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The Vegetarian’s Dilemma

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Posted on Aug 18, 2011
theimpulsivebuy (CC-BY-SA)

By David Sirota

As a new father who (ages ago) did a short stint as a press secretary, I’m already thinking ahead to the questions my son will throw at me. Yes, I know 8-month-old Isaac can’t even say “Dad” yet, but these questions are coming, and I’m sure they’re going to be way tougher than the ones reporters usually lob at Washington politicians. (OK, in the current age of media obsequiousness, that’s not saying much.)

So I’m planning for answers—and, as any press secretary knows, that requires thinking about what evokes the queries in the first place.

The toy pistol question, for instance—Isaac will see a friend with a cap gun and ask why he can’t have one. (Answer: Devices that kill people shouldn’t be the basis for playthings.) The tackle-football question—he’ll ask me why I don’t want him to play. (Answer: because football can cause long-term brain damage.) The existential questions about God and life and death—ugh, I don’t want to even begin thinking about those.

But before any of these inquiries are but a twinkle in Isaac’s eye, I know I’m going to face an interrogation about vegetarianism. At some point soon, he’ll ask why our family doesn’t eat this stuff called “meat” that’s everywhere.

I have my substantive answers already lined up, so I’m not worried about what I’ll tell him. (We don’t eat meat because it’s unhealthy, environmentally irresponsible, expensive and inhumane.) With this question, I’m more concerned about the prompting. Why is he almost certainly going to ask at such an early age?


Square, Site wide
I think I know the answer—and it’s not the ad campaigns that make meat seem like a rational choice (“Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner”), a healthy alternative food (“Pork: The Other White Meat”) or a compassionate cuisine decision (Chik-fil-A’s billboards, which show a cow begging you to spare his life by choosing chicken). No, Isaac’s going to have questions because of the grocery—more specifically, because of the vegetarian aisle that subliminally glorifies meat-eating.

I realize that sounds like an oxymoron, but the next time you go shopping, imagine what a kid gleans from veggie burgers, veggie bacon, veggie sausage patties, veggie hot dogs, Tofurky and all the other similar fare that defines a modern plant-based diet. While none of it contains meat, it’s all marketed as emulating meat. In advertising terms, that’s the “unique selling proposition”—to give you the epicurean benefits of meat without any of meat’s downsides.

Obviously, this isn’t some conspiracy whereby powerful meat companies are deliberately trying to bring vegetarians into the megachurch of flesh eaters. If anything, it’s the opposite: It’s the vegetarian industry selling itself to meat eaters by suggesting that its products aren’t actually all that different from meat. The problem is how that message, like so many others in American culture, reinforces the wrongheaded notion that our diet should be fundamentally based on meat.

For those who have chosen to be vegetarians, this message is merely annoying. But for those like Isaac who are being raised as vegetarians, the message is downright subversive. It teaches them that as tasty as vegetarian food may be, it can never compete with the “real thing.”

That message will undoubtedly inform Isaac’s early curiosity—and maybe his questions won’t be such a bad thing. Maybe they’ll motivate me to spend more time in the supermarket’s raw produce section, and maybe my ensuing discussion with Isaac will help him better understand why our family has made this culinary choice.

However, that doesn’t mean the subtle propaganda won’t ultimately win out, thus adding another carnivore to a destructively meat-centric society.

David Sirota is a best-selling author of the new book “Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now.” He hosts the morning show on AM760 in Colorado. E-mail him at, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at

© 2011

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By Keith Thomas, August 21, 2011 at 1:10 pm Link to this comment

@RayLan Yes! Taking as much of your consumption as possible out of the hands
of corporations is a sound aim. It’s also potentially better for the environment and
better for your health - but you need to search for reliable local providers. Self-
sufficiency would be the ideal, but most of us purchase electricity, fuel for our
cars, electronics, toiletries and much more from corporations via chain-store
outlets. Food is one thing where we can, with a bit of effort, avoid the big
corporations completely. I get all my meat from two local biodynamic farmers and
grow vegetables, hens and a little of my fruit (far from all: I buy the rest from a
nearby independent organic greengrocery).
If you like to see our food purchases as political and economic acts (and I do),
then this is where we can all - meat eaters and those who avoid meat - live true to
our beliefs.

