Not far from our house, on University Avenue in Saint Paul, sits a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Anna and I were sitting at the stop light yesterday and she pointed to it and asked what it was.
"You mean the red and white building?" I asked, hoping she would say no. She said yes.
I stammered for quite some time, not sure what to say. How do I answer her? Do I tell her it's Kentucky Fried Chicken? Because she's an inquisitive little girl and she might ask what fried chicken means. Am I ready to explain to her that people eat animals?
Sure, she sees people eating parts of chickens at family gatherings and certain restaurants. Yes, she knows more omnivores than vegans and has been visually exposed to all of the most common non-vegan foods. But there's an abstractness to it all. When she asks "what's that" and points to a hot dog her cousin is eating, I just calmly tell her, "it's not vegan .... but we have some great vegan stuff for you right here!"
I'm exploiting the abstract nature of language and I fear the day when it no longer does the trick for her.
"It's a restaurant," I finally said, "but we don't eat there because they don't have anything that's vegan."
And just like that, the conversation was over. No follow up questions were asked. No desire to eat there was expressed.
This happened on our way to Izzy's, an ice cream parlor in Saint Paul. They always have a couple vegan options of soy cream and/or sorbet. Before we went in, I explained to her that most of what she sees won't be vegan. We went in and got a sample of their chocolate soy cream before saying that, yes, we'll take a pint to bring home with us.
Anna looked at all the other varieties of ice cream and pointed to one of them, saying, "I want to try that one now, Daddy."
The day will come, maybe soon, maybe in a year or two, when Anna starts to ask the big questions. Why do other people eat things that aren't vegan? If animals are our friends, then why are we friends with people who eat our friends? Etc. Etc. Dot, dot, dot.
At what age did you first wonder the same thing about religion? Why are other people Lutheran and not Catholic? Why do those women dress like that? If Jesus is Lord, then who is Vishnu and what's the deal with those arms?
Veganism isn't a religion, of course, but the comparison is a useful one. Children are raised with certain values when it comes to food. Some kids start eating junk food at a year old. Some kids have a diet heavy on meat and light on veggies. Some kids have a vegan diet. These choices (like religious choices) have ethical, social and political ramifications whether parents realize it or not
"Remember what I said," I calmly reminded Anna about the ice cream, "those aren't vegan. We're getting the vegan one."
And just like that, the conversation was over. No follow up questions were asked. No further desire to try the non-vegan ice cream was expressed.
I've taken a hard line in my life against animal exploitation. I am against it. I want it to end. Completely end. I want there to be no more ownership of animals. I cannot force myself to shy away from this. I can't pretend like I'm OK with free range this or grass-fed this.
But it's my job as a parent to raise a daughter (and son, but I don't have to worry about Liam for at least another couple years) who can function within society just like I do ... preferably better than I do. I can only hope that she notices how Mrs. Piggy and I socially interact with omnivores (our friends, our family) and realize that even though we may disagree about how human animals should treat non-human animals, we still show each other respect and enjoy each other's company and love each other.
All of which makes the following question more important and complicated than it might seem: When she starts to ask the big questions, do I give her the big answers?