My daughter just started kindergarten. She has left the protective bubbles of pre-school and our home to wander the halls of a massive public school. She is now part of a community of kids from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures. Even so, I had to tell her teacher that she’s vegan. I had to note that lessons or stories about zoos or meat or farming might be confusing to her, maybe upsetting. It’s not that I’ve sheltered her from the realities of the omnivorous world we live in—most of our friends aren’t vegan—it’s that she just has yet to see how normalized animal exploitation truly is in our society. Most of her new friends likely won’t understand what she understands about zoos and eggs and why we don’t smoosh bugs. Her awareness and compassion will make her a bit different. How sad is that?
Of course, it’s not the fault of children today, that most see a stark difference between the pets they love and the animals they eat, or that they imagine animal farms to be the bucolic fairy tales presented in nursery rhymes, movies, and meat commercials. Most of us now-vegan parents grew up with these same cultural deceptions; and we believed them, too. Though children often feel a natural affinity for animals, societal norms and traditions eventually impose upon them the fundamentals of human dominion, also known as speciesism. Children are brought to zoos, marine parks, and petting farms, teaching them that animals are objects of entertainment. They are taught songs about Old MacDonald’s Farm and Baa Baa Black Sheep, learning farmed animals exist be owned and used. And they are fed animal products, often (or sometimes not at all) with vague explanations of the animals their meal came from, and likely without much honesty about that animal’s life, or death.
Just as we experienced in school, kids today are typically taught that eating meat, dairy, and eggs are healthy, right, and required. Even though much nutritional and environmental science has since evolved to say otherwise, cultural traditions continue to permeate nutrition education. But it’s not only due to these seemingly impenetrable traditions that animal-eating continues to be the default in most Western education systems. The meat, dairy, and egg industries have and continue to play a significant and sneaky role in keeping it that way.
Through industry-sponsored in-school programs such as Agriculture in the Classroom and Mobile Dairy Classroom, extracurricular clubs like 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA), and even via school milk and lunch programs, Big Ag has long permeated many facets of children’s formative years. These programs help solidify that foundational understanding of the role animals play in our society: as below us, here for us, and not wanting nor worthy of living their lives for themselves.
It’s no wonder a vegan kid like my daughter might find mainstream education hard to reconcile at times. If an agriculture “educator” came into her classroom and told her cows make milk for humans to drink, she would be perplexed knowing full well that cows make milk for their own babies. Thankfully, there are now other educational programs, tools, and clubs that vegan, or simply truth-seeking kids can access, and for educators to include in their own classrooms.
PETA, for example, offers a program called Teach Kind, created by former teachers, “to help schools, educators, and parents promote compassion for animals through free lessons, virtual classroom presentations, materials, advice, online resources, and more.” Similarly, Mercy for Animals offers a Humane Education Program, designed for students in high school and university, to “encourage critical thinking about social justice issues” and urge students “to make more humane, sustainable, and healthy food choices.”
For kids in Canada, the Humane Food For Kids initiative, created by the Canadian Collation for Farmed Animals, is an online tool just for kids who want to learn the truth about industrialized meat, dairy, and egg production, and about how to make alternative, plant-based food choices.
In the UK, ProVeg’s School Plates program works with school cafeterias to increase the availability of plant-based school meals. The program was implemented in 765 schools last year. And Vegan Kids UK helps kids connect via various events.
There are also online groups for kids located all over the world that help them and their families meet with other like-minded, compassionate peers. Last spring, the Plant Based Kids Club, which is open to everyone, hosted a virtual Easter event, complete with a vegan treat hunt, activities, and storytelling. My daughter loved meeting and playing with other vegan kids from all around the globe (and not having to explain why she doesn’t hunt for chicken eggs).
Even for kids and families who have already taken part in clubs like 4-H and FFA, then find themselves wanting to take a different path, there is the Families Choosing Compassion program, operated by Rowdy Girl Sanctuary in Texas. The program allows 4-H and FFA participants to surrender their “project” animals and continue a relationship with them for the rest of the animal’s natural life. The program also provides education on animal sentience and plant-based eating.
I know the day is coming when I’ll get that permission slip from my daughter’s teacher for an upcoming field trip to the zoo. I won’t sign it, and I’ll gently tell the teacher why. Instead, my daughter and I will take our own trip that day to a local sanctuary or wildlife rehab center to experience animals in an ethical way, a way that won’t confuse or sadden her, a way that will continue helping her see animals as the autonomous and sentient individuals they truly are (even if she doesn’t know what those words mean just yet).
Jessica is a Canadian freelance journalist focused on animal rights & welfare and plant-based foods. She also co-hosts the animal law podcast, Paw & Order.