"Help! My Child Wants to be a Vegetarian!" This is the title I typed in the search bar at the library, hoping to find a book that would help me deal with my 12-year-old daughter's decision to give up meat for good.
A few months ago, Claire started casually mentioning thing like, "Today I ate some chicken at school and then I felt really weird." And, "What if I tried to be a vegetarian for a week, just to see what it's like?" I think she knew I was not going to be enthusiastic about it, so she broached the topic ever so carefully, until finally she just refused to eat meat. It made her feel sick, and she wouldn't eat it.
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I didn't want to force Claire to eat something that was making her feel bad, but I really did not want her to become a vegetarian. Some of my friends expressed concerns about Claire being a growing girl and not getting the protein she needed from meat. I was also concerned about her getting the nutrition she needed, I was sure this was going to mean more work for me, and I felt sad. Because I love to cook, and Claire has always loved food. She's the one who would bounce into the kitchen asking, "What's for dinner?" and her favorites included beef stroganoff, pulled pork, BLTs and chicken parmesan. I miss her excitement over what's for dinner, and now when she comes into the kitchen, she wants to know, "What am I having for dinner?" which is sometimes different than the rest of us.
When I saw that Claire had made up her mind and I couldn't sway her, I decided to get on board and help her learn to eat healthy, without meat. I had Claire talk with her pediatrician about the lifestyle change she was making, and not only did he not have a problem with her going meatless, he felt confident that she could develop a very healthy lifestyle in doing so, if she learned to eat the right foods. When we left his office Claire asked me, "What are legumes?" We did some reading. One of our vegetarian friends gave us some great tips, such as adding iron-rich spinach to smoothies -- you don't even taste it! Luckily Claire still eats tilapia and shrimp, so I keep individual portions in my freezer. They thaw quickly and I can usually adapt what I am making to include these proteins. And if our dinner doesn't work for her she fixes herself a quesadilla or a grilled cheese. As it turns out, my initial fears were unnecessary, and it's working out just fine.
If there is a lesson here, it has to do with how we respond when our kids make decisions that we disagree with or that we don't feel would be best for them. Accepting Claire's decision to become a vegetarian is a cake walk compared to parents who are dealing with their kids' decisions to date or marry someone they don't approve of, or choose a lifestyle or path they don't agree with.
When my friend, Anne, told me about a heart-breaking situation with her son and the way she responded, I remember thinking, "Every parent needs to hear this story."
Anne (not her real name) and her husband adopted their son from an orphanage outside the U.S. when he was 8 years old, and have provided a loving, stable family environment. Early on their son struggled with his education and was eventually diagnosed with high functioning Asperger's. Anne and her husband worked with specialists to try to determine what the specific issues were and to help him enjoy learning. He had a great high school experience with good friends and very caring teachers, and his family was very proud of him when he graduated. They were unpleasantly surprised when he informed them that he was going to be leaving after graduation and they would probably never see him again. He had decided, after much thought and careful planning, that he was going to ride his bicycle out west and start a new life.
With the help of her counselor, Anne and her family responded in ways that were counter-intuitive. Her counselor advised, "Don't try to stop him. He's telling you that he wants to be independent, and that is not a bad thing." So Anne and her family decided to offer help and to do whatever they could to prepare him for his departure. Whenever they offered to help him, it caught him off guard, because he expected them to try to persuade him to stay. They made a list of things he needed to know: how to make a collect call, how to use the internet in a library, not to let anyone know that he had cash on him, and how to use his medical card. They offered to teach him how to wash his clothes at a coin-operated laundry and how to take care of basic needs.
They told him, "We don't agree with your plans, but we want you to be safe and to be as prepared as possible. Even though you are leaving us, we will never leave you. Your bedroom will always be here for you, you can always come back, no questions asked."
When he did finally leave, carrying a 30-pound backpack, it was on the hottest day in July with temperatures reaching 107 degrees. His family felt empty. Later that night, he sent each family member (including three siblings) individual texts. In Anne's text, he wrote, "I left today, and I came back today. Twenty-five miles into my ride, God told me this was not his plan for my life." He turned around and went home.
Anne's story amazes me. My natural inclination would have been to do everything in my power to stop my son from leaving, even if that meant using control and manipulation. And it most likely would have led to disastrous results. A year and a half later, Anne's son left again, and they have only heard from him once since he's been gone. But they did all they could to prepare him and to make sure he knows that he always has a place in their family.
Parenting requires that we respond with wisdom, and sometimes the thing we most need to do is the exact opposite of what we feel like doing. I'm thankful for people in my life, like Anne, who teach me by their example.
• Becky Baudouin is a freelance writer and speaker. She lives in the Northwest suburbs with her husband, Bernie, and their three daughters.