When you become a parent, you face a number of challenges. How to keep all the spit-up from ruining your clothes, carpet, sofa… martini? How to manage the tired tantrumming toddler in the grocery store when you’re so sleep deprived you don’t even realize it’s your child? How to get the kids to bed early enough that you can watch your favorite “mature audience” TV show and not fall asleep in the middle of it?
But one of the challenges of vegan parents is birthday cake. A number of people—vegan and non—think that childhood is mostly just a series of birthday parties. One of the oft-asked questions about raising children vegan is “What about the birthday cake?”
Simple. Let them eat it. That’s what I do.
I didn’t always feel this way. Before I became a parent and when my son was very young I thought I’d just bring along a vegan cupcake and give him his cupcake at cake time. Easy, problem solved. And that probably works for many vegan parents. Just bake a few cupcakes, freeze them, and whip them out when you need them. Or stop at Whole Foods on the way to the party and grab a vegan cupcake, vegan donut, vegan cookie or other sweet treat to give your kiddo when the birthday child blows out their candles.
But for us, things got a little more complicated. Let’s start with the party where the hosts got a separate vegan cake just for my son. When he was offered a slice of that cake he happily accepted. But almost instantly he decided to test the assumption that the cakes were “separate but equal.” He wanted to taste the nonvegan cake “just to make sure” his vegan cake was as yummy as the nonvegan one. Gotta love that little scientific mind doing his own experiments. He decided they were both good and a bite turned into multiple bites… he wanted to eat both cakes! Fast-forward to the most recent birthday party my son attended where he staunchly refused the cheesy pizza the hosts offered him (“Because the milk was supposed to go to a baby cow”) but went in for seconds at cake time.
Somewhere between those parties I read an article that claimed “All Birthday Cake is Vegan” and it persuaded me to be more flexible about how I view veganism, at least when it comes to birthday cake. The idea is basically this: “we want to advocate for a more tolerant, more life-affirming, and more inclusive veganism that focuses on someone’s positive actions that they make 95% of the time versus those other relatively small areas where they may fall short.”
Not only is this style of flexible veganism appealing and accessible to nonvegans and thus beneficial to animals and the movement as a whole, it also puts personal vegan purity into perspective. For example, I don’t eat nonvegan birthday cake while my son does. When I think about it the difference between our diets is so miniscule that it doesn’t matter. Our overall impact on animals is the same. Actually, his is greater even if he eats nonvegan cake his entire life. That’s because he started as a vegan and has his whole lifetime to effect change, whereas I went vegan when I was 30 years old.
My style of parenting when it comes to veganism (and all ethics for that matter) is about instilling in my son a sense of compassion and a desire for justice. To build his vegan foundation and to ensure that he stays vegan as an adult, I work hard to respectfully share my moral compass with him in an age-appropriate manner. I read stories about empathy, compassion, and veganism to teach him about respect for other beings. I take him to visit animal sanctuaries where he can learn about the beauty and amazing abilities of nonhuman animals as well as to see firsthand their desire for freedom. I talk to him about why I am vegan (because no one deserves to be treated like meat). I teach him what is and isn’t vegan as well as how to ask for vegan food. I do this by modeling but also by actually sitting him down and talking about these things. (Side note: too many parents neglect the impact they can have by actually having conversations about important topics with their children and assume it’s enough to simply lead by example. I strongly disagree. Have the conversations!) So far, it has seemed to work well. My son firmly understands that eating animals—and their products—is mean. And he does not want to be mean.
My son identifies as vegan. And I agree. Regardless of how pure or impure his diet is, he is vegan at his core. He absolutely adores our dogs and declares himself an animal-lover. I’ve caught him at the park defending bugs from kids who were trying to hurt them. And just the other day when we were grocery shopping we passed by the meat section and my son said loudly, “Eating animals is wrong.” My son routinely asks about food that’s offered to him, “Is it vegan?” and he adamantly refuses to eat anything that’s obviously nonvegan, like ham slices or hard boiled eggs.
But when it comes to birthday cake… he becomes more “veganish” than “vegan police.” And I think that’s just fine.
Parenting is one of the most difficult things anyone can do. To be a good parent I feel that parents have to determine what really matters. We simply can’t do everything. There’s not enough time, energy, and resources to do it all. To me, one of the most important things I can do is to ensure that my son grows up to be a good person who makes kind choices. Thus I need to both provide him with the reasoning for a strong moral foundation and how to apply that moral guide: the knowledge of how his choices affect others. Then, I have to allow him some age-appropriate freedom to make his own choices. That means that I’m not going to enable choices that I feel are harmful to others. But I will accept his choices even when they conflict with my own. And I’ll be particularly accepting of choices that have relatively little moral impact, such as eating a slice (or two) of nonvegan birthday cake.