Whilst I don’t specialise in child psychology, over the years I have been invited into the lives of thousands of people who share their childhood experiences with me. Undoubtedly, their experiences influence how they see themselves, others and the world. I would like to share some anecdotal experiences with you about human beings’ capacity to develop compassion, what might contribute to it and the role veganism has in extending our circle of compassion to non-human animals.
Imagine a child is born into a rural farming family. The biggest employer in the town is the local abattoir and a hunting culture exists through which boys especially are inaugurated into manhood.
A child is born into a family who recycle, vote for the Greens party, use renewable energy and are vegetarians. Animals live in the home and there is interaction with rescued chickens, ducks and rabbits.
What is the likelihood of these respective children developing compassionate towards people and animals?
We might assume (and understandably) that the child born into the farming environment would be less compassionate to farm or other animals, instead seeing them as food. Their sentient nature may be not acknowledged, nor their suffering at the hand of the industrial process. We might assume that their compassion towards people would be more limited in its range or extent. We might assume that the child in the second scenario is likely to be more compassionate towards animals and people. However, trying to predict adult behaviour from childhood experiences is not straightforward but it is true to say that parental behaviour is a powerful role model for it. What children do beyond their childhood varies, depending on later experiences, role models and influences.
In an interview with Josh Agland, Advisor to Hon Mark Pearson of the Australian Animal Justice Party, he said that he used to work in an abattoir. He said that, despite how horrific his job was, he rationalised the process and became desensitized from the reality of animal suffering. When his daughter was born, he become more attuned to his emotions and empathised with animal suffering. This resulted in a massive shift in his values and beliefs and he now works fulltime in animal social justice. A vegan client in her twenties relayed her distress about her father being a hunter and yet he would stand up to anyone who hurt the family dog.
When I interviewed Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals (2009), he told me that he started exploring the disconnect between giving children toy animals and eating them after his child was born and he gave her a fluffy toy animal. I have also witnessed a mother’s distress at her twelve-year-old son eating meat outside of the home despite being raised in a vegetarian household. This latter example indicates the power of role modelling and how peer role models often overriding parental ones. The boy in question faced huge pressure from other boys who told him that eating meat was ‘what real men do’ and in his desire to identify with them he changed his behaviour.
The process of desensitisation
Desensitisation is well documented in the psychological literature as one of the responses to extreme trauma, along with other symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For example, soldiers returning from warzones, residents having lost their homes and villages to natural disasters and physical attacks that threaten a person’s basic safety are all examples of extreme trauma. A similar desensitisation often occurs in children regarding role modelling of animal cruelty. Numerous vegan clients have told me that their recall distress at witnessing the family dog or farm animals being killed, some begging their parents to spare their lives. The response of ‘Dry your tears and man up’ is not an atypical response in some families, leaving the child with huge internal conflict. What the child does beyond that varies; some go on to abuse animals whilst others become vegans.
Several ago after rescuing a two-year old golden retriever who was regularly beaten, I reflected on why this happened to her and not the other dogs in the family. The other dogs were older, more independent cattle dogs. What was it that caused the owner to abuse her? The owner worked a manual worker in the boatyards and when the golden retriever was a year old, he suffered a stroke, rendering him paralysed on the left side of his body. Neighbours said that he changed overnight from a ‘confident and tough guy’ to an ‘angry and withdrawn’ man, filled with rage towards the Golden Retriever. The other dogs were more independent and robust and were not abused. As a psychologist with over twenty years’ experience, I hypothesise the following:
Golden retrievers are typically affectionate dogs who people say make great family pets. (For the purpose of this example, let’s hold aside any sensitivity we might hold in terms of sub-speciesism and choice of dogs for human convenience). This golden retriever was affectionate and demanded regular physical touch and engagement. What effect might this have on the man whose identity and strength had changed? I suggest that the golden retriever’s ‘neediness’ acted as a powerful mirror to him of weakness he was struggling to accept in himself. If that was the case, abusing the golden retriever was an attempt to destroy that reflection and subvert his own feelings of powerlessness.
Having worked with clients from a phenomenological-existential basis for many years and seen so many ‘tough’ people share experiences of being told that compassion and concern (particularly towards animals) are signs of weakness, this might be a valid interpretation of the man’s behaviour towards the golden retriever. Like many of my clients, perhaps his earlier experiences led him to bury his distress and when confronted with the dog’s vulnerability, he hit her in an attempt to ‘stamp’ out the reflected vulnerability?
The Importance of Teaching Compassion to Children
Ample research evidence indicates that children go to great lengths to be accepted by their caretakers. Writers like Alice Miller in The Drama of Being a Child: The Search for the True Self (2008) shows how children in order to avoid rejection, typically subvert their own feelings of fear, sadness, shame or compassion when told to ‘stop crying and not be a baby’. In extreme cases a child, denied the right to experience their own feelings, becomes confused about what they do feel or desensitised from anything that arouses emotions unacceptable to the parent. Donald Winnicott in The Child, the Family and the Outside World (1992) introduces the concept of the ‘false self’ which develops in a child denied expression of strongly felt feelings and punished by the parent for having them.
Thus where a child is taught that compassion or empathy is a sign of weakness, there is a greater probability that they will deny or bury those feelings deep in their unconscious selves. They are more likely to avoid any reactions that make them feel weak as it activates previously felt painful memories. Vegans are often bewildered at people who appear indifferent to animal cruelty and blame them for being unfeeling. The vegan can judge a person for lacking compassion without understanding that many people’s childhood experiences are deeply traumatic and their responses developed in order to avoid rejection and pain. Examples of how adults in later life reconnect with feelings of empathy and compassion is encouraging, although we can surmise that some might be equally resistant to the vulnerability of their own children as they might be to a golden retriever.
Veganism, the philosophy of the non-use and exploitation of animals is a value system, that if taught in childhood, extends the circle of compassion beyond other human beings to animals and the environment. Such a value system promotes compassion in children with the resultant hope that as adults they might walk more lightly on the earth.
Key suggestions for enhancing compassion in children
- •Allow children the right to experience their own feelings.
- Avoid shaming children for their feelings as it has a deleterious effect on the development of compassion.
- Parents who identify, label and communicate their own feelings are are powerful role models to their children that it is acceptable to have feelings.
- Helping children to experience empathy and compassion towards people and animals increases the probability of them becoming compassionate adults.
MILLER, A. (2008) The Drama of Being a Child: The Search for the True Self. UK: Little, Brown Book Group.
SAFRAN FOER (2009) Eat Animals. US: Little, Brown & Company.
WINNICOTT, D. (1992) The Child, the Family and the Outside World. UK: Perseus Publishing.
This article entitled Raising Compassionate Children was originally published in the March/April 2016 of Barefoot Vegan (Page 36). The issue focused on children and young people with the feature article by Genesis Butler, a young vegan, who is an inspiration for every young person and every parent to be inspired by how children are leading the way for a better society.
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