I work with young children in a school which honors the image of the child as competent, capable and actively engaged in exploring materials, ideas and relationships and in constructing meaning within a social setting. Young children have an inherent need to make sense of their world. My role as a teacher is to provide the space –the physical, emotional and cognitive environment– and time for their explorations, investigations and forming of theories. After engaging in small group/project work my group of seven five year-olds come together for a reflection meeting. Sometimes some pretty revealing discussions ensue.
At the end of November, one of the girls, Jamie [names have been changed] and I explored different shades of blue that could be used for an ocean background for a sign for our class, “The Dolphins.” At the reflection meeting I asked, “Why does the ocean get darker the deeper it goes?” Jamie said, “The sun is too high and the bottom of the ocean’s too low.”
Another girl, Lisa, replied, “The sun doesn’t want to go down in the water. It’s job is to be in the sky all day.”
The next day I reminded the group of Lisa’s comment and then I asked, “What job does the ocean have?”
Jamie: To be with the fish so they can survive.
Elaine: To sail the boats and keep the fish alive.
Me: What is the job of a fish?
Jamie: To be eaten.
Mark: Because when fish come out of the water on a fishing pole, seagulls can eat them.
That’s the only job of a fish? To be eaten? You know what? It’s very sad but some people eat dolphins. Is the job of a dolphin to be eaten?
Elaine: Not all animals get eaten a lot.
Mark: Well, shrimp get eaten.
Jamie: Not all animals get eaten.
Elaine: I know all about sea animals — because I eat a lot of sea food.
Jamie: Not all animals get eaten, ’cause pets don’t get eaten.
Pets don’t get eaten. Why don’t pets get eaten?
Jamie: ‘Cause pets are people’s pets.
If someone had a chicken as a pet, would you eat that chicken?
[several children respond that they would]
I once had a chicken as a pet. Or what about a pig that is a pet?
Mark: You could eat that.
I would never eat my pet. I don’t call them pets, anyway, I call them companions. I have a cat who is my companion and I’m my cat’s guardian. Would you eat your cat?
Mark: [laughs] Yes.
I’m sorry to hear that. So, is an animal’s job to be eaten? Jamie was saying that some animals, that’s not their job to be eaten. But some it is? What if you had a chicken as a pet?
Mark: You don’t eat the real chicken, but after it lays all it’s eggs and dies, then you could eat it.
So, you have to wait for it to die on it’s own?
Mark: But when a cat dies, you can’t eat it because a cat doesn’t have real protein in it like a pig.
Some people eat cats. Some people eat dogs.
Max: That’s . . . not . . . good! One time I catched a fish and one pelican swooped down and ate it from the fish pole.
What if you had a fish that was a pet?
Mark: You can eat it when it’s dead!
Very interesting post. It’s amazing how children are taught from an early age to compartmentalize animals into animals we love, animals we eat and animals we conserve. I know that speaking about veganism to your students could possibly jeopardize your job as a school teacher, but you have a very unintimidating approach that I think otherwise reluctant parents would understand. This post reminded me of how I used to think as a child, and how caring for some animals and eating others seemed to make sense at that age. I only wish that someone would have told me about veganism at that age.
And some children grow up, or at least I did, experiencing a cognitive dissonance that comes with being taught to love the kitty and eat the piggy –and struggling to make sense of it all. Of course this must be viewed in the context of growing up in a culture of carnism which makes eating animals seem perfectly natural and normal.
The process of constructing meaning is vital in the cognitive life of the young child and this is where the adult can play an important role in scaffolding her learning, guiding her development through focused questions which challenge the child to reflect upon her ideas and assumptions in order to reach a higher level of understanding or to refine and clarify her theories.
I try to take the approach exemplified in the post in any situation where a child makes a statement that reflects a nascent theory about the way things are — be it the “job” of animals or the reasons that leaves change color. I am not trying to guide him to a correct answer but rather to open up a discussion that gets all of the children in the group sharing ideas, and often being confronted with opposing ideas and therefor having to revise their theories to accommodate new information.
That being said, I do have to admit that, even though I did not initiate the discussion about eating animals, when it emerged I was happy for a chance to broach a subject which is crucial to me — and I had to remind myself to guide the discussion rather than impose my beliefs (though, as you can see, I did allow my feelings to be voiced).
I did have some mixed feelings in bringing up the stuff about people killing dolphins, eating dogs and cats, etc. But I do believe that, given an approach that does not intimidate and language that is age appropriate, five year olds are able to handle such information — in fact I think young children are eager to explore topics that have to do with life and death, the stuff that really matters, that is often made taboo by adults. Children have a need and a right to explore these things within an emotionally safe environment.
Anyway, thank you, VR, for your kind words and especially for your excellent blog which I urge others to check out. We need a multitude of strong, clear vegan voices like yours out there!