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By Anarcissie, August 21, 2011 at 12:20 pm Link to this comment

Fake meat is sort of odd.  I guess the demand for it is the result of a combination of traditional class ideology, in which the upper classes got to eat meat and the poor didn’t, and therefore everyone should eat meat if they can get it; and corporate meat industry propaganda (‘real people eat beef,’ etc.)  I know when I became a vegetarian 20 years ago I received a constant stream of criticism, abuse and derision, most of it highly uninformed.  It was easy to defeat my attackers rhetorically, but the continuous static became very tedious.  In recent years it has abated somewhat.

One solution to the social problem came to me from Hispanic culture, which is even more meat-crazed than that of norteamericanos.  A vegetarian from Cuba said that the thing to do is claim your diet is a religious practice.  People, especially of the more ignorant type, think you’re involved in some Santerist practice and may have acquired Powers, and they leave your diet alone!

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By jr., August 21, 2011 at 11:25 am Link to this comment

Greetings Mr. Sirota,

It might interest you to know, studies have shown, and are on record at the american medical association that have shown animal flesh begins rotting right in the human gut, that is stomach, and, as a result is considered quite toxic.  Those toxins are believed to be the leading cause of most major food related health problems. 

Cows, as has been said, have four stomachs.  So it’s not very hard for me to understand why all human bodies are not to digest the lactose the cow’s milk is containing, whether they admit it, or not, doesn’t matter.  And, not to mention, sucking the utter of a cow, that cross species interaction, seems just plain yukky.  But, one must look passed all the pretty packaging of advertising to see the actuality.

Even eating chicken reproductive cells, miscalled eggs, to me, seems nothing short of gross.  Though, it’s been said the most heathy way of consuming them, if one must, is raw.

Canabalism of other animals is certainly NOT nature made, and, definitely is an acquired taste.  I think most people that boast of being carnivores are more liking the preparations, seasonings, and the fancy names that are concealing what it is they are really consuming, otherwise, they would eat those animals as every other animal in the wild does, ripping and tearing right into the live beasts of prey, lusting after the taste of warm blood and all.


Happy Eating

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By doglover, August 21, 2011 at 10:07 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I can’t stand the vegetarian food items that are faux meat - big yuck!
As for the gun thing…good luck. I also kept my son away from them. He had to go to a water gun party with a squirt banana (he now laughs about it!). But when he ate a piece of toast in the shape of a gun and used the water spray attachment as a gun, I gave up.

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By RayLan, August 21, 2011 at 8:42 am Link to this comment

“Most meat is unhealthy because it’s loaded with antibiotics, hormones, and other dubious chemicals, and because it’s grown under unhealthy conditions.  “
The human is an omnivore - and survives on a whole variety of food sources - these habits become geneticaly and culturally ingrained - some bushman can eat poisonous plants without any consequence.
The native Maasi live quite healhty lives on cow’s blood. But all cultures have been able to survive on a plant-based diet. When people from other non-Western cultures start to eat Western diets- they suffer Western diseases. Needless to say vegetarianism is diametrically opposed to the Western diet.

Having said that, health is not the only consideration.
There are the ethical (not sentimental) issues about the unnecessary cruelty the slaughtering of animals inflicts. How can we remain peaceful centered people if we feed on death and violence?

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By RayLan, August 21, 2011 at 8:21 am Link to this comment

Vegetarianism is a major cultural challenger. It subverts the big Agribusiness practices of factory-farming animals - which is the natural outgrowth of the corporatocracy which governs the US. That is undermining Agribusiness more than symbolically jams the money machinery that dictates our tastes and comsumer choices - destroys the value system of greedy mindless aquisition.

