As animal advocates work to spread the message of compassionate living worldwide, one of the most ideal advantages we have is that an essential and vast population is both naturally empathetic and ready for our outreach. Not all children are naturally kind and generous, of course: spend even a few minutes at a play establishment and you will see examples of selfishness and perhaps even tyranny, but empathy, the ability to identify with and understand another, is something that most can easily access.
With their minds unskilled at building convoluted rationalizations to justify cruelty and naturally tuned in to those who are vulnerable, children are born allies for the animals. Not only are they effective, often touching, messengers of compassionate living, it is clear that the kindhearted children of today are the conscious and altruistic adults of tomorrow. Also, as industries are marketing their products to younger and younger demographics, trying to build brand loyalty from early childhood on, we cannot ignore their role as consumers, and that they are also going to be raising future generations, too, helping to shape their habits, minds, and hearts. It is common sense that it is very much worth our time and energy to be helping to plant seeds of kindness and mindfulness within today’s young people.
Whether we are parents or not, intend to have children or remain happily without children, we can have a powerful influence on their lives and they in turn can deeply influence their peers. How do we tap into this incredible natural resource? We can foster compassion with both small and ambitious efforts. By being committed to using creative, simple, thoughtful and child-directed approaches that embrace and respect individual differences, we can nurture magnanimous spirits and pave the path toward a more compassionate future.
If you can make a generous time commitment, consider starting or becoming active with an existing Roots and Shoots chapter. Roots and Shoots, which is an international non-profit with chapters in more than one hundred countries, was founded by the renowned primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall and aims to empower youth to think globally through local community service, creating positive change for humanity, the animals and the environment with their work. Identifying and tackling ecological problems in one’s own communities is a frequent focus of local chapters. Once children are guided to start thinking about how their choices affect their communities and the larger world around them, they start to become personally empowered to make a positive difference. As Dr. Goodall told Reuters at the 20th anniversary of the founding of the first chapter in Tanzania, “What they eat, what they wear, how they get from A to B, how they interact with people, animals, the environment. You start going off on all sorts of fascinating trails when you think about life in those terms.”
Those parents seeking less structure might want to consider creating a vegan family network of your own. My friend and I started the Chicago Vegan Family Network in 2004 because we wanted support from other parents with similar values and vegan peers for our children. Since then, we have had a potluck every month, impromptu get-togethers, and annual camping trips as well as a trip every year to an animal sanctuary where we volunteer for the day. Our children can celebrate holidays and birthdays together without changing a thing, which is very positive shared experience for them. We have children raging from newborn to teen as part of CVFN now, and the older ones serve as role models and mentors for the younger ones. On a fundamental level, too, the children know that even if they might be the only vegans in their schools, they are not alone. As more and more people live far away from their biological families, it’s become more vital that we create bonds where we live. This sense of belonging to a larger supportive community is balm to a child’s burgeoning spirit, making them feel more comfortable with their differences and confident about giving voice to their values.
If you volunteer at your local shelter, consider asking if they are willing to have you organize a club for children there. With the proper supervision, children can groom and socialize appropriate cats and dogs, fold towels, help to scoop litter boxes and fill water bowls, for example. They can also raise money to donate to local shelters through vegan bake sales, fundraisers or even out of their own allowance. On a smaller level, consider “adopting” a shelter with one or two children and just going on in a regular basis to volunteer.
In our own back yards (or back porches), quite literally, there are myriad opportunities to nurture compassionate consideration. Here are just a few things children can help with: keeping birdbaths and feeders full year-round; planting beneficial plants for bees; putting decals on windows to prevent bird collisions; children can even help to build and install a bat houseto provide a habitat for these fascinating creatures. With our support, these actions, whether they are simple daily habits or larger projects, help to foster within children a sense of stewardship toward other animals and empower them to be guided by an empathetic compass.
Instead of reinforcing the notion that animals exist to entertain us, encourage children to think critically and humanely about animals in confinement and performance industries, whether they are in aquariums, zoos, petting zoos or circuses. When presented with the unvarnished truth, children can understand on a fundamental level the inherent cruelty of being restrained, confined and forcibly controlled. Instead of supporting these exploitative industries, consider day trips to natural areas in your area, saving up to travel somewhere with an unfamiliar ecosystem, visiting a farmed animal sanctuary, researching how to protect natural habitats of different animals and coming up with ways to raise awareness, watching films and reading books that challenge them see animals in new ways. (Check out VegBooks.org for lots of reviews and suggestions.
On a very basic but meaningful level, we embolden children if they observe us making conscious, kind choices and speaking up for others. Keep the dialogue open so children are not afraid to ask questions, let them see you chose thoughtfulness over cruelty, make sure they see you speaking up with courage for animals if you see them being harassed or harmed. If we want to create an influence that can last a lifetime, we need to be aware of all the small and large actions we take.
I believe that children should be a primary focus if we are serious about using our influence to reduce exploitation and violence. I am talking about raising a generation of people who are critical thinkers and compassionate, engaged champions for the animals and the earth. Today, right now, it is in our immediate sphere of influence to create a bold worldview that is inclusive, empathetic and kind to all. This will create a powerful ripple effect that will result in real victories. We must acknowledge that before animals can benefit from this ripple effect, we are the ones who must make the waves. Children may be the greatest largely underutilized, untapped source of animal advocacy. This doesn’t have to be so.