By Alexandra Fields
“I know milk tastes good, but we probably shouldn’t drink that. Did you know that cow farts are one of the reasons for global warming?” my eight-year-old son told his best friend as we sat at a café in the city.
“Hehe. Yeah, I know. You’ve told me that before,” his meat-eating, milk-drinking buddy exclaimed.
The pride I felt in listening to my son talk about cow flatulence with his friend may seem bizarre to the rest of the world, but as a vegan mother, it is difficult to put into words how grateful I am for moments like these.
When I became a mom, I had already been a pescetarian for half of my life. From a young age, the idea of eating animals was upsetting to me, but I replaced meat with a diet full of fish and cheese which I saw as healthy and less harmful to the animals that I loved. While pregnant with my first son, I consumed massive amounts of shrimp, pizza, and cheese-derived products – I swear I kept entire restaurants in business because of my mozzarella stick obsession during those nine months!
It wasn’t until after I was a mother of two children, a one-year-old and four-year-old, that I learned more about the impact of the meat industry on our environment. I read a book, Mad Cowboy, which taught me I that the industrialized farming of animals and fish is one of the major causes for our rapidly deteriorating rainforests, lakes, rivers, and oceans. I came to the immediate realization that I could not call myself an environmentalist or animal lover and still eat and purchase animal-derived products. So, despite being a fish and cheese-loving wife to an omnivorous husband and children, I made the major life change of becoming vegan, a lifestyle choice that I now see as an integral component of my identity.
Although becoming vegan was, at first challenging for me, I adjusted to my new lifestyle within the first few months. I also joined tons of vegan groups online and was thrilled to meet and befriend like-minded vegans throughout the city. However, I still struggled with what to cook for my family and how to raise my children. On one hand, I wanted my family to be vegan. I read books on healthy vegan eating for children and adults, including books by respected, research-supported nutritionists, and I felt confident that I could cook a healthy vegan diet for my family.
On the other hand, my children, especially my eldest, was used to eating cheese pizza, shrimp pasta, mac and cheese, string cheese, and even our oh-so-coveted mozzarella sticks. And despite providing my eldest son with some of the most decadent vegan fast food and cheese-alternative options that our city offers, he still wanted what he called “real cheese” and “real milk” foods. I knew I couldn’t, in good conscience, purchase or cook animal or animal-derived products anymore, but could I truly expect my children to eat vegan when they were not with me?
I’ve heard the argument more than once from omnivorous friends and relatives that my children should be raised to make their own choices, and it is wrong to “force” my children into a vegan lifestyle. I see this argument as inherently flawed, however, since we all “force” our children into eating particular foods that they don’t like. Let’s be real – if I gave my children only the foods they liked, they would eat nothing but candy, cake, and fast food. So I balk at the argument that suggests I should not “force” my children to eat the way I do.
I also have heard the argument that it’s unfair to make my children eat differently than everyone else. I do see some truth in this line of reasoning, for being the only kid to not eat pizza or cake at a birthday party would, most likely, leave my children feeling left out and even resentful for being raised vegan. However, because we now live in a world where food allergies lead many kids to be excluded from traditional party food and parents are often bringing a variety of nut-free, gluten-free, and dairy-free alternatives to parties, I also see this argument as less relevant today than it was even ten years ago.
So why am I not raising my children entirely vegan? I think the best answer stems from what my children have told me about school lunches. I have always packed my children’s lunches, and when they were both little, I filled their lunch with healthy, organic, and often ridiculously overpriced foods. But I soon learned that my children were often trading these snacks with their peers for processed, junk food alternatives. Sure, I could have gotten mad at my children for trading snacks or even told them to stop trading, but having been a kid myself, I know this would have resulted in them continuing to trade snacks but not telling me that they were doing so. I would rather my children feel comfortable being honest with me, even when making choices I disagree with, than teach them to lie to me or hide their choices from me. It is for this reason then, above all other reasons, that I am not raising them vegan.
Had I been vegan prior to having my children, I am sure I would have tried to raise them vegan. And I certainly respect the many vegan parents I know who are raising vegan children. Of course, I would also love to see my children choose to become vegan one day, and I have raised my youngest son to never eat meat and to avoid all animal-derived products as much as possible. But for now, my goal is to educate them on the facts, so that they can make their own, informed choices as they grow older. And, so far, my children’s choices continue to impress me.
When I found out my mother was feeding my son dairy-based yogurt and I then explained to him that it was made by hurting cows, he stopped eating that yogurt and, when given the choice, wanted the plant-based yogurt. And my eight-year-old, despite admitting to a love of the bacon that he has eaten while sleeping out, has also told me that he feels badly eating it because he knows pigs are cute and smart, and he wants to visit a farm sanctuary because he thinks that may help him stop eating pigs. And just yesterday, when I asked my son what it is like to have a vegan mom, he said, “It’s pretty cool most of the time. I think I wanna be vegetarian when I’m 15”.
Overall, as climate change gets worse and more and more people realize that meat and dairy consumption is no longer sustainable while also being unnecessarily inhumane, my hope is that it will become easier and easier to raise vegan children in this world. In the meantime though, I aim to serve as a role model for my children, and I have even written a children’s book with the goal of further educating my kids about veganism and encouraging them to seek more humane food choices. So when I hear my eldest son talking about cow farts, or my younger son asking for the “nice” yogurt, some of my uncertainty and anxiety in letting my children make their own food choices subsides. In fact, it is in those moments where I hear my sons educating others about making benevolent food choices, that I begin to feel a bit more hopeful, not only about the future food choices of my children, but, perhaps most importantly, the future choices of humanity.
Alexandra Fields is an English professor, mother, and vegan advocate. She uses her passion for social justice and environmentally sustainable practices to educate others and promote compassion and ecological consciousness. She is the author of a vegan kids’ book, Emma, available through her publishing company ecolitpress.com.