There is a vegan chain in Southern California called ironically Native Foods - that basically serves very little but mock ups of American cuisine - burger this and chili that. It is not just annoying - it really pisses me off - because it self-defeating to organize your menu that is even sticter than vegatarianism around fast food carnivorous junk and I told them as much- which had no response - but ‘We’re sorry you don’t like our menu’.

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By Brett, August 20, 2011 at 11:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Great observations, David. Even as a vegan I had never really considered this before,
and you certainly have a point. Further, if you examine the food companies and
conglomerates that own the veggie brands, you’ll find that they have a financial interest
in subversively promoting the idea that these brands will never be as good as the real
thing, as you say. For example, Silk brand soy ‘milk’ is owned by a dairy company.

Really though, I do think your fear may be a bit overblown. Children tend to be highly
compassionate, and a discussion of meat’s inherent violence wil likely trump any
perceived taste benefits in their decision making calculus. And if not, well, at the end of
the day it’s their body.

PS: didn’t know you were a vegetarian, You should consider following Clinton’s example
and go vegan. wink

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By EmileZ, August 20, 2011 at 12:11 pm Link to this comment

There is only one Morningstar product which is non-GMO. I believe it is the breakfast sausage patties.

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By MeHere, August 20, 2011 at 10:31 am Link to this comment

A varied diet that includes a small amount of meat (or other animal protein) is
probably quite fine. I don’t know who has the last word on this—there’s far too much “food fundamentalism” out there. But perhaps the real problem which threatens our survival is the massive industrialization of our food supplies. Under this system, all foods are problematic in terms of what’s involved in producing them -with regard to human cost, animal treatment, and destruction of soil and water supplies.  Organic foods may not have chemical pesticides but most of
them fall very short of being grown according to true organic practices. If you are wealthy and lucky enough, you can find small farms that will cater to your preferences for unadulterated produce, meat, and poultry. By now, there’s practically no fish -including farm-raised- that can be guaranteed to be free of
toxins and/or harmful fishing practices.

Children need to be raised with the healthiest diet we know how to provide. 
But they should not be raised with deception, so an important task for parents
is to make children aware that we don’t know everything and that “green, healthy and pure” has become another marketing concept which most often doesn’t pass the reality test.

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By Anarcissie, August 20, 2011 at 9:45 am Link to this comment

Nature doesn’t necessarily give you healthy meat.  Some wild meat is loaded with pathogens.  It’s a long, unpleasant story, however, so I’ll skip it.  I do recommend that carnivores look into it, though.  In fact, everyone should do some research on where their food comes from and what is done to it.  You’re going to put it in your body!

My admittedly desultory readings in anthropology have led me to the conclusion that paleolithic hunter-gatherers lived fast, loved hard, and died young.  Sitting around and growing old by the fireside were not an option until the development of agriculture.

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By EmileZ, August 20, 2011 at 7:11 am Link to this comment

Continuing my comment below…

... and yours might too!!!

Mwah hah hah hah!!!

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By EmileZ, August 20, 2011 at 7:07 am Link to this comment

Good luck buddy.

Try and give him a sense of compassion and an ability to think for himself.

My nightmare offspring could do much worse than eat a little meat every now and then.

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By Keith Thomas, August 20, 2011 at 4:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

@Anarcissie You made two points:

1. “Most meat is unhealthy because it’s loaded with antibiotics…” 
Exactly! And if we switch from the passive to the active voice, you can say
“industrial feedlot agriculture loaded meat with antibiotics (etc.)” and “nature
gives us healthy meat”.

2. “humans ... lived far more vigorous and far shorter lives” Which humans are
you talking about? Natural lifespan was as long in the Palaeolithic as it was in
the 20th century, but infant mortality was high and death through injury was
more common, driving the average age down. They were strong and fit (to
judge by the point at which their muscles joined the bone), so meat served
them well. Our nutritional needs are pretty much the same as the needs of our
distant ancestors - though contemporary couch potatoes certainly need less
food than their vigorous, active forebears.

