depend on your family’s values and lifestyle. If Baby is growing up in a family of hunters, or an area where hunting is common, you may feel more prepared for the conversation, and may be asked it at an earlier age, although it’s important to keep the conversation age-appropriate in order to avoid causing fear. For children who grow up on farms, it may be commonplace for animals to be raised for food, and may be a fact your child grows up knowing, without ever needing to have it explained in a specific conversation.
On the other hand, if your family doesn’t eat meat, or one member of your family doesn’t, they may end up asking the question sooner (if they are offered meat at a friend or family member’s home) or later (if they doesn’t encounter it much at all). Of course, the most important thing is to ensure they are eating a balanced diet, and that all of their nutritional needs are being met, but it can also be a great time to open up the conversation about your family’s values, and the way different families live in different ways.
Some conversations are trickier than others, and one generally tends to fall into that category. Keeping your explanations age-appropriate — which generally means keeping them short, easy to follow, and related to things Baby knows and understands — can be most helpful. For example, you may need to explain, in simple and straightforward fashion, that your family pet isn’t at risk of ending up on the dinner table. If you speak to your little one in this way, odds are they will end up dealing with the idea fairly calmly.