Explaining meat to little kids is a tricky business. Parents want to be honest without being brutal and factual without being graphic. Kids, naturally, have questions, and many are about the local meat market, the guy with the knife, murder, and whether or not hamburgers have mothers. There are simple answers to all of these questions, but most aren’t satisfying to sensitive children. So, should parents lie? Absolutely not. That erodes trust. It’s critical that parents break the news that meat is animals in the kindest way possible.
“In terms of a general guideline, it’s like talking to a kid about anything else that has the potential to frighten them or overwhelm them in some way, whether it’s sex or terrorism or any of these potentially frightening occurrences,” says Dr. Daniel Blake, a clinical psychologist based in Michigan. Blake adds that, when approaching the subject, it’s extremely important for parents to weigh how sensitive a child is. Some children won’t blink if you tell them every gritty detail of meat production. Others will swear off meat for life at the very thought that their cheeseburger is made of a cuddly cow.
One thing parents should not do, however, is try to protect kids from the truth. It’s one thing to water it down a bit and use guarded language — that’s a good idea potentially — but another to mislead or lie. Lying tends to lead to more lying which, in turn, tends to lead to a horrifying moment of discovery. For a sensitive kid, this can be particularly damaging as it calls relationships into questions. It’s not just about the bologna.
“You want to be honest, but you don’t want to be brutally honest,” says Blake. “Any good parent’s going to want to protect their child as best as they can. If there’s a consistent pattern of a parent being dishonest, that’s never a good idea. In order to be gentle, you need to know your child’s sensitivities or sensibilities.”
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Explaining the actual origins of meat, though, can be an important learning experience (no, nobody is advocating for a kindergarten trip to the slaughterhouse). When the subject arises, parents can break the news by comparing human meat consumption to the diets of the child’s favorite animals, explaining that humans eat pigs and cows just like birds eat worms or lions eat antelopes.
Educational films about food chains go a long way in helping a child understand the food source as well. And parents can utilize children’s inherent fascination with farms as a way to explain that some animals are raised to be consumed.
“How a message is communicated is as important as the message itself,” says Blake. “To talk about the food chain or to show the food chain graphically, depending on the child’s age… all these things need to be introduced when it’s age appropriate.”
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The conversations often come up earlier than expected, especially when children enter school age and begin asking a million questions about every little thing in the world. Parents can delay the conversation itself by simply not including the animal’s name when talking about food — “nugget” without “chicken,” or simply calling things “meat” — but it bears repeating that honesty is the best policy in this and with most things.
How a parent chooses to present information will very likely impact how a child perceives meat… and other people’s diets. Vegetarian parents often have vegetarian children, and omnivores tend to raise their children the same way. But if a child is utterly floored to think that their hot dog is made of the remains of Peppa Pig and doesn’t want to eat meat anymore, parents should absolutely respect that while also ensuring the child doesn’t harshly judge others’ dietary choices.
All parents can really do is be genuine and honest and deliver the facts in a way that their child can understand and make their own choices.
“Most parents want their children to identify with the way they think, but as a parent, you don’t want to be coercive or overbearing,” says Blake. “I think in general, genuineness is significant because that’s the message children get, Attitudes of parents come through in whatever they say. Ideally, attitudes and words match up, and when they don’t they become contradictory toward children.”