The boys will be outcasts. They’ll be bullied. They’ll be the ‘weirdoes’ of the class. These were some of the arguments my husband presented me with when I first told him that I wanted our two boys to join me in my vegan lifestyle.
No rose tinted glasses for my husband; he remembers exactly how cruel school kids can be. Picking out the weak members of the herd, torturing anyone who dares to be even a little bit different. Best days of your life? Not exactly!
I wasn’t too worried about the little one at this point – at only nine months old he had no concerns other than when his next dose of breast milk was due. Peer pressure, not such a big thing! The eldest, Alex, was 3 and a half though and already attending nursery five mornings a week.
Feeling comfortable with being vegan
My first step was to make sure that Alex was comfortable with his new lifestyle at home. I explained to him in simple terms why we would no longer be eating certain foods. He took it well and as long as he was presented with plenty of yummy options at meal times, he was charmingly unconcerned with what I considered to be a monumental change. Don’t you just love kids?
But I confess, being vegan at home is easy. Being vegan in the big bad non vegan world can be slightly trickier, especially for a child.
So it was with a certain degree of trepidation that I first approached my eldest son’s nursery staff to tell them about his new diet. Would they think I was being fussy? Would they have the first clue what a vegan actually is? Would they sneak him a carton of cow’s milk every morning to make sure that he’s getting enough calcium?
I considered bending the truth slightly, or just plain lying to make sure that my request was taken seriously. I have heard some vegan parents claim religious reasons for their child’s diet. Some I have spoken to describe their child as a vegetarian with an egg and dairy allergy to ensure junior is not fed contraband products. I’ve never felt comfortable with deceit though and I also never like to miss an opportunity to discuss veganism (as you can probably tell!), so I decided honesty was the best policy.
The teachers were pretty much clueless about what a vegan diet entailed but, to my relief, were perfectly accommodating and willing to learn. This isn’t to say we haven’t had our problems. Like the time Alex was sent home with a cookie he had made during class. It may or may not have been vegan – the staff member on duty couldn’t tell me and stared blankly at me when I mentioned the ‘V’ word. Or the time he was given a non vegan gummy bear on his way out one day. Deep breaths, deep breaths…and time to explain, yet again, about gelatine.
Of course, veganism is not just about what we put in our mouths. Another issue I have come across is the culturally accepted ‘truths’ my son hears at nursery. On the wall is a giant poster depicting the products cows ‘give’ us. I have requested that A not be involved in any lessons involving farming and where our food comes from since anything he is taught at school will completely contradict everything I teach him at home. As the boys get older and move up the school ladder, I hope that they will be given the opportunity to share their knowledge with their classmates. This, of course, will depend on how comfortable my boys are with their ‘alternative’ lifestyle.
I guess how any child handles being vegan in a non vegan school is down to how we deal with our own place in a non vegan world. I hope to lead by example and bring them up to have the confidence to stand out from the crowd and be proud of the things that make them different: to be proud of their compassion. The other kids may not realise it but my boys are not freaks; they are pioneers!
Top Tips for parents sending their vegan child to a non-vegan kindergarten/school:
1. For younger children, who are not quite old enough to discuss the products they can and can’t have, the school will find it helpful if you provide them with a written list. They can keep this on file and refer back to it when needed.
2. I’m all for being loud and proud about veganism but if your child is more of a shrinking violet (and nothing wrong with that if they are!) then try not to pack anything too ‘weird’ in their lunch box. A peanut butter sandwich, some potato chips, vegetable sticks and a piece of fruit is a well balanced vegan meal that won’t make them stand out too much from the crowd.
3. Provide a supply of vegan sweets/cookies/chocolates for unexpected situations. At least then, if one of your child’s classmates turns up with some sweet treats on their birthday for example, the teacher can ensure that your little cherub also has something sweet to indulge in.
4. Anticipate occasions where you may need to provide some extra vegan goodies. Whether it is a Halloween party, a Christmas party or any other special occasion, it could prove helpful to find out what foods will be served at the party, and then make sure your children have the vegan equivalents so they don’t feel they are missing out.
If you also happen to be one of those amazing cooks that knows exactly what children love and you have a bit of spare time on your hands, you might be able to double or triple the quantities and bring vegan treats to those parties for all the kids to enjoy. Not only will your child delight in seeing his classmates enjoying the same treats he is, but what better opportunity to expose the other kids to vegan treats and how amazingly good they are?
5. There will be times when school trips clash with your family’s ethics. A trip to the local zoo anyone? Explain the problem to the school and plan a fun trip for your child so again he doesn’t feel left out. A day at an animal sanctuary is a much more vegan friendly way to deliver the same lesson!
Or why not go one better? If the school staff is flexible and kind enough they might even agree to cancel the zoo trip altogether and go straight for the animal sanctuary instead, if you discuss the idea with them well in advance. This could prove cheaper for the school than going to the zoo, while providing additional educational value to all children in learning compassion through the sanctuary’s work, and a wonderful chance to interact with the animals.
6. Offer to send the teachers some vegan literature or even come into class yourself to talk about animal rights and veganism. People have a lot of preconceptions about veganism and this could be a good opportunity to let your child’s friends see that it’s not some kind of strange cult. Of course, this depends on the age and nature of your child. A six year old might be quite happy for Mummy to come to school and talk about animals – a sixteen year old trying to look cool in front of his buddies will be mortified if you show up in class!
7. Know when to let go. For little ones, you’re in charge. When the kids get older though, we need to know when to step back and let them make their own decisions. They want to go on that trip to the zoo? They want to join their friends on an after school trip to McDonalds? There will come a point where you can’t stop them. All you can do is explain why you’re against their decision and hope that the double bacon cheeseburger tastes so foul that they soon come running home for a veggie burger!
Cover image: Shutterstock.