This is an abbreviated version of the first article I wrote about raising vegan children.
The original was published in the Spring 2007 edition of Vegan Voice magazine. At the time, my eldest child was just 3 1/2 years old. My son, 10 months.
While pregnant with my daughter, our first child, I eagerly searched the web and local library for information about vegan nutrition during pregnancy and lactation. I regularly referred to a couple of books on our bookshelf – ‘Becoming Vegan’ by Davis & Melina, and ‘Pregnancy, Children and the Vegan Diet’ by Michael Klaper – and I felt satisfied that I could meet the nutritional needs of my unborn baby and my expanding body.
Like many first-time pregnant women, I read constantly; books about birth, breastfeeding, foetal development, bonding and all manner of related topics.
But there was one topic I could not find enough information about in order to satisfy my curiosity – raising vegan children. I had accumulated sufficient information and resources about the nutritional aspects of veganism but I discovered a dearth of information about the social and practical aspects of raising vegan children.
I really felt that we were going against the grain. What would our lives be like as we strived to raise a vegan child? Were we tackling an impossible – or at the very least, difficult – undertaking?
I used the only reference point I knew: my own non-vegan childhood. I reflected on the countless birthday parties that I had attended, including those at fast food restaurants. I thought about Easter egg hunts with school friends, ice creams from the Ice Cream Van, lamington drives, leather ballet shoes, dissecting cows hearts in the name of ‘science’, and ‘sausage sizzle’ school fundraisers. It was enough to overwhelm me.
How on earth could we raise a vegan child against that backdrop of childhood experiences? I consoled myself with the fact that times had changed. Vegans and vegetarians were no longer as rare as during my childhood. I only first encountered the word ‘vegan’ when I was about 16 years old, and don’t recall having any childhood friends who were vegetarians or vegans.
While pregnant, I purchased a book titled ‘Raising Vegan Children in a Non-Vegan World: A Complete Guide for Parents’ by Erin Pavlina, an American vegan mum. I enthusiastically read it from cover to cover, the only book that I could find on the topic.
While reading the section on birthday parties, I experienced a sense of anxiety and dread when I contemplated the number of parties that my daughter would be invited to during her childhood. How would she feel when I gave her a piece of home-made cake while all the other kids enjoyed the birthday cake? Would I be depriving her?
I had other concerns. How much baking of substitute birthday cakes would I end up doing over the course of my daughter’s childhood? Would I just end up dreading the arrival of each party invitation? How would I deal with my baking fatigue?
Early in my pregnancy I asked myself: ‘Could my partner and I –both vegans- raise vegetarian children’? Would it be OK for our (future) children to consume foods containing dairy and eggs at birthday parties and other ‘special’ events? Wouldn’t it make our life easier? and more importantly, wouldn’t it make their lives easier? The prospect never sat comfortably with me, however.
As someone who strives to avoid causing suffering to sentient beings and as an advocate of the health benefits of a vegan diet, I could not ignore this knowledge, and my convictions, when it came to raising our child.
I longed for information about Australian vegan families and their experiences. We knew a vegan couple with a 2 year old daughter, who were expecting their second child around the time that my daughter was due. I was excited at the prospect of our vegan babies growing into childhood friends. Sadly, the family moved interstate when my daughter was only weeks old.
What about the claim that raising vegan children is irresponsible, or even, unethical? Should vegans who are about to embark on parenthood even give this a moment’s thought?
I never considered that our intention to raise vegan children was in any way irresponsible or unethical. There are people who believe that it is and, unfortunately, some of them gain extensive media coverage.
Writing in The New York Times recently, author Nina Planck states: ‘I was once a vegan. But well before I became pregnant, I concluded that a vegan pregnancy was irresponsible. You cannot create and nourish a robust baby merely on foods from plants’.
Those vegan parents who experience exertion as they lift and carry their robust babies certainly beg to differ.
Planck is of the opinion that babies are ‘built from protein, calcium, cholesterol and fish oil’ and, therefore, believes that a vegan diet is ‘dangerous’ for breast-fed and weaned babies, and children.
A couple of years prior, another commentator attracted a great deal of media attention. Professor Lindsay Allen (of the US Agricultural Research Service, no less!) was quoted as saying ‘There’s absolutely no question that it’s unethical for parents to bring up their children as strict vegans’. She is also quoted as stating: ‘…when women avoid all animal foods, their babies are born small, they grow very slowly and they are developmentally retarded, possibly permanently’. In the same article, the UK Vegan Society dismisses Allen’s claims.
