Raising a child who’s a vegetarian

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When my son decided he was not going to eat meat again, I had no idea what we would be in for. 
Dylan is only five and a half, yet our son has been able to articulate a convincing answer when asked why he has decided to become a vegetarian. “I don’t want to hurt animals” is his concise reply. He has repeated this mantra on countless occasions since deciding to give up meat in 2010. The time between then and now has proven to be an incredible learning experience for our whole family. 
I understand that a vegetarian diet is much more sustainable for our planet, and that eating meat has a huge ecological footprint beyond any questions of morality or ethics. However, it is my son’s perfect summation that triggers my conscience… “I don’t want to hurt animals.” 
As I look back on how this all happened, I must confess a mixture of wonder and pride in my son that has, at times, been countered by my own frustrations and insecurities as a parent. We were sitting at a steakhouse in Florida. Dylan had a plateful of steak and potatoes (his favourite food up until that point) in front of him when he looked up and saw a bunch of cattle heads decorating the wall. His reaction was one of horror and confusion, as he put together the facts that most people so readily ignore – the meat on his plate had come from an actual animal! He stated that night that he didn’t want to eat meat ever again, and we sympathized with his feelings at that moment. Surely this was an emotional outburst that would pass at the first sight of a chicken finger, but he has remained true to his convictions. 
Since that evening we have had numerous discussions about food – where it comes from, how it is harvested and how it gets here. The protein discussion has come up a lot and, at times, it seems as though Dylan could live on cereal and milk alone. 
During the last year Dylan has had to defend his beliefs to many friends and family who think it is simply not right that he be allowed to make this decision, yet he has shown a remarkable strength of character. He has stared down many an adult who has chosen to argue the point with him, even having to defend himself from comments such as “real men eat meat”. Each time, he has come out feeling like it is everybody else who is making the wrong decision. He has weakened privately with us and eaten meat twice during the last year. Anybody who has tried to give up a good thing knows that moments of weakness occur. His reactions afterwards solidified his commitment to his cause. He has learned from these moments and continues to feel strongly about his beliefs. 
As a parent I still worry that he doesn’t get enough protein in his diet, but his energy is as high as ever. He still runs, skates, wrestles and plays with the same reckless abandon expected of a five-year-old boy. The doctor’s visits have all gone well and there remains no need to be concerned (though I still am). With the support of amazing people like Kim Corrigan-Oliver, a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and author of Your Green Baby, I have been able to find new healthy recipes and creative ways to introduce quinoa and new proteins into his food. His daily diet now consists of things like a cheese string, yogurt and a handful of almonds to ensure he gets the protein he needs. 
As parents we continue to strive towards respecting each individual member of our family for who they are: growing individuals with their own hopes and dreams, personal goals and views of the way the world works and their place in it.

Originally published in ParentsCanada, April 2012

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