Alejandra Tumble, 10, doesn't eat meat and really doesn't like ham. But, her reasons for not eating meat might surprise you. Alejandra talks at length about her choice not to eat meat, and how strange it seems to her that a pig can be processed into a thin slice of pink meat. She thinks it's wrong--not for everyone, but at least for her.
HGSE Doctoral Student Karen Hussar's research examines children aged 6–10 who have become vegetarians. As with Alejandra, for most children Hussar studied, the decision has more to do with morals than with personal choice. This is contrary to the theories of famed psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Jean Piaget--both pioneers in moral development--that children aren't capable of making independent moral decisions at this age.
"It's exciting to see how relatively autonomous and independently-minded these children are," says Thomas Professor Paul Harris, who advised Hussar throughout the research. "This means that children are being influenced by other children and going against the tide in their own homes, which are meat-eating homes. We don't know much about how children make moral decisions at such a young age. I think this is a good pioneering effort."
Hussar, who began her study on vegetarians on the recommendation of Harris, says that vegetarian children are the perfect subjects for research about moral development.
"When you talk to kids about bullying or teasing, they all know the right answers and can say it's wrong," Hussar says. "However, the nice thing about this population [vegetarian] of children is they don't have the prescribed answers in their heads. So, you feel you're getting real responses about morality."
Hussar's research looked at a total of 45 children--some vegetarians from meat-eating homes, some vegetarians from vegetarian homes, and some nonvegetarians--and inquired about their decisions to eat or not to eat meat through role play. In order to gauge how these children made their decisions, Hussar set up methods of questioning that provided four different stories for the children including moral, personal, meat-eating, and social. Then, Hussar compared the responses to determine how their judgments differed. Through these interviews, she discovered that many children made the choice based on moral reasons. "Their responses were more about how animals are their friends," Hussar explains. "They could've used personal reasons like, ‘I feel healthier,' or taste reasons like, ‘Bad for my taste buds--it's really chewy.'"
In one of Hussar's first studies, the vegetarians came from meat-eating homes and had made this decision entirely separate from their families. The research revealed that [nonvegetarian] children judged those who made a decision to refrain from eating meat for moral reasons more harshly than those who made personal decisions.
Even more interesting for Hussar was the discovery that all of the vegetarian children disclosed moral reasons to not eat meat, such as "I don't like the idea of killing animals," or "I love animals and I didn't want to eat them…I just wanted to be nice." The nonvegetarian children [in the study] didn't acknowledge morals at all.
More surprising was that the vegetarian children didn't judge those who chose to eat meat as being bad. "For those that come from families where they're the only non-meat eater it may be hard for them to be judgmental of the people they live with because they're their role models," Hussar says. In fact, the vegetarian children looked more harshly upon those children who had once committed to not eating meat for moral reasons and then broke that commitment.
Hussar admits that everything isn't so cut and dry. Many nonvegetarian children can recognize the moral value of not eating meat, yet do not make the choice to become vegetarian. She's eager to do more research to find out why certain children stop eating meat while others do not. "[Non-vegetarians] don't look and think this [choice] is so unusual," Hussar says. "I think [their choice to continue eating meat] has to do in part with majority. I don't think it's a case of they don't recognize moral value, but it isn't enough to turn them into vegetarians."
As Hussar works on completing her dissertation this year, she plans to continue researching vegetarian children and moral decisions. In the upcoming year, she will work with Harris in studying children who become vegetarians through the influence of their friends, as well as the moral choices that lead to vegetarianism.