When Good Kids Go Vegetarian
I never met a pig I didn't like. As a girl I had a favorite, Jeffrey. He was round and fat and funny as heck. One day, Jeffrey went to visit the man down the road. He didn't come back. The next morning, my sisters and I sat in front of the biggest plate of bacon I had ever seen. We left the table that morning hungry...and crying.
by Tammie Ortlieb
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Kids aren't stupid. We teach them from the moment of birth about right and wrong. We impart on them a sense of responsibility and respect. They learn birth, death, and everything in between. They know that the chicken cacciatore on their plate tonight was running around the barnyard yesterday.
Why, then, are we so taken aback when our teenage son announces his plan to go vegetarian? And why are we shocked into further disbelief when he decides to deepen his commitment by eliminating eggs and dairy? I know why. Because since eighth grade health class we have had the four basic food groups incessantly drummed into our heads.
How can anyone drop two of the four food groups? You can't do it. It's just not right. We could never teach the two basic food groups. It wouldn't work; doesn't even sound good. And how do you make up for all of that nutrition you're suddenly leaving out?
Now schools teach the food pyramid. This is a little better. At least as parents we can comprehend a shorter pyramid. Sounds healthier than leaving out groups. We just flatten the pyramid and still have a lot of food left.
Truth is most of us are scared at our teen's pronouncement because we're uninformed. We don't know anybody who's a vegetarian, much less a vegan. Except, oh yeah, that co-worker a long time ago, but he was really weird and always kind of sickly looking. As parents, we want to care for our children in the best way we know how. That includes sound meals and good nutrition.
Now, out of nowhere, your straight "A" soccer star wants to be some kind of deviant. The little girl who danced around the living room on Daddy's toes and performed concerts for Mommy in her tutu and softball cleats wants to join the incense-burning, bead-wearing, backwoods people. Why can't she just get her cartilage pierced or something easy like that? Why a choice that has to impact the whole family and disrupt Thanksgiving dinner?
Why? Because teens have a strong need to separate from parents. They are pulling away, developing their sense of self and independence. It's their job. It's what they do. At this age they are able to grasp such big concepts as environmental waste, corporate corruption and world hunger. Their thinking moves from the smaller circle of "how do I fit into my family?" to "how do my actions impact the world at large?"
As the mother or father of a teen who has decided to eliminate all animal products from his diet, you should feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment. You have raised a child who is morally conscious and environmentally responsible. You have brought up a son who understands the link between diet and health and wants to make changes now that will positively affect his life for years to come. Face it; we're not talking hanging out in the bathroom smoking pot. We're not even talking having sex in the bedroom or sneaking drinks from the liquor cabinet while mom and dad are at work.
According to Debra Poneman in her book, What, No Meat?!, more than one million school-age children are vegetarian. These youth order cheese quesadillas at Taco Bell, shop for Boca Burgers at the local supermarket, and drink soy milk from school vending machines. They reheat spinach lasagna for an after-school snack, pop a handful of soy nuts, and lunch on whole wheat veggie wraps from Subway. The vegetarian movement, says Poneman, has stepped into the living rooms of today's teens.
And, so, it has stepped into ours. We wake to a child who wants organic milk on his Cheerios, who won't pack his usual ham and cheese for lunch, who nags for Tofurkey for Thanksgiving dinner. He joins PETA and puts stickers of little chicks declaring, "I am not a nugget" all over his bedroom door. He stops eating meatloaf and eats more salads. This vegetarian thing follows us at every turn.
So what do you do about all of this? You do what you normally do when little Brandon makes any other decision he makes. You arm yourself.
Arm yourself with as much information as you can find. Talk to as many parents as possible -- and they are out there -- whose children have made the same decision. Read books such as Poneman's and Carol Adams' Help! My Child Stopped Eating Meat! Look at websites such as www.vegetarianbaby.com and www.vegfamily.com. Most importantly, experiment with some plant-based recipes and try veggie burgers and soy milk yourself. Arm yourself, and arm your teen.
Teenagers need to have responses ready for those who question their new ways. Friends will want to know why your child has chosen to exclude meat from his diet when just yesterday he picked up a pepperoni pizza from the lunch line. Adults will bombard him with questions about protein and calcium and what else are animals here for if not to eat. Send him to www.vegetarianteen.com to gain an instant peer group and much needed knowledge on the subject. Check out books from the library written especially for young adults. Support him in any way you can because underneath you know he is still that two-year-old running naked through the backyard sprinkler. Still your little boy.
And that would be the gist of it. He is still a good kid. That's why he's made the meat-free choice. It's responsible, socially kind, and environmentally friendly. It's a way for him to assert his newfound independence without inflicting bodily harm or landing himself in jail. It's a way for him to say I love myself and I love the world and I have the best mom and dad because they know this is important to me and they want to help.