Help! My Grandson’s Being Raised A Vegan

Wendy, an editor at Grand, recently sent me a story that went something like this:

At a party, two women, after a heated debate regarding the relative strengths and weaknesses of a Barack Obama versus a Hillary Clinton White House, decided to lower the tension a bit and turned the conversation toward family. Grandchildren, in particular. After the standard updates (“turns three in May”) and compliments (“look at those eyes, just like his father”), one of the women acknowledged a concern she’d been keeping to herself. “You know,” she said, “my husband and I are practically vegetarian… I haven’t had a piece of red meat in years. But my son and his wife… they’re raising their son VEGAN.” “Isn’t that illegal?” the other woman replied. “I mean, isn’t that negligence?”

She sent me that story because she knew it would hit close to home. That scenario-the concern expressed in it anyway-is a familiar one to me.

I like to say sometimes that my wife and I have made a decision to raise our one year old son Sam “weird.” Cruel as we are, we’ve decided to raise him without the interference of television. On organic food. Surrounded by acoustic guitar music, hippie potlucks, and a large extended family.

And, in a landmark compromise between a strict vegan (me) and a somewhat milder vegetarian (my wife), we’ve decided to raise him as an Almost Vegan (the details and definition of which are hard to nail down; suffice it to say that he will be eating a lot of grains and fruits and veggies, and some dairy from happy, healthy, grass fed cows).

That last bit there, the vegetarian piece, is hard for some to swallow. We get funny looks, of course, when we tell people that we cancelled cable and that Sam doesn’t watch “Baby Einstein.” We get concerned looks when we tell them we have no plans, ever, of introducing him to Swedish meatballs or covered turkey sandwiches.

To be fair, we have it easier than some. We have, nearby, some very supportive friends and family. When I went vegetarian some 15 years ago, I was very much leaving the “known.”  My mother, my brother, my sister, and a handful of friends have since joined me.

At Thanksgiving dinners these days, the leaf eaters just about match the meat eaters in numbers, and we’ve created a bloc that can demand a Tofurky on the main table next to the traditional fare.  We can rest easy knowing that when Sam spends a day with grandma or Aunt Beth, his diet will be understood and respected.

On my wife’s side of the family, things aren’t so easy.

Sam’s other grandmother worries. Had she been at that party, she would have empathized immediately with the concerned grandmother. “It’s not illegal,” she might have said, “but Lord knows it should be.”

As I say, she worries. She wants the very, very best for Sam, and fears that Almost Vegan might not be it.

Sadly, I don’t exactly know how to quell those fears.

If her concerns were only about Sam’s health, it would be easy.

If her concerns were about health, I could start with myself. Fifteen years meat free has not caused me to waste away. My recent echocardiogram wasn’t just good, it was fantastic. My blood work, perfect. Fifteen years vegetarian, five years vegan, and I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been.

Then I’d point to the great big pile of research and writing that’s been done on the health benefits of a vegan/vegetarian diet. I’d read from the American Dietetic Association’s website, the part that says “well-planned vegan and other types of vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence.” Or point out that, according to the Physicians’ Committee For Responsible Medicine, vegans are 25% to 50% less likely to have occurrences of cancer.

I’d mention University of Toronto study that showed that following a vegan diet can reduce “bad” cholesterol nearly as well as prescription drugs without any of the side effects. And I’d reference all those athletes-from Joe Namath to Scott Jurek to Carl Lewis and others-who have shown that going veg doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be physically fit.  Or some of those thinkers-like Gandhi, Pythagoras, the Dalai Lama-whose brains developed just fine without meat in their diets.

And then I’d have to go on to address some of the tougher, more thought out concerns. What about B12? We’ve all heard that vegans don’t get enough. And what about bone health? Calcium? Protein? What about the rumor that vegan kids just don’t grow to be as big as other kids?

The reality is that a well-balanced vegetarian or vegan diet-one that includes a variety of vegetable foods, and a minimum of junk-can satisfy just about every nutritional need (see sidebar). With the availability of fortified soy milks and cereals and vegetarian formula daily vitamins, it would take some effort not to have all one’s nutritional needs met.

