Tonight at bedtime, my youngest son, who is three, looked up at me with big saucer eyes over his Chick fil-A Kids Meal book and said, "Why us eat chickens?"
"Why do we eat chickens?" I repeated, stalling for time. This was going to be difficult. The truth is, I have been struggling with this very same question lately, for myself.
"And pigs?" Uh oh. It was a two-parter.
I thought of the rack and a half of pork ribs I had just made for dinner two days ago, which looked a bloody mess when I unwrapped the package. He had screwed up his face in disgust and let out an "Eww, gross!" before he asked a similar set of questions that day. It's probably been about two weeks now since he first figured out that animals have to die for us to eat their meat.
"Does it make you feel bad to eat animals, honey?" A nod yes. I sighed.
"Yeah, me, too," I said as I lay down beside him.
So, I did my best, covering some of the same talking points my husband had just gone through the night before, when I asked him to give me his best rationale for why it's not morally wrong that we eat other living creatures.
"Well, it's natural to eat meat from animals," I began. "All animals eat other animals, and people are just like animals." (It wasn't until later that I realized that I screwed this up—all animals don't eat other animals. I hate it when I tell my kids stuff that isn't true.)
"Plus, meat from animals makes us strong and helps us grow." He didn't say anything. I didn't seem to be getting anywhere.
"Some people don't eat any meat from animals, but they have to eat a lot of beans and rice." I paused to see if he would balk. He's never been a huge fan of Bean and Cheese Taco Day at our house. "Also vegetables, and bread . . ." I realized I didn't know that much about the vegetarian diet. "And soybeans."
Silence. I tried to think of more I could say to reassure him, but I was at a loss. I sighed.
"Sweetie, if you don't want to eat animals anymore, that would be OK. In fact, I would stop with you." With that last bit, I surprised myself. Did I want to become a vegetarian? Or was I just swept up by his earnest concern for animals?
He buried his face in his stuffed dog, Woofy. "I don't want to eat animals."
"OK, honey," I said, giving his sweet face a kiss. But then I caught myself, remembering that he is 3 and has no concept of what becoming a vegetarian would mean. "Of course, you wouldn't be able to eat cheeseburgers anymore, or bacon." I figured those would be deal breakers, and my words did seem to get his attention.
"Cheeseburgers have animals in them?" he asked, wide-eyed.
"Yep, they do. Cows." You could see his brain cranking it into overdrive with that one.
"Now, there are veggieburgers. We could try those. They're made out of vegetables." What was I doing? I was supposed to be reassuring him that eating meat was OK, and instead I was pushing him the other way.
"McDonald's have animals in it?" Ahhh, I thought, now we've arrived at the true deal breaker.
"Yes it does, in the cheeseburgers and the chicken nuggets."
"Of course, you shouldn't be eating McDonald's anyway. It's bad for you."
Another pause. It occurred to me that the cheeseburgers might not actually be what was tripping him up. So I offered up a concession.
"If you want the McDonald's toys, we could always just buy the toy from McDonald's, without buying the food."
There must be some sort of term that salespeople use to describe the last objection the buyer has before committing to a sale, their final holdout. Whatever it's called, I had hit upon it, because once the Happy Meal toy issue was settled, he stuffed his dog Woofy into the crook of his arm and rolled onto his side with the same air of finality of a lawyer snapping a briefcase shut at the end of a long day of talks.
"OK. Us get McDonald's toys at store, and us not eat animals."
And with that, he closed his eyes, completely content. I don't think it occurred to him, even once, that he hates vegetables.
© Amy Daniewicz and Beneath the Trees