How Children Are Taught to Stop Loving and Start Eating Animals

CC BY 2.0. Sam Levy

An interesting research paper explains how subconscious cultural reeducation occurs throughout childhood, legitimizing meat consumption.

Several years ago, an adorable video hit YouTube, depicting a three-year-old Brazilian boy who doesn’t want to eat octopus for dinner because he realizes it’s an animal. A debate ensues between him and his mother, during which the boy puts up a heart-warming argument for vegetarianism. The video ends with him asking his mother why she’s crying and she says he’s touched her heart.

I’d be curious to know if this little boy, now 7 years old, still has those feelings. For most young children, feelings of strong attachment to animals are common, but these tend to wane as the years go by. Why? Some researchers say it’s because of social conditioning and an intense ‘re-education’ effort, albeit subconscious, that goes into altering children’s perceptions of animals as they grow up.

In a fascinating paper from 2009 called “The Conceptual Separation of Food and Animals in Childhood,” British researchers Kate Stewart and Matthew Cole argue that media, in the form of popular films and books, as well as toys, teach children how to distance themselves from animals with whom they may initially have an emotional bond or for whom they feel ethically responsible, even going so far as to normalize eating them.

How is this done? There are a number of ways, many of which are discussed in the paper, and some that I’ll highlight briefly here.

1. Animals tend to be divided into categories depending on their utility to humans. Farm animals are commodities, replaceable, usually genderless, and referred to by their meat names, i.e. pork, beef, hamburger, etc. Wildlife and pets are separate categories, both valued more than farm animals, with a preference given to the latter.

There is a tendency to identify with the carnivore, such as Mufasa and Simba in The Lion King, because, as Stewart and Cole write, this legitimizes meat-eating. Insects and herbivores, on the other hand, are not named or given characteristics, portrayed as “an undifferentiated mass, without autonomy, without voices, without intelligence, and without distinguishing individual features.”

humans-animals graph

Stewart/Cole/Screen capture

2. In stories, animals that can acquire human-like characteristics are preferred. Animals are saved if they transcend their species-being, specifically, if they attain human-like qualities, or quasi-human subjectivity:

“While on the surface the story often seems to be about these outsiders being accepted for what they are, it is usually about them being accepted for what they are not – Babe finds acceptance not as a runt but as a sheep-pig; in Happy Feet the penguins are saved not for being penguins, but because they get a TV crew to see them tap dancing; in Chicken Run, conquering flight in the chickens’ escape route from the farm.”

This is why pet-keeping is emphasized as the only socially appropriate form of emotional attachment to animals, i.e. why it’s OK to love your dog but eat a cow:

“[Pets] achieve their subjectivity through being granted quasi-human qualities, reinforcing the view that, ultimately, only humans count as subjects. Chickens, sheep, cows and pigs are treated as replaceable commodities, which remain invisible in the stories.”

3. There’s a sense that one must ‘get over’ attachment to animals in order to achieve adult maturity. In other words, there must be a loss of empathy for animals to become fully adult, as if it were a rite of passage (via Free From Harm). Think of Mowgli in The Jungle Book and conversations between dead Mufasa and his son Simba in The Lion King: “You must take your place in the circle of life” and “Remember who you are.”

The paper is lengthy and fascinating and well worth a close read if you’re interested in these questions of ‘carnism’ and ‘speciesism’ (which every meat-eater should be). And there’s nothing like a curious, prodding child to bring out the inconsistencies in adult justifications. Watch the YouTube video mentioned above and read this paper, and see if it doesn’t challenge some of your assumptions about eating meat.