VWPA Advice #019: Talking to Students About Veganism

“Hey Mr. Brian, Why Don’t You Eat Meat!?”

I work in several schools as an occupational therapist. Food comes up often in conversation and it’s common for a student I work with to find out I’m vegan. I’m not sure how I should talk to my kids about my veganism, given that it’s happening in a workplace environment.

When speaking with adults, I know what to say, but talking to someone else’s kids are different. I don’t want to upset their parents, or possibly get in trouble with the school’s administration. How do I handle these conversations?

– Mr. Brian

Nichole

Talking to kids that aren’t yours is always a tricky situation. On one hand, I believe telling kids the truth is always the best course of action. Children are smarter than we give them credit for, and they deserve to know how things really are so they can start learning how to make informed decisions for themselves. They deserve the freedom to ask questions about the world around them, and to have those questions answered honestly by people they trust.

However, it is a very fine line between being honest and pissing off a parent. This is true for relatives, like nieces and nephews, or kids of friends, but gets even stickier when it’s children in the workplace. Pissing off your sister or friend is one thing, pissing off an influential parent at a private school is yet another.

I have a lot of friends who are teachers, and they are very honest withe their students, encouraging critical thinking in their classrooms and introducing ALL matter of information – not just vegan information, but facts about pollution, climate change, the harms of processed food, etc. – into their curriculum. This has worked out well for my friends who have been able to inspire and connect with kids in a wide range of ages.

Your situation is a bit different. You don’t have the same type of ongoing relationship with the kids, in the sense that you are not already in a “teacher” role. I think it’s easier to disseminate controversial information when disseminating information is already a key part of your job.

So for you, I recommend being truthful, but don’t volunteer too much information. You don’t want to lie to the kids you speak with, but giving them too much information when they don’t have the same kind of access to you that they would to a teacher could blow up in your face, mostly because in order to get further answers, they’ll have to either ask their teacher or their parents. You don’t have to shy away from their curiosity completely, but dropping truth bombs all over them and then not seeing them again for a week or two would not be wise.

Example:

Student: “Mr. Brian, do you LOVE hamburgers?! I LOVE hamburgers! My mom made the BEST hamburgers last night!”
Mr. Brian: “I love veggie burgers, but I don’t eat hamburgers anymore.”
Student: “Why?”
Mr. Brian: “I learned about animals and how food effects the environment, so I made the decision to stop eating them.”
Student: “Oh. So you’re a vegetarian?”
Mr. Brian: “Vegan, actually! That’s like a really strict vegetarian. I love being vegan.”
Student: “I love animals. I really like hamburgers.”
Mr. Brian: “I love animals, too. Animals are the best!”

The student may have additional questions, but for most younger kids, this will be enough. If you are talking to an older student, like a high school student, they probably will have typical questions that you get from adults, too: do you miss anything? What do you eat? Is it hard? Just answer these questions honestly. If the student presses you for more information about a particular topic, say for instance factory farming’s impact on the environment, point them towards a website or documentary that addresses their question. That way, you can help spread the knowledge without necessarily being the source, and you’re teaching them to go seek their own answers and to form their own opinions, which is always a good thing.

With kids, conversion should not be the mission. You might be the first vegan they’ve ever met (although I hear that kids are much more familiar with vegans and veganism nowadays, so maybe not!), so just be approachable and friendly, and remember your primary role in their lives is one of trusted specialist. Keep your responses short, honest statements. While I love asking kids questions back to encourage them to form their own opinions, it would not be appropriate in your professional situation. Answer direct questions with statements and don’t volunteer additional information.

Consider that you are a good role model for being different, not just for being vegan. Kids finding out that you are different and seeing that you are comfortable and happy being different can be a beautiful lesson all in it’s own.

Callie

Hmm in my humble (and not at all an expert on children) opinion, I think a good course of action would probably be to keep things short and simple. If they ask what you are eating, I think it is perfectly fine to tell them. Telling them what you eating could expose them to different foods they haven’t heard of before and curiosity is a great thing to encourage in young minds! I think its also great to say how much you like your food (if you do lol), heck build some excitement for veggies early on! Now if they ask questions like “Do you like ___”, “Why don’t you eat ___” etc. I would feel out the situation before deciding on an answer. I think in most cases it is probably fine to nicely say “because I don’t want eat animals” but since this response is a little more risky I would really try to assess each situation before using this answer. Is this an appropriate time, situation or child to say this to? Will this really upset this kid? I know I’m not saying anything you don’t already know :), anyone who works with kids uses these same quick decisioning skills ALL THE TIME, so just use your best judgment. I will say though, that kids are our future and it can’t hurt to gently plant some seeds (if appropriate) that could help them make, or at least be open to, different decisions when they get older.

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