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Spreading the Word: Is There a Time and a Place?
I am an art therapist and primary clinician who just started a job at a residential home for physically and sexually abused girls, ages five through twelve, who have undergone such trauma that their association with their parents has been legally terminated. I am vegan. As a way to develop trusting relationships with the girls I will occasionally be joining them and the staff for dinner or picnics. It is important that I participate so that I am not just seen as the "therapist" with whom they may or may not want to talk to about their trauma in her office once a week.
While I have no problem bringing my own vegan meals to the dinners or outings, I am unsure how to explain to this young population my veganism and my choice not to eat the same food they are eating. My decision to be vegan is based on the concern for the way animals are treated in modern farming practices, and I choose not to put my money into that industry. I could discuss how animals are abused and explain how that animal makes its way to their plates, but somehow this seems like more information than this population can bear considering their OWN abuse histories. (Although on some level, it is because of their abuse that they would most likely identify with the hell these animals go through.) However, they have no alternative when it comes to what is put on their plates, as their menu is designed by the "system." (Yes, I have some ideas as to how to change the system, but that's after I become indispensable to it!) Further, because of the trauma, particularly sexual, a number of them have trouble digesting food and suffer from eating disorders. Do I give these traumatized girls the information I hold in an effort to honestly answer the questions that no doubt will come up when I pull out my tempeh sandwich as they eat their chicken cutlets? Or perhaps I should give the old "I do it for health reasons" line? What are your thoughts on this?
For educational reasons, I'm tempted to go with telling the truth, but if I do I am stumped how to word this simply and in a way that children already in distress can hear without hurting themselves further in matters related to food.
Clinically, it would probably be best to keep the focus off myself and my choices and use the "for my health" line. It is difficult to pass up the opportunity to educate others about veganism, but I want to do what is best for these girls. Any suggestions?
In every circumstance, vegans must determine how to do the most good and the least harm. Our responses to various dilemmas will differ depending on the specifics of each situation. In your work environment and with your clients, you must weigh what will be most beneficial in the long run. Will what you tell the children have any negative repercussions on their current fragile health and overall healing process? If they have no choice in their own food options, will arousing their awareness and possibly making them feel guilty about eating animals serve any useful purpose? Could doing so exacerbate current or potential eating disorders? Would it feed into their already low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness?
When children ask questions, they do not always want in-depth, detailed answers. Sometimes a simple, "This is what I prefer" is all they are seeking and works better than a more complicated response. I don't think you should betray your true motivations by saying you are vegan for health reasons. It's disingenuous. In fact, I'm not sure you need to give a "reason" at all. By stating that this simply is your preference, you are being truthful -- you just aren't elaborating. Indeed, in these circumstances, elaborating would serve no purpose other than to be self-serving.
Sometimes children will want a little more than that. They may ask, "Why? Don't you like meat?" How you respond will depend on the child asking the question. In some instances, saying, "Yes, I like the taste of meat, but I prefer not to eat animals," might work. At other times, "I just enjoy these foods better," might be preferable. Perhaps you could rehearse a few alternative lines just to be prepared.
Of course, your instincts are right in that the focus during your job should be on the children and not yourself. But children are curious and sharing a little bit of something personal can make them feel closer to you. Nevertheless, it's a fine line between what is a personal revelation for the purpose of developing a relationship and what can feel like a moral imperative or imposition that could potentially undermine their therapeutic progress.
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