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By Anarcissie, August 19, 2011 at 8:13 pm Link to this comment

Most meat is unhealthy because it’s loaded with antibiotics, hormones, and other dubious chemicals, and because it’s grown under unhealthy conditions.  Also, while it is true that humans have evolved eating meat for hundreds of thousands of years, they lived far more vigorous and far shorter lives than people do today, which meant that their nutritional needs were far different from ours.

This is all aside from religious, ethical, aesthetic, sentimental, and other considerations.

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By Keith Thomas, August 19, 2011 at 2:17 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

David tells us: (We don’t eat meat because it’s unhealthy, environmentally
irresponsible, expensive and inhumane.)
Four reasons. We can debate them all, but I doubt meat per se is “unhealthy” -
it’s been part of the human diet since the beginning of our species and all of us
here today are here as a result of thousands of generations of meat eating. So,
it’s likely that our genome expects - even demands - meat in our diet.
Meat eating need not be “environmentally irresponsible”. There is no doubt that
industrial agriculture and aquaculture are environmentally irresponsible, but I
can’t see how the act of eating meat, or even living off a predominantly meat
diet, has any effect on the environment. Healthy soils require input from
mammalian excreta - removing mammals from farmland would be
“environmentally irresponsible”. Human population numbers are now so high
that if “everyone” was predominantly a meat eater, the market could choose to
depend on industrial agriculture, but that’s a choice more to do with economic
trade-offs than eating meat.
If meat eating is “expensive”, I guess that’s a reason poor people would choose
to limit their meat consumption. But it’s only within the last century or so that
the average family has spent less than a quarter of their income on food. They
spent more than a quarter if you factor in their “wages” for time spent in their
home garden. We pay far too little attention to the quality of our food - all food
- and quality is expensive if you are going to acquire it through the market.
Finally, back to industrial agriculture. It’s that which is “inhumane”, not the
eating of meat. Free range and game animals and birds have a happy, healthy
life - better than most domestic pets - and their killing can be instantaneous
(as any competent hunter will attest), so if we eat them, there is no
“inhumanity”. Indeed, it’s the essence of humanity (the genetic inheritance of
our species) to slaughter animals for food.
I can understand the revulsion some people may feel about mistreatment of
animals bred for human consumption. And I do admire people who determine
to act daily according to their beliefs, even when this places them out of the
mainstream and subjects them to ridicule. But such people would be better
served in terms of their health and the health of their children (even their
unborn or not-yet-conceived children) if they took the time and trouble to act
true to their genome and ate meat in ways that contributed to good health,
were environmentally responsible and humane. And if it costs more time and
money than avoiding meat, well, that’s a cost we should all be prepared to

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By cpb, August 19, 2011 at 1:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Vegetarianism is not a ‘natural’ diet, evolutionarily
speaking, for homo sapiens.  That we have the
consciousness to choose is another matter.  That our
meat comes to us courtesy of an industrial system which
is as dedicated to our health and the health of our
ecosystem as all other industrial systems, well, on the
one hand, c’est la vie.  On the other hand, this
highlights where the need for change really lies. 

The health of the human is the health of the land-base
which is the health of the soil.  Completing the circle;
the health of the soil is built and sustained by the
myriad flora and faun which grow above and below, and
ultimately decay into it.  This is accomplished in
nature and exists in a balance, the fragile nature of
which needs no additional comment.

Balance - in this case that is achieved with a mixture
of plants and animals.  Vegetarians are kidding
themselves and others if they still buy into the (should
by now be outdated) notion that we would do the planet a
favour if we all stopped eating meat.  The rape of the
land-base that industrial agri-business makes manifest
occurs regardless of the product output.  There is
nothing about monocropping soy that in the long run is
any more sustainable than animal feedlots.  Small scale
mixed perma-culture is the only way forward.

In the meantime sustenance involves unfortunate
compromises.  My highly evolved outer form includes
flesh tearing canine teeth, for a reason….