The thing is, I don’t think Sam’s grandmother is really worried about any of this.

Her concern, I think, is something more like this:

“Why can’t a kid just be a kid?”

Why? Why no hot dog at a baseball game? When his best friend in third grade throws a birthday party at McDonald’s, why does he have to be the one strange kid who brings his own lunch? Why do we have to go and make an issue out of birthday cakes and Thanksgiving dinners and barbecues and all the simple things that we enjoyed as we were growing up?

To that question, there’s no easy answer. To that, I can’t just point to a pile of research and say “he’ll be perfectly fine.”

These are the questions I’ve asked myself since my wife and I decided we wanted to have a child, and I still haven’t found an answer that satisfies completely, though I have found bits and pieces that at least give me hope.

Part of the answer, I think, has to do with values. We put our faith, our hope, in the things we believe in. We make sacrifices for ourselves, and we hope that the small sacrifices we ask our kids to make turn out to be worth it in the end. I hope that, looking back, Sam will be glad for some of the tougher choices we’ve made for his early years regarding television, diet, family activities. I hope they will give him a foundation for making his own tough decisions.

And I think it has something even more to do with taking the focus off of denial. My own veganism feels nothing at all like a burden. My day to day is not about what I can’t have. It’s not about limitations, but abundance. A vegetarian birthday party doesn’t have to focus on a lack of hot dogs and hamburgers; it can be about what is there, from the food, to the friends and family, to the games and the music. A vegan cake doesn’t always have to be a Vegan Cake; it’s easy enough to let it just be a Delicious Cake, and to let everyone enjoy.

And I think the answer has a lot to do with accepting the notion that we will learn as we go, that it has something to do with trial and error, and with support from others. What will I do when Sam is invited to a steak house to celebrate his middle school girlfriend’s birthday? I don’t know. I haven’t even a clue. But I’ve got a lot of time to figure that stuff out, and in the process I will get to know Sam better, get to know his values, his interests, his preferences. Along the way, there are plenty of people I can turn to for advice on the day to day; friends, family, even whole websites (like www.vegfamily.com) devoted to this very issue.

My wife and I have made the choice to raise our son a little different than most of the people around us. There will be days when this will make him stand out a little from the rest, when some kid decides to tease him; when, because of the choices we’ve made, he doesn’t get exactly what he wants, exactly what the kid next door has. The way I see it, though, this is the experience of every kid-a little different from the rest, occasionally teased by peers, occasionally suffering the terrible injustice of not getting what the neighbors have.

Our hope is that, having made these choices for him, he will grow up healthy, happy, and with an understanding of the values that brought my wife and I together all those years ago.  That he’ll look back years from now not with regret over all the little things he missed out on, but in fond remembrance of all the good he had, all the joy he was a part of.

That answer, I think, will have to satisfy even the most concerned critic.

Some common nutritional concerns, and a few simple solutions.

Concern Cause Solution
Vitamin B12 deficiency Because B12 is only found in animal products, including dairy and eggs, strict vegans will not come by an adequate amount of it naturally. Many foods are fortified with B12, and vegetarian formula vitamins are widely available (some of which deliver more than 1000% of the daily requirement).
Iron deficiency Vegetarians may require more iron in their diet than meat eaters do, because their bodies process it differently. Nuts, beans, whole grain breads, and fortified cereals are all excellent sources.
Bone health Too little calcium and protein in the diet, especially in women and girls. Eating plenty of leafy greens, nuts, beans, tofu, broccoli, tempeh and soy milk should provide all the calcium and protein a body needs for good bone health.  Adequate exercise and avoiding junk foods are a plus.
Slow growth There is some evidence that vegan babies grow more slowly than other children. According to the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, it’s nothing to worry about.  Vegan babies might grow more slowly for a while, but they eventually catch up.

Sources:  The Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine (www.pcrm.org); Help!  My Child Stopped Eating Meat by Carol J. Adams (with nutritional information by Virginia Messina, MPH, RD); Vegetarian Resource Group (www.vrg.org)

JIM THOMPSON

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