I've posted before about butchering our animals. We butchered quite recently. I've posted about my feelings on meat eating in general, and also about eating our own animals (Too Many Roos, and Musings on Meat (WARNING - GRAPHIC PICS)). The question has come up (to put it mildly) as to how we should treat this issue as regards the kids?
Friday, August 13, 2010
My husband is from Mexico, and his family raised chickens, ducks, and pigs for meat. Homero cannot remember a time when he wasn't aware that the family animals were killed and eaten. But he does remember a specific occasion, when he was about eight years old, that his mother was preparing for a fairly large party, a party that required the demise of more than a few chickens. Up until that point, his job had been to catch chickens and bring them to his mother, who would stretch their necks. This time, when he brought her a chicken, she already had one in her own hands and said "Andale, hijo! Matalo!" Which means, "buck up, kiddo, and kill it already!" That was his introduction to killing chickens with his own hands. He doesn't remember this incident as traumatic, but the fact that he does remember it clearly shows it made a serious impression.
Homero also told me the story of his younger brother's "pet" duck. Now, Mexicans don't have farm animals as pets. In fact, they barely have pets at all. Seriously. I know there are a few here and there, but I feel totally confident in saying that in general, dogs are guard animals; cats are rat-catchers; burros are pack animals; and everything else is food. Little brother's duck was never ever going to live out it's life as a pet. Little brother was aware of that. But on the awful day that the duck appeared on the table, little brother said he wasn't going to eat any and went and sat in his room. Now understand, in my husband's family when they were children, meat was a treat eaten once a week or less. Little brother sat up in his room fuming for several minutes before his stomach won over his conscience, and then came down and ate the duck with tears streaming down his face.
When this story was told to me, everyone laughed uproariously, including little brother (now thirty-some years old.). I don't doubt for a second that little brother had strong negative emotions at the time. But in that world, the death of animals for food, including those who had been known by name, was simply a given fact of life, not something in the least open to debate. All children had to confront the facts of life; it was understood to be unpleasant, but not traumatic in any lasting way. Children, like little brother, who had trouble were teased and cajoled until they got used to it.
In my own family, there is a famous incident that all three of us kids remember vividly - the day Dad killed the rooster. We normally didn't eat any of our animals for food. I think mom put the kibosh on that idea. But we had a rooster who was vicious and attacked us kids, so Dad decided to kill it. He further decided that all three of us children had to line up and watch as he laid it on the chopping block and chopped off its head.
I remember the bright blood fountaining out of the stump. I remember the headless body flopping about. I remember being terribly excited and also kind of scared. I don't remember much after the body stopped flopping. Did he cook it? Did we eat it? Can't remember. As an adult, I don't think Dad made the right decision, but I understand why he did what he did. I do not feel traumatized, though I was the oldest child (maybe seven?) and it's possible my younger siblings received a more severe and lasting shock than I did.
Among the people I know who raise their own animals for food, there is a wide range of opinion on when and how to introduce children to the reality. Should they be totally shielded even from the knowledge that meat comes from dead animals? Should they know the generalities but be shielded from the process of killing and butchering? Should they be fully included in the whole process, from raising the animal to eating it? And what ages are appropriate for different levels of involvement?
I think our position is probably clear to anyone who reads this blog - we hide nothing from our children, but neither do we force their participation. Our children are currently five and a half, almost seven, and sixteen. The sixteen year old is a vegetarian. She has tried many different ways of eating ethically, including killing a chicken herself with her own hands. After much thought and serious consideration, she has decided not to eat meat. That's absolutely fine with me and I respect her immensely for doing the necessary work to arrive at her decision. Our smaller children know that we eat our own animals, and they were peripherally present when we butchered - that is, they were running around doing their own thing and not paying a whole lot of attention but if they had wanted to stop and watch they would have been allowed to. C., our friend who did most of the work, has a seven year old son who physically assisted him with the actual killing of the animal. Homero was impressed and proud of the boy, and said something to the effect that someday his children would be helping him.
So far, our smaller children don't have the mental or moral maturity to evaluate killing and eating the way they will one day have to. When that day comes, we will try to help them through it compassionately and factually, and explain why we eat the way we do, according to their ability to understand. Until that day, we want their default position to be that raising, killing, and eating animals in a natural, healthy way is absolutely normal, and that there is nothing frightening or repugnant about it.
Obviously, there are many ways to approach these issues. I'm curious as to how your family does it. If you raise and butcher your own meat, would you please take a moment and let me know how you do/did handle introducing your children to it?