Did you ever ask what you wanted for your children?
My husband and I had a surprisingly short list: We wanted them to be big readers, proficient at math, and we wanted them to be kind. The last was most important. Like all parents, we modeled kindness as best we could. (I failed, it seemed, mostly when I was rushed. Rushing turned me from a warm, loving, funny mom into a crazed Cruella De Vil. Sigh.)
Still, what we didn’t realize was that raising our two kids vegetarian put kindness and compassion into daily practice.
This is an important part of the power of both ahisma, the first of the niyamas and the second and forth rule of the Buddhist eightfold path. It is the transformational and spiritual aspect of vegetarianism. Animals became conduits for developing compassion, especially in children.
“We don’t eat meat because we don’t want animals to suffer or be killed.” This literally instills a deep reverence for life from the get go. The powerful ethic transfers to people, to all of life.
There isn’t a child alive who isn’t receptive to this message. Kids often get it without their parents’ approval. One time, my son Jonpaul was talking to another little boy Damian, age six, who we met in the park. They were talking in animated tones about their dogs. Damian announced, “I love all animals.”
“I do too,” Jonpaul said, hugging our large newfie Calypso. “I love them so much, we don’t eat them. We’re vegetarians.”
Damian’s face lit up with recognition. “Me too! I only eat the meat that doesn’t come from animals.”
Jonpaul turned to me with confusion. Stricken, Damian’s mother shook her head, pleading for our silence. I suggested the boys throw the ball for our dogs. Distracted, once out of ear shot, Damian’s mother explained that they had to lie to Damian to get him to eat meat.
“Damian’s kindness will win this one eventually,” I predicted. “I suspect you’re facing a losing battle.”
It seemed most of Jaime and Jonpaul’s friend became vegetarians, sometimes bringing along whole families. Good ideas tend to spread like that. The Dalai Lama always said the solution to every problem is education and once children are informed, they happily make good choices.
Vegetarianism sometimes seems like the spark to consciousness regarding all things and it goes deeper, too. Vegetarianism teaches children that what they do, matters; that what they do affects the world. This is mindfulness at its best, and kindness is born here.
What the animal is thinking also became a game in our family.
“Mom, what’s the cat thinking?”
I’d look over and see the cat on the cabinet, stalking the dog. I’d say, “He’s thinking, ‘The darn dog’s not that big. I could take him. I know I could take him!’”
A child’s growing understanding of animals provides continuous lessons of the wider world. I remember Jonpaul being invited to a friend’s birthday party at Sea World. “You can’t go there, sweetie.”
I painted the picture for him.
“It’s just not right, sweetie. They steal animals from the wild, or raise animals in captivity that should be free. All the animals probably suffer there, but especially the Orcas.Just imagine what it’s like being an Orca at Sea World. Imagine, you are the earth’s most powerful predator, a giant being who lives free in the boundless blue ocean. You swim over a hundred miles a day with your family. Now, suddenly, someone steals you from the ocean that is your world. You lose your family. They stick you in a swimming pool and make you preform tricks for food. How do you think the Orca feels?”
We spent the next hour finding our more about wild Orca’s and then compared it to their lives in captivity.
Jonpaul understood. What’s more, when he shared his concerns with his friend and his parents, they all had a change of heart. The party was moved to the beach and included their first surf lesson. The boys had a blast. Compassion follows when you teach children to see the world through an animal’s eyes.
So much so, my kids often became my teacher. One time, my daughter Jaime and I were walking the dogs at night and our basset hound caught a rabbit. Just how this happened is one of the great mysteries of our lives; Rosy Basset was old, slow, and blind. The rabbit appeared dead, but we couldn’t tell for sure. My plan was simple (read convenient):
“Let’s leave the rabbit in the greenbelt for the crows to eat.” Jaime looked at me, horrified. She insisted we drive a half hour to the emergency vet. She literally gave me no choice; I believe she would have disowned me on the spot.
Once there, I suddenly thought of the vet bill—probably hundreds of dollars for our comatose friend’s uncertain recovery. “Let’s just leave the little guy in the box outside, so we don’t get stuck with the bill.”
“Mom!” Again, my daughter was appalled at my suggestion.
“Someone’s bound to discover him—“
“We can’t do that, Mom! It wouldn’t be right!” She insisted we take responsibility. “Mom, Rosy did this; she is our dog. It is our responsibility.”
We marched inside, box in hand. We still laugh at the happy ending: Not only did the vet treat wild animals for free, but the rabbit made a full recovery and our city’s animal control came the next day to pick up the rabbit and bring him back to his home.
Animals and kids—the gift that keeps on giving.
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Editor: Dana Gornall
Photo Credit: Pixoto