In ‘The Ethics of What We Eat’, Singer and Mason address the question, ‘Is It Unethical to Raise Vegan Children?’ Interestingly, Mason and Singer interviewed Professor Linsdsay Allen in order to understand why she was ‘rejecting well-accepted medical and scientific views’. Allen claimed that the reporter who interviewed and quoted her, left off the caveat: ‘unless they (vegan parents) take great care to know what they’re doing’. Allen told Singer and Mason that she was ‘not against veganism’, and the authors conclude that Allen does not dispute that ‘it is safe to be a vegan while pregnant and to raise your children as vegans’.
Professor Allen’s and Nina Planck’s comments have no bearing on how I choose to live my life and their opinions matter little to me. However, their anti-vegan comments received wide spread media coverage, and it is likely that they had the effect of negatively influencing some people’s beliefs about veganism.
A pregnant woman (who may already be feeling emotionally vulnerable) may feel anxious and distressed to read that vegan diets ‘could’ cause her to give birth to a small, slow growing and developmentally delayed baby.
So what do other commentators say about the ethics of vegan diets for children?
Singer and Mason cite the American Academy of Pediatrics as stating that ‘vegan diets can promote normal infant growth’. The American Dietetic Association* also maintains that a ‘well-planned’ vegan diet is ‘appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including during pregnancy, lactation, infancy and childhood. Many would argue that a vegan diet is more than ‘appropriate’, and is in fact superior to the Standard Australian/American Diet (SAD).
Today, our vegan family consists of my partner and me, our spirited 3 1/2 year old daughter (who, incidentally, was a very robust baby) and our jovial 10 month old son.
Now that we are actually raising vegan children and not just reading about it, the thing that I crave most is a peer group of other Mums who I can debrief to, laugh with, support and commiserate with.
I would also love for my daughter to attend a vegan party that isn’t her own (or her brother’s).
My daughter has a vegan substitute – a homemade muffin or slice of cake – in lieu of birthday cake whenever she attends a children’s party. I’ve learned that the substitute has to be appealing, so that my daughter will be happy to ‘sacrifice’ the birthday cake, but not be too appealing or it may look more enticing to the other children than the birthday cake!
We were invited to a birthday party recently, and the birthday girl’s Mum had baked a vegan birthday cake. My daughter and I were the only vegans invited, and I appreciated the gesture immensely.
Our close friends are supportive and very accommodating of our veganism, which is the best you can hope for when you aren’t surrounded by vegan families.
When my daughter recently asked ‘Why do Nanny and Poppy eat eggs?’, I replied: ‘Some people like to eat eggs’. She answered ‘You have to tell them not to eat animals and eggs’. She said it with conviction, and would not let the issue drop until I promised that I would tell her grandparents not to eat animals and eggs anymore.
On another occasion, my daughter asked me why people eat eggs. I replied: ‘some people eat them because they like them and they don’t know that the chickens don’t like it’. She looked directly in to my eyes, and said ‘You have to tell them Mummy, OK? You have to tell people every day that the chickens don’t like it’. Oh, how it nearly broke my heart to hear it simplified in this way by an innocent, caring child. If only it was as simple as that.
There are times when I worry that she will feel different, or excluded, as she munches on her homemade cake. I am concerned about how she will assimilate the knowledge that some people she loves consume animals and animal products.
Sometimes at social gatherings with non-vegans, I feel like a hawk, watching my daughter and ensuring that she doesn’t reach for, or isn’t given, a cube of cheese or a chicken flavoured chip.
At a recent birthday party, the plate of vegie sausages had already been devoured when my daughter reached for a meat sausage. I grabbed it out of her tiny hand so quickly that the other parents must have thought I was a lunatic.
I sometimes dread the arrival of birthday party invitations.
Then, at other times, it all seems so simple: we don’t eat animals and we don’t consume products that are the result of animal suffering.
I sincerely hope that my children will always decide to be vegans. Naturally, if they decide, when they are older, to turn their backs on veganism, I will accept their decision. Like any other life decision that my children make – career path, political beliefs, etc. – my role as a parent is to support them, even if my own beliefs differ. I can help to lay the foundations of respect and concern for our fellow beings, to be a role model and to educate them.
Ultimately, my children will – and should – have autonomy over their own life path.
And I am hopeful. While playing in the bath with her toys the other day, I heard my daughter announce: ‘I don’t eat animals, I rescue animals’.
I genuinely hope that my children’s generation experiences a richer connection with the non-human animal world, characterised by greater empathy, compassion and respect.
* The American Dietetic Association is now known as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The Academy’s position has not changed.
Do you have a peer group of vegan parents to debrief with?
How do you survive non-vegan birthday parties?
How do you respond to comments that vegan parents are ‘unethical’ or ‘irresponsible’ for raising vegan children?