Ron van de Crommert lives in Seattle with his wife, Tiffany, two 11-year-old twin daughters, Elsa and Linnea, and three cats. He and his wife had been vegetarians for decades before becoming vegans and raised their daughters as vegans.

Van de Crommert taught his children it’s essential not to judge or shame other people’s dietary, clothing or other choices when talking about plant-based lifestyles. It’s more important to lead through examples, and encourage children to make their own decisions. For example, the twins have always been adamant about not wearing leather, which their parents have respected.

Many have wondered how to explore and talk as a family about the role of animals in dietary and lifestyle choices. Here’s a look at how to bring up the subject, and where to find resources for discussions about empathy.

Opening a discussion on plant-based living

Animals raised for meat production have a bigger carbon footprint, according to the USDA, due to the use of energy, housing and food. And scientists from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, have determined that phasing out animal agriculture represents “our best and most immediate chance to reverse the trajectory of climate change.”

Learning about our role in climate change regarding animals is critical, says Keith Tucker, who started one of the nation’s first plant-based hip-hop organizations and works to introduce vegan food and climate change topics to teens and youth.

“All of us are going to have to learn about climate change and do something,” Tucker says. “There are a few things we can all do. We can eat a plant-based diet, plant a tree, and learn about climate change and how eating plant-based foods affect climate change.”

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Boosting compassion

Tucker recommends trips to animal sanctuaries to foster compassion and empathy for animals. He says that sanctuaries are particularly important for people who’ve never seen animals before or only in limited environments such as zoos. “When you meet an animal at a sanctuary and those who tell passionate stories about the animals, it’s different,” he says.

Van de Crommert agrees. “We go to places like Pasado’s Safe Haven to meet animals and see how loving and compassionate they are, how similar they are to our beloved cats and dogs.”

At Pasado’s Safe Haven’s weeklong “Compassion Camps,” children ages 7-12 engage in animal interactions, art projects, games, interactive activities and expert presentations and storytelling.

“Empathy is fundamental to driving behavior change because it allows us to acknowledge the perspectives of another,” whether human or nonhuman, says Brenna Anderst, Education and Advocacy director. “This foundation of empathy inspires acts of compassion when we see injustice.”

So the camp introduces the “circle of compassion” concept. Everyone’s circle of compassion may look different, Anderst says, depending on experiences. Many youths never considered farmed animals part of their “circle” due to a lack of previous experiences.

Children experience “aha” empathy and compassion moments on the sanctuary campus while partaking in activities and becoming familiar with cows, chickens and pigs, and activities take place.

For example, each participant identifies an animal they formed a positive relationship with, then paints a portrait of their new animal friend by week’s end. Children also use boxes, cardboard, glue, tissue paper and other materials to create a diorama of the perfect home for an animal of their choice. “This helps kids understand that we all need homes, but, depending on who we are, it might look different,” Anderst says.

Along with understanding shared needs for shelter and food, storytelling helps connect campers and animals. “We want the campers to see a bit of themselves in the animals they meet as part of empathy building,” Anderst says. “Telling stories of survival, resilience and forgiveness through an animal’s experience is incredibly powerful and inspiring.”

Seek talk time

Look for natural opportunities to discuss or explore eating meat or using animal products. When van de Crommert’s daughters were in second grade, they begged for nail polish at a local drugstore. Their mother took the opportunity to talk about buying cruelty-free beauty and household products that are not tested on animals.

“We kept the discussions age-appropriate,” he says. “We were aware of not wanting to traumatize them.”

At the same time, the couple taught their daughters what each product label meant. Stores such as PCC use labels to indicate cruelty-free and animal-product-free items. Other parents could explain how to read labels to help empower children to make their own choices.

Teens may be ready for more frank, hard-hitting discussions, Tucker says. But that still means coming from a “place of love and understanding,” he says. “Patience and kindness are what we lead with,” he says.

Explore media

Reading books like “Charlotte’s Web” can open up venues for discussion about animals and increase compassion, van de Crommert notes. Older children may enjoy “The Game Changers,” a documentary about plant-based athletes.

With teens, parents can watch more direct documentaries such as “Eating Our Way to Extinction” and the Netflix documentary “Seaspiracy,” Tucker suggests.

Use the internet to research where your food, clothing or products come from and the role of animal agriculture. And introduce kids to the work of other children who are passionate about animals and climate change, he says — role models such as Genesis Butler, a 15-year-old environmentalist and animal rights activist. “Kids need to see other kids excited about it,” Tucker says.

Try new foods

Overall, make food more of a conscious decision, Tucker suggests. “Understand where food comes from — not just meat, but also produce,” he says. You can do this by visiting U-pick farms or growing food in your backyard or community garden.

Parents can also ease into small, everyday steps and experiment with their kids, van de Crommert suggests — trying out a Meatless Monday or taste-testing various vegan ice creams, for example.

In families where kids want to experiment with plant-based, but other family members are meat-eaters, consider using less meat or offering meat alternatives. Or ask the kids to join in to help empower choices — van de Crommert’s children each make one meal per week for the family. Sharing the experience builds on the empathy that is at the foundation of many eco-conscious choices and creates the sense of community needed for success.

Pasado’s Safe Haven is the Northwest’s leading animal protection organization. Our four programs offer comprehensive solutions to the complex problem of animal cruelty. We help people reimagine their relationships with animals – creating a more compassionate world for all.