Compassionate Conflict Resolution with Non-Vegan Caregivers
by Kerrie Saunders, Ph.D.
All vegetarian parents sooner or later have to deal with issues of snacks, ethics, and nutrition education, with a non-vegetarian day care provider or teacher. Even if you experience little or no success with them on vegetarian issues, you can rest assured that the end of the professional relationship also marks the end of the time your child has to spend in that situation.
When dealing with immediate, extended, and blended family members, however, discussing a preference to raise your child vegetarian becomes much more meaningful. These people, in various measure, share in the on-going emotional, intellectual, spiritual, financial, and physical investment made into your child’s life. Food intake issues must be resolved specifically with any significant vegetarian or Non-vegan Caregiver (NC) in your child’s life, including grandparents and stepparents. Perhaps even other adults like coaches nowadays can try to have an impact on what our kids consider eating.
Dealing compassionately with a non-custodial, non-vegetarian parent will be the speak of this article for the sake of brevity, but the points below apply to other co-care situations, as well.
- In general, observe the rules of healthy communication, and be honest in stating your concerns. Don’t ever exaggerate facts, or you will lose credibility in the long-haul, especially with your child. Shaming or lecturing the NC are good examples of roadblocks to your desired endpoint. Avoid monopolizing the conversation or allowing it to get too far off the main topic. If the NC becomes hostile, drop the conversation until a later time and consider involving an intermediary.
- Be clear on why you, yourself, are vegetarian. Which principles factor in to your commitment? Environmentalism, religious guidelines, animal welfare, appearance, human starvation prevention, athletic performance, weight control, disease prevention or management, spiritual stewardship, morality in economics? Compassionate and respectful treatment of others is, by definition, relevant to any angle of vegetarianism.
- Make the welfare of the child your first order of business, not an emotional and dramatic battleground. Time must be taken to specifically plan for his or her needs, regardless of the circumstances of the adults involved, in order to successfully raise a child. Make certain that your opinions on a healthy vegetarian diet for infants, children, or teens are consistent with solid research and experience or recommendations from nutritional experts, such as those listed later in the article.
- Continue, yourself, to be open to new information on nutrition. As we all generate interest, and the scientific community generates research results, we learn to fine-tune our understanding of nutrient needs. Folic acid helps prevent birth defects. Omega-3 fatty acid and Omega- 6 fatty acid balance is important. Broccoli is a good source of calcium. Many soy milks are now fortified with Vitamin B12. These tidbits add up to an enhancement of our nutritional understanding, and there’s always more to information to come.
- Try to memorize a few related facts or resources comfortable for you to use, so that you are prepared for questions. Focusing on health issues seems to be one of the easier angles to take when explaining childhood vegetarianism to others. For example, feeding your child vegetarian in an effort to avoid allergens, environmental pollutants, obesity, later breast cancer, or diabetes are usually very easy concepts for an NC to swallow. Armed with a few good books or the American Dietetic Association’s position paper, Nutrition Management of the Vegetarian Child, you can generally make quick headway toward support of your decision.
- If your decision to raise your child vegetarian is largely due to religious guidelines, consider asking for support from your spiritual leaders (Elder, Rabbi, Priest, Nun, Monk, Minister, etc.). S/he may be able to provide materials on loan or conduct a meeting with you and the NC to reach a working resolution on your child’s dietary intake. The Jewish Vegetarians of North America, and the Christian Vegetarian Association are both excellent resources for the links between religion and vegetarianism.
- If your decision is due to other reasons, seek reputable resources from relevant organizations. The American Vegan Society, Greenpeace, Farm Sanctuary, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Farm Animal Reform Movement, and Vegan Outreach are good examples of groups with a plethora of available materials.
- Consider a meeting between co-parents or other adult caregivers, without the child present, to design agreement on any major issue. Specifically, here we are talking about the overall definition of a healthy diet for your child. A compromise will be inevitable in certain categories, and you may swap a ‘you win this one and I win that one’ when things seem impossible. The goal of this meeting is to find a couple mutually acceptable plans to be later presented to the child for his/her input where appropriate, and final agreement. This agreement then stands – in BOTH homes for the sake of a healthy routine and everyone’s sanity – until change is mutually agreed upon. Remember, the child’s self-worth is diminished every time s/he feels like a piece of property or a burden. Incredibly often, children mistakenly believe they are the sole reason for adult strife and misery or marital discord.
- Consider hiring a professional counselor with training in family conflict resolution, and make an investment in the process. A healthier working relationship with your child’s other caregivers, whether or not they are vegetarian, results in a happier child, better role-modeling, and a healthier you, so it’s worth the investment.
- If your child actually becomes ill immediately or soon thereafter, as a result of eating an offensive food while in the care of the NC (i.e. allergy, constipation, diarreah, irritability, rash, enuresis, etc.), consider involving a knowledgable physician for more formal guidelines. If you have a trusted physician or allergist that is not vegetarian, get him or her in touch with the nutritional experts like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Dr. Michael Klaper, Dr. Thomas Barnard, or someone of similar experiential background.
- In cases where agreement to feed the child similarly in both homes is not met, drop the issue in front of the child. The child should not be feeling like s/he is ‘tattling’ on the NC, or considering lying to the vegetarian parent to avoid yet another conflict. Creating such intense and emotional theatres have made many a child into an actor, and I argue that this family dynamic is largely responsible for the creation of adolescent and adult liars. Lying is not consistent with any philosophical reason for being vegetarian.
- Most children over the age of 2 will have feelings on vegetarian issues. Their feelings may be relatively simple or complex, and may range from basic agreement with you all the way to the complete and polar opposite. Keep in mind that you do not have to agree with them, but you do need to respect their right to their own opinion. When you role-model respect for opinions, you keep minds open. If your child keeps an open mind, s/he will be more likely to see the facts and naturally gravitate toward vegetarian principles as they mature into adolescence and adulthood.
- Be aware that food is a highly emotional issue in and of itself. Holidays are heavily laden with family traditions, including suggestions of which foods to eat or not to eat. Perhaps your 90-year old grandmother’s famous apple pie has cow butter in it, which you now avoid. There are many ways to handle the situation, but some are tactful and some are hurtful.
- Although eating disorders tend to be more common in pre-teen and teen girls, they are seen in other groups as well. Anorexic behavior has been masked by some folks calling themselves ‘vegetarian’, when in reality they are starving for a nutritive food balance of any kind. If you see any signs of unexplained behavior change, refusal to eat previously eaten foods, unexplained weight loss, fatigue, depression, loss of menstruation in girls, laxatives, diuretics, or diet pills, consider the possibility that there is another problem going on. Eating disorders can develop suddenly or slowly, and can be fatal, so consult your health care provider immediately if you have any suspicion.
- Parents and other significant caregivers should offer constant reassurance to children, that they: a) will always be loved, b) will always be protected, c) are not responsible for adult relationship problems or marital discord, d) are not responsible for solving problems between adults.
My final thought: When you talk to others about vegetarianism, your son or daughter will learn about problems. When you treat others with compassion, your son or daughter will learn about solutions.