Last week, actor Joaquin Phoenix gave an interview with the Sunday Times. During the conversation, he spoke of his nine-month-old son River. Phoenix said that he would expose the boy to the truth about animal products and the misery they inflict. His son would know that a “happy meal” is anything but. Controversially, Phoenix added that he would not “force” his son to be vegan, though he hoped he would be. Both the question and his answer were provocative, and this column will explore why.
What does “force” mean?
When a person asks a vegan parent or prospective parent whether the latter will “force” her children to be vegan, the question is, perhaps inadvertently, confrontational. Parents, after all, are always “forcing” their ideologies upon their children, even when the programming copies that of the majority. Consider the questions a vegan parent might ask his nonvegan counterpart: “Will you force your children to eat products that come out of a slaughterhouse?,” “Will you lie to your children about how their meal came into existence?,” and “Will you keep from your kids the truth that cows, like all mammals, make milk because they have given birth to a baby who desperately wants to nurse?”
Ethical vegans, upon hearing the “force” question, must hold their tongues and not give offense, even as they perceive nonvegan parents as brainwashing their children to believe that it is “normal, natural, and necessary,” in the words of Melanie Joy, to consume the flesh and hormonal secretions of sentient animals. To have to contend with a question about “forcing” nonviolence and healthful food choices on a child can feel a bit like having to explain to the school bully’s mom why on earth you force your child to keep his hands to himself when he could be beating up his classmates. Joaquin Phoenix has almost certainly heard this annoying question before and will likely hear it again before his baby is old enough to talk.
Why did Phoenix say no?
If the question is as inane as I suggest above, then why did Joaquin Phoenix say that he would not force his son to be vegan? Why didn’t he say that just as every good parent forces her children to respect the rights of other humans, Phoenix would similarly “force” his son to respect the rights of other animals as well? Why did he give up this teaching opportunity in favor of an uncharacteristically passive claim that he would not push veganism on his son?
His response generated a heated debate among vegan activists, some of whom believed that the answer implied that animal rights are less important to Phoenix than human rights, respect for which he and other parents would readily “force” on their children.
I believe Phoenix might have had something very different in mind when he said he wouldn’t force his son to be vegan. I think he might have meant that in raising his son, Phoenix would be mindful of the fact that only a very small minority of the population is vegan. If you punish your child for beating up another child, you will be reinforcing a lesson that your child will learn at school from teachers and perhaps (one hopes) other classmates as well. As Judith Rich Harris argued persuasively in The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do, it is a child’s peer group rather than her parents that have the greatest influence on the child’s behavior. Just consider the fact that a child of immigrants learns to talk from her parents but will soon have the accents of her classmates; if this were not so, I would have a heavy Eastern European accent. Though virtually every vegan parent wants her children to be vegan too, it is unfortunately quite likely that the child will eventually decide to eat the way that all the other children do.
Knowing that this is true, a vegan parent could react in different ways. She might be very forceful about requiring her child to be vegan “so long as you live under this roof and spend my money.” On the other hand, she or he might take a lighter touch, in the hopes of avoiding a complete rebellion. Unlike lessons about not bullying or about treating other people with respect, veganism will make the child different from other children, and a heavy-handed approach could turn him off and drive him into the arms of his happy-meal-eating classmates and friends.
Ideally, vegan parents will find other vegans with children with whom they can socialize, giving kids a positive peer group to emulate. But there are few all-vegan schools in the United States, and until there are many, vegan parents may well view their job as persuading rather than “forcing” their children to be vegan. Different parents approach the job differently. Joaquin Phoenix, the narrator of the 2005 animal rights film “Earthlings,” said the following and more at the Oscars in 2020 (where he won Best Actor for “Joker”): “We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and when she gives birth, we steal her baby even though her cries [of] anguish are unmistakable and then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.” He deserves the benefit of the doubt, I think. He is plainly not someone who pulls his punches.
When one of my daughters was in grade school, her teachers reached out to me and my husband and asked us to come in to talk about her. We met with the teachers, and they told us that our daughter had gone into a classmate’s cubby and stolen a box of Cheez-Its. I was not worried about the stealing—it seemed extremely unlikely that my daughter would grow up to be a thief. She was six or seven years old. What did worry me was the fact that she was eating non-vegan food. Our family had been vegan for three years already, and I felt discouraged.
My kids attended a Montessori school where the teachers were very respectful of our family’s veganism and always offered alternatives to whatever food they distributed. And yet one of the teachers looked at me searchingly and said, “Do you think maybe she is missing out on some nutrient and that’s why she stole the food?” I took a deep breath before responding, “I don’t think so. It was Cheez-Its.” What I felt like saying but did not say was, “you’re probably right; fruits and vegetables and beans and grains are so nutrient-poor; we really should be feeding her more of what the nutritional powerhouse Cheez-Its has to offer.” The question irritated me because it gave us a tiny glimpse into what our children’s teachers really thought about our veganism. The self-described “Peace School” believed we were harming our children by depriving them of the nutrients on offer at the most violent place on earth, the slaughterhouse.
When we came home after the meeting, we planned our coming discussion with our daughter. We would not be angry (and that was easy because we weren’t angry, not at her). We would just express curiosity about her decision to take food that wasn’t hers. It wasn’t even clear that she had eaten any crackers. She has always enjoyed saving things for later (also known as hoarding). When we talked to her, we made it clear that she was not going to be punished and we did not think she was bad. We were just confused. She shrugged when we asked why she had taken the crackers. We eventually gave up.
I suppose we did not “force” her to be vegan in that meeting. We could have punished her in some age-appropriate way or told her how very disappointed we were. But I don’t think any of that would have helped inspire her to remain vegan. Whether we like it or not, veganism is voluntary and unusual at the moment. If we had acted as though we had the power to force our child to be vegan, then I imagine they would have taken every opportunity to resist our strictures, and the opportunities would have been plentiful.
Allowing her to make her own decisions with the information that we shared about what happens to the animals whom people eat seemed more likely to translate into a confident vegan child. And at least so far, she and her sister remain vegan. They do it in their own way (i.e., they would never write a column like this one), and that is as it should be. My hope is that my girls will be setting a beautiful example of kindness towards other animals long after I have left this earth, when I can no longer force anyone to do anything.