A Child Who Can't Fall Asleep

IMG_2781There are moments of deepest heart-tender grace when my nine-year old son breaks me open and brings me to tears, when I see clearly into the center of his soul and it feels like I’m looking at an angel. These aren’t always joyous moments; no, quite often they’re fraught with pain at the challenge of how one so exquisitely sensitive, with skin as fair as light, must walk through this often harsh and cruel world. While there is literