Monday, July 16, 2007

Tofu and Godlessness

After our return from Gramma's house, I listed for you her enumeration of my failings as a parent. One of the items concerned Munchkin's diet. Specifically, Mom thought it was wrong that I am raising Munchkin as a vegetarian. She didn't quite broach it this way. She sidled up to the topic, as I mentioned that as part of our evening routine, Pynchon cleared up the supper dishes and cooking mess, while I prepared Ms. Munchkin's lunch. Mom figures that with what I'm paying for daycare, I ought to let them feed her. That I was wasting my time and my money by preparing this extra meal. For my own peace, for 10 more minutes of chore-free evening, I ought to just go with the flow, let Munchkin eat the (homemade, low sugar, dietician-supervised, whole grain, five-week rotation) food at daycare.

This argument is seductive.

But then she followed up by admonishing me for limiting Munchkin's choices, for not letting her eat what others eat, for denying her the experience of meat. Soon enough, she warned me, Munchkin would be self-aware enough to want what the other toddlers were having. It was, she intimated, actually wrong of me to limit her diet in this way, to make her abnormal in the way that I am abnormal (oh, we freakish lacto-ovo vegetarians!) without letting her having any say in the matter.

This argument is enraging.

I recently heard--twice in one week--Richard Dawkins interviewed on the CBC. You have probably heard of Dawkins: he is a noted evolutionary biologist, who wrote that Infamous Book, The God Delusion, that argues strongly in favor of a rigorous atheism that will not admit of the basis of any of the world's religions in the absence of scientific evidence of same. Dawkins is willful in his interpretations to the point that he has been asked to not participate as an expert witness in favor of evolution in the court cases in which the inclusion of 'creation science' in public school curricula is being debated. The evolution side--the side that Dawkins support--find his rhetoric inflammatory and unhelpful.

He's pretty ... strident in print, but comes across much more moderately on the radio, expressing himself with some humour, even, and tempering some of his book's more outrageous statements and acknowledging its writing to deliberately aim to provoke. One outrageous claim he does not back down from is this: to raise a child in a given religion--presumably one's own--makes parents guilty of child abuse. Child abuse. I have to admit, a little shamefacedly, that as an atheist myself I was intellectually struck by the admittedly provocative metaphor. This was clearly not a sin (if you will) of which I might be found guilty, so I was a little more willing to hear him out.

Dawkins' reasoning is this: to raise a child as, say, a Catholic in Northern Ireland, is to ensure that child is early and irrevocably imprinted with a sense of belonging and identity that must necessarily bring conflict and violence into his or her life. Because the child brought to Sunday school while still in diapers is in no cognitive, emotional, or authoritative position in which to assess the experience, let alone assent to it, parents are guilty of enforcing their own beliefs on a helpless innocent.

Which brings me back to my own dilemma, and the title of my post: in the face of my tofu, Mom and Dawkins propose ... what we might call dietary godlessness.

But I can't do it. Does this dilemma remind any of you of the hipster parenting brouhaha, that I weighed in on here? Yup. I have to think now that religious training and vegetarianism are parenting choices, choices made with love and in good faith. If you raise your child in your religion it is because the values the church promotes are important to you. If I raise my child as a vegetarian, it is because, for her health and mine, for ethical reasons, and for environmental ones, I feel very strongly it is the right thing to do.

I console myself, in the end, by suggesting that Dawkins and parents who obsess over these kinds of questions ultimately do not trust enough that young children do grow up, do assess the world as they mature into themselves, and do come to their own conclusions about things. Pynchon's parents were missionaries; he is an atheist. I was raised Catholic, and while I still have a sense-memory fondness for the rituals and the smells of Catholicism, I no longer believe, and no longer practice the faith in which I was raised. My mom is an excellent cook; somehow I came into vegetarianism, and have remained a vegetarian for, now, exactly half my life. Maybe Munchkin will develop a childish hunger for hot dogs. Maybe not. Right now, though, I manage her diet as surely as I manage her bedtimes, and I choose tofu. And godlessness.


Christine said...

tofu rocks, dude.

seriously we are raising our kids (mostly) vegetarian, and i have gotten guff from many people. i am lucky, though, that my family is supportive.

my son loves his "to-poo" as he calls it!

Jenifer said...

Oh I expect this post will generate some great comments. All I can add is that you are daughter the best way you know, given your life experiences.

The only area I find a slippery slope is if the lifestyle or religion you are choosing for your child could potentially harm them. That makes me worry about the gray area of personal freedom versus the safety of the child.

Vegetarian. That I can stomach.

bubandpie said...

I think the mistake Dawkins and your mother are making is the supposition that there is some kind of neutral or value-free way to raise children - that by NOT raising them to subscribe to our beliefs we are somehow allowing them a position from which to make their own free choices.

What we're doing, instead, is just giving the children over wholesale to the surrounding culture; they will get its values and the invisibility that attaches to them - they will believe, and eat, the same stuff all the other "normal" people do, and will have no standpoint from which to be critical of that dominant culture.

slouching mom said...

What bubandpie said so well.

Mad Hatter said...

Yes. What B&P said. The thought that we could ever create a value-neutral environment for our children is nothing short of a farce.

Miss M is being raised vegetarian. When she has the ability to make lifestyle choices that she can follow-up on herself, she is more than welcome to eat meat--i.e. she can follow the opposite path I took.

If my husband chooses to raise Miss M in his Catholic faith, I will be fine with that even if it is not my faith. She is an intelligent girl. She can accept or refuse that and a whole host of other doctrines as she makes her way in this world.

I am somewhat surpised that your day care does not accommodate Munchkin's vegetarianism.

Omaha Mama said...

I don't really have more to add, except to say - good for you for raising your child in the best (and healthiest) way you know how. We all have to do the very best we can. I'm with Jenifer, if it's not a health & safety issue, then it's not really anyones' business. Even a loving Grandma!

crazymumma said...

sorry...dawkins just makes me roll my eyes.

Being omnivores around our house, with several vegetarian friends and children who are here often...I just do not see how your decision presents a problem.

I also do not understand why everyone gets all hot under the collar about such a benign thing.

Andi said...

Wow. Excellent post. I was a strict lacto-ovo for years, but recently have allowed fish to occasionally creep into my diet (I know, I'm not technically still a vegetarian then..)My daughter refuses to eat fish though and we have chosen to raise her as a (mostly) vegetarian.

People say the most assinine things about that choice. They often wouldn't cut down a parent for feeding their kid McDonalds everyday or feeding them Coke for breakfast. I was told by co-workers that it would be mean to not allow my child to eat at McDonalds. Or, if she didn't eat meat that she wouldn't have enough strength to hold her head up. Or that she would be horribly malnurished. All of which, of course, turned out to be untrue.


Beck said...

Richard Dawkins - bleh!
But parents are allowed to raise their children in the way that they see fit - I'm a religious omivore and I'll raise my children to be, likely, religious omnivores. You are a non-believing vegetarian and it is your (ahem) God-given right to raise your child as one, too.
Every kid is eventually going to have something that separates them from the herd of other kids (there are six kids in my daughter's tiny class with severe food allergies, for example. SIX!). For the most part, they'll get over it - and you can console your mother with the knowledge that her granddaughter can have faux lunch "meat" sandwiches in public school which will blend in JUST fine.

ewe are here said...

My sister is a vegetarian, and if she has a child, she says she will raise it as a vegetarian. I know that's her choice, but I guess that's where my problem lies: it's her choice, as in my sister's not the potential child's.

Vegetarianism is not like religion. People raised to follow a particular religion can opt out easily enough when they're older and allowed to make their own choices on these things. People raised without eating meat often can't 'opt out' as easily when they're older, as their systems haven't developed the necessary digestive 'bacteria' to allow it. Instead they just become sick when they try to eat certain types of meat ... This happened to a good friend's friend who went through this when she left home for college and wanted to eat meat now that she was 'allowed'... it made her sick, repeatedly, and she was extremely angry at her mother for raising her this way.

Just my two cents. Probably all it's worth. ;-)

Bon said...

i'm in complete agreement that there's no value-free way in way to raise children, and that opting out and thus leaving them to absorb the cultural mean or norm without guidance is problematic, at the very least. though i'm not sure it leaves them without a position from which to critique, eventually...some people raised in wonderbread environments (for their own time and place) do eventually become quite skilled critics of the cultural norms they grew up in.

in a sense, i think that's where Dawkins is coming from. he's antagonistic, yes, but his insistence on atheism has to be seen in the context of his upbringing in Ireland.

i do think that his arguments - while many of them have a logic and wit i admire - aren't fully extrapolable outside the context of a situation where religious belonging conveys an almost totalizing part of the culture, so that the binary of us/them becomes absorbed at even a deeper more instinctive level than the theology. we also may not control all of these binaries our kids are exposed to, since the dominant one in western culture today seems to be "us" and "terrorists/Islam", which is far more amorphous and problematic to deconstruct than Protestant/Catholic, and harder to opt out of since the third choice of atheism isn't entirely there.

but either way, vegetarianism doesn't fall into one of these binaries, and thus i don't think the Dawkins argument applies at all. there is no clean "us" and "them" in is a value choice, and a healthy one, and one that i doubt will seem nearly as strange to many of your daughters' generation as it may to her grandmother.

thus endeth my dissertation. ;)

nomotherearth said...

I can't see why anyone has a problem with someone being vegetarian, as long as it is done healthfully (as I am sure you are doing). The question is - if Munchkin wants to eat meat, will you support her choice? If so, then everyone else can just buzz off and take their opinions with them.

Mimi said...

Y'all are so clever. Thank you so much for crafting such well-considered comments!

Nomo: Pynchon is not a vegetarian--he buys deli meat for lunches, and occasionally cooks chicken breasts, and also orders meat dishes when we are out. So I will support Munchkin if she wants to eat with Daddy. We'll all have to negotiate what that means when VegeMom is the chef of the household as well as the menu planner. Hm.

Bon: Boom. Of course you're right. What I saw was not a strict parallel between the arguments, but possibly a slippery slope -- I've been noticing a lot since Munchkin was born that a lot of people tend, on teh one hand, to criticize Parents Today for failing to Properly Raise their children, and then on the other hand, criticizing them for Raising Them Wrong. I imagine you can't really in good faith complain about both things at once.

Bubandpie: I like how you've made my mom and Dawkins grammatical peers. I am unlikely to see a similar locution again in my lifetime.

Ewe: I've not heard about that effect; thank you for passing it along. I'll look it up. For myself, I truly feel that vegetarianism is the ethical, healthy, and green choice ... and while I would never preach to anyone else about it, somehow I feel like it's either a right or even a positive duty to share this with my daughter. And I think I would disagree that it is simpler to opt out of a religion than a dietary regime. Many people suffer deep crises when confronted with a change in the status of their faith.

Mad: in our quite-plural population here, I can imagine that to cater to one dietary regime would entail having to cater to them all, and we are many religions and preferences and ethnicities, and my daycare is a coop and trying to keep costs and bureaucracy down. Still, I was a little surprised, too. But they figure they provide a menu within the guidelines of teh Canada Food Guide, and we can work with that. I don't really mind.

Mad Hatter said...

I made my comment b/c as you know my sister is the cook at the other university day care in your town. She accommodates 14 different dietary preferences/allergy situations. It's part of the mandate of her job. She substitutes veggie "meats" for the veggie kids--not the most ideal form of accommodation but accommodation nonetheless.

Ewe: I have heard that argument before but I do think that there are documented ways of introducing meat into the diet of life-long vegetarians. It's funny but last week in Charlottetown, I ordered a grilled cheese sandwich for Miss M. Out here in the 'times, there is a real sense that food isn't food without meat in it. The sandwich arrived and it was only when she was three bites in that I noticed the grilled cheese had ham on it. I didn't flip out but took it in stride. I waited to see what Miss M's response would be. She pulled all the ham off her sandwich and proceeded to devour just the grilled cheese part.

Her Bad Mother said...

I love for this post, not that I didn't love you before.

Bub is right that there's a problem with the assumption that there is some value-free model of parenting that we could follow if we chose. A BIG problem. All that we can do - all that any parent can do - is raise their child in the spirit and practice that they think is best. This 'best' will always involve a value judgment. It could be argued that raising a child to eat meat (I'll throw in 'thoughtlessly', because it's arguable that there is such a thing as conscientious - mindful, organic, whatever - carnivorism) is a form of child abuse - that is, if feeding a child food that is (depending on the source) of questionable nutritive value, or raising a child to ignore cruelty in any form, can be understood as a form of abuse. It could also be argued - prolly has been argued, by some, none too delicately - that raising a child to accept atheism unquestioningly is a form of child abuse, if closing off the possibility of faith can be understood as abuse.

All depends upon one's perspective. And that's all that we have.

NotSoSage said...


I have only just now had a chance to read and comment and I have nothing to add to the weighty, thinky comments that have already been posted.

This was an excellent post, Mimi, and I'm glad you got it written.

Little Things said...

Ah, a slippery slope indeed.

I'd like, for a moment, to detour to the idea that people take their children to church to give the children values. Values don't come from attending church once a week (or thrice a week). Values come from the little moments in life where we're faced with choices, and guidance from parents and others at those times. Values come from open discussions and debates, and from looking at the hard choices and trying to find the best option.

I'm rather bored with the idea that some folks have that attending church is the only way to instill values in your children (not that I think you believe this, Mimi) - there are daily opportunities to teach your children the difference between right and wrong, and you needn't enter a church to find the right answers.

As to the veggie thing, we all do what we think is best. Learning to keep our mothers from going insane while we do what we want is one of the toughest challenges a parent faces.