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By NABNYC, August 19, 2011 at 12:54 pm Link to this comment

If anyone personally has problems with the issue of whether it is wrong to eat meat, just say so.  Don’t attribute the anticipated confusion to the mind of a 8 month old baby.  Honestly, children learn what you teach them.  If you raise a child in a meat-free home, the child will likely continue to eat in that way.  But when he’s a teen-ager, or an adult, if he decides he likes hamburger, that’s his decision.  There’s no reason to think a baby will be agonizing in 20 years over whether his family is weird because they are vegetarian.  I know lots of vegetarians with kids:  no particular agonizing there.  For most of them, they live in a world with meat-eaters, and there’s no issue.  It’s just explained that that’s not what mommy likes.  Your kids will likely be around people who smoke cigarettes eventually and, if you don’t, hopefully your kids won’t either.  But they won’t likely agonize over it.

This sounds like way too convoluted a way of saying that perhaps you have your own problems.  Maybe smelling somebody barbequeing a hamburger sets off a hunger.  I don’t think people should turn vegetarianism into a religion.  Do what you think is right.  If you occasionally eat meat, I wouldn’t worry about it.  If you eat meat all the time, that’s your preference, so be it.  I just think that turning this into some religious-level conflict is pointless.  It’s a personal choice, that’s it.  Not one that requires public analysis and input.

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By Jimnp72, August 19, 2011 at 10:12 am Link to this comment

It is just plain and simply wrong to have innocent animals butchered so we can eat them, when we dont need to anyway. Please see the video “meet your meat” (google it) to see the horror and torment animals go through so we can eat them. Then you wont eat meat anymore.
Thank you David for bringing this up.
I gave up meat over 25 yrs ago. Before that, I used to eat it twice a day and would oftimes embark on supermarket journeys for quality steak, never found any.
after I gave it up I never lost my taste for meat, and today am having the VeggiePatch meatballs, they are really excellent. I also like the Grillers Prime, and the M.S.F. sausage patties and bacon. My wife is also a vegetarian. Maybe these products are popular because people who gave up meat still miss the taste as I did.
My daughter, now 24, was born and raised a vegetarian, having soy formula as an infant. I also remember she was quite fond of guacamole. At her daycare center, she would occasionally have a hot dog and then tell us that she was “a crummy vegetarian.” Today she is a writer for an online publication, remains in great health, and remains meat free. Moral of the story is that She NEVER had meat so never missed it-therefore although I ate the synthetic meat products regularly when she lived at home with us, my daughter had no interest in the synthetic meat products at all.
So dont worry about your kid eating these products, if he is not introduced to them, he wont eat them or even have an interest in them.

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By oddsox, August 19, 2011 at 9:57 am Link to this comment

@leftcoast:  you wrote, “People on the edge of starvation would likely eat just about anything to survive and be justified (in) doing so.”

So you and I and Sirota are very lucky to be able to eat whatever we want.
We have real choices and ample supply.
So, Sirota, quit the whining, already.

Leftcoast, you also write of the “responsibility of those in the developed world to think through the implications of the choices we are priviliged to be able to make.”

Sorry.  I don’t have to board that train. 
Again, you and I and Sirota can eat whatever we want.
Bon Appetit.

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By upgradeyourlife, August 19, 2011 at 7:20 am Link to this comment

This is a contrived article, you should know better than to think the “vegetarian industry” is selling itself to meat eaters, when it comes to marketing nothing stands in the way. It only sends a message if you’re the one buying all these products.

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By joe, August 19, 2011 at 6:04 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Local grass fed meat is much more environmentally friendly than most soy based food.  27% of soybeans are grown in Brazil where they cut the rain forest down to grow them, then they are put on a truck to get to a boat to be shipped to the US then put on a truck to get to the processing plant then put on another truck to get to your grocery store.  93% of soybeans on the us market are GMO and are grown by spraying pesticides/herbicides/chemical fertilizer on vast tracts of land which washes into the streams which creates dead zones in oceans.  In many places meat animals are raised on land that wouldn’t be suitable to grow crops anyways(rocky/hilly…). 

I’ll let you have your preference for calling it inhumane and expensive(no argument there with local grass fed meet) but to call it environmentally irresponsible is as misleading as calling all vegetarian diets environmentally friendly.  I’ll let the doctors in the house take up the “unhealthy” part of the argument.  I would argue that buying local organic food(including or not including meat) is the most environmentally friendly diet.

all stats are from Wikipedia:

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By Del, August 19, 2011 at 4:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I eat meat, it’s expensive yes. But that’s why you don’t eat if very often, like once or twice a month, and you pay attention to where it comes from.  I guess I’m unhealthy, environmentally irresponsible and inhumane.  Is that just a blanket statement you tell your children about all those horrible carnivores Dave?

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By esspea, August 19, 2011 at 3:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hm. I have mixed feelings about this article. My boyfriend and I have recently become vegan for the same reasons you explained it’s good to be vegetarian. I read a book, The Food Revolution, by John Robbins which changed my life.

I feel much better not eating meat or dairy. I love to cook so exploring the world of grains and vegetable dishes has been a very delicious and healthy adventure. But being that I grew up on meat I have my days where I just want some. A sandwich or meatloaf or something. I recently discovered the “meat” aisle for vegetarians in the supermarket and I was so excited that I could still eat all my old favorites, or something close to them.

It’s not great to be eating super processed soy for every meal, and this can be both explained and exemplified at home through eating mostly grains, fruits, and vegetables. But I think it’s really nice that we’ve come far enough to even have that alternative in almost every grocery store in the country now. It’s also helpful for people like my boyfriend too who need to eat a lot more protein than people like me. He can take something simple and healthy to work with him to eat for dinner like a soy turkey sandwich or some tofu chicken and get protein while not getting bored or having to heat something up that we cooked at home as he usually doesn’t have time to do that at his job.

I can see where your frustration is coming from but I don’t think we should take for granted all the options available for vegetarians now. We’re lucky to have them.

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By Leftcoast7, August 19, 2011 at 2:24 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Excuse me?  Your comment is totally off the mark.  People on the edge of starvation would likely eat just about anything to survive and be justified doing so.  This has nothing whatsoever to do with the responsibility of those in the developed world to think through the implications of the choices we are priviliged to be able to make.

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By ominous, August 19, 2011 at 2:14 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Wow, David. If you wanted a carbon copy of yourself who would share your own world view and ideals, you should have waited for cloning.  I’m a vegetarian mother with a child who sometimes makes meat-based choices.  He’s also got a sword, a shield, AND a water pistol!

Imagine the horror when I finally let my child loose in the world.  He’ll think he was actually raised to become an independent thinker.  He might even feel like he was treated with respect and dignity instead of being brainwashed into following my ideals blindly because I believe my ethical choices are superior to the choices others make.  Or he’ll start randomly attacking animals for food with a real sword.  We’ll only know when the times comes, won’t we?  Are you scared, David? 

Wouldn’t it be nifty if we could learn how to explain choices to our children in a way that is developmentally appropriate and then (gasp) support them in their choices even if we wouldn’t make the same ones? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could gift our children with respect, and trust that by presenting them with all the options they have in life, they will make ethical decisions for themselves based on what they feel personally? Wouldn’t it be awesome to experience a sense of accomplishment as parents when our children become capable of making ethical choices and arguing the ethics of their choices even when they differ from our own?

Or would that just be nuts? Maybe that’s nuts. Maybe I should expose my son to ‘Earthlings’ so he can see what factory farming is about before he can handle that emotionally. Maybe I should show him pictures of people who have lost limbs due to Type II Diabetes to scare him off sugar. Maybe I should take him to church and let someone tell him he’ll go to hell if he isn’t a good boy whilst I am at it. 

Yes it’s weird we call vegetarian options meat-based names.  How you are planning to raise your child is far weirder to me and I lost the desire to even attempt to figure out your point at “cap gun”.  Because I’m teaching my son to evaluate things completely before developing an opinion, I forced myself to finish your article.

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By oddsox, August 19, 2011 at 12:32 am Link to this comment

“as tasty as vegetarian food may be, it can never compete with the “real thing.””

Well, there you are, then. 

I wonder how many Somalian parents share your concerns, David.
Bon Appetit

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