How We Teach Children a Separate Morality for Food Animals

A scene from the movie Charlotte's Web

A scene from the movie Charlotte’s Web

This revised post was published in its original form in June of 2011.

In an eye-opening new research paper called The Conceptual Separation of Food and Animals in Childhood, University of Bristol researchers Kate Stewart and Matthew Cole explore how we, as a society, teach our children a separate morality for food animals that intercepts a child’s natural tendency to protect and empathize with all animals. As the paper points out, when we explain to children for the first time where meat comes from, their first reaction is often revulsion. Parents confront this moral quandary by explaining to children why farm animals have a different role in our lives than other animals.

These family traditions, along with current pop culture and food advertising influences, “contribute to a food socialization process whereby children learn to conceptually distance the animals they eat from those with whom they have an emotional bond or for who they feel ethically responsible.”1 Or, in other words, children learn what animals to love and which to eat, according to accepted social norms.

But this rigid moral framework doesn’t make sense to all children. One Free from Harm member recently wrote to us describing a terrifying childhood experience: ”When I was very young a pet pig who adopted me was taken to the slaughterhouse. It was humanely treated but it was stunned, decapitated and hung up by its legs and hacked apart length ways. This pig was my best friend, it was entrusted to me and I felt I had betrayed him. I was too young to realize that my parents would not do the same to me or my brother, so distrust, fears and nightmares were a regular occurrence for me.”2

Through popular film and literature narratives and advertising, Stewart and Cole delve deep into how we define this role that farm animals should play in our children’s lives and also how we differentiate them from the roles of the other two major categories of animals: wildlife and pets. The Lion King, Babe, Charlotte’s Web, Chicken Run and Bambi are some of the iconic movie references the authors tackle, carefully decoding their intricate moral constructs to reveal their powerful messages to our children. Equally fascinating is how these Hollywood film messages carry through to fast food industry advertising and product offerings to children. So the moral narrative flows from movie plot to Happy Meal, chock full of wildlife animal toys, nuggets and mini burgers. “Farmed animals, invisible and unmentioned as they are in literature and film, lay invisible and unmentioned in the meal box in burger or nugget form.”3

In Stewart and Cole’s analysis, the most consistent messages that run through the narratives of children’s film, literature and advertising are:

  • Farm animals are working animals, replaceable commodities or just absent all together, while carnivorous wild animals and pets have often highly-developed characters that “humanize” them and make us care about them.
  • A child must lose empathy for animals to become a mature adult, as if it were a rite of passage (a theme in My Friend Flicka and Jungle Book).
  • Animals are defined based on their relative utility to humans. “Animals are saved if they transcend their species-being, specifically if they attain human-like qualities”4 (such transcendence occurs to the protagonists in Babe, Chicken Run and Happy Feet, thus saving them from their natural fate as prey)
  • Farm animals are objects or elements of production to which we should not attribute individual characteristics, as we do with our pets. Evidence of this objectification can be seen in how advertisers and filmmakers refer to various types of meat as pork or hamburger, rather than by the name of the animal.
  • The mythical (non-scientific) notion that humans are at the top of the food chain, and therefore. our eating of animals lower than us is part of the circle of life (a theme central to The Lion King). In the Lion King, herbivorous animals have no names, no voices, no signs of intelligence, and are void of individual traits, while the lions (being carnivores at the top of the food chain) have rich and complex characters. “The Lion King depicts a rigid and immutable hierarchical pattern of social relations, and meat-eating as not only natural, but a scared duty to the ‘circle of life.’”5

But perhaps most importantly, Stewart and Cole’s research lays bare the very assumptions that we have been indoctrinated with for generations about food animals. And the fact that we are living in an age where these assumptions are being challenged and unraveled means that the moral compass could be showing us a new path to our understanding of food, animals and ourselves. The times we live in demand this.

1 Stewart and Cole, The Conceptual Separation of Food and Animals in Childhood, 2011

2 A Free from Harm member who wishes to remain anonymous

3, 4, 5 Stewart and Cole, The Conceptual Separation of Food and Animals in Childhood, 2011

A special thank you to www.humanespot.org for bringing this paper to our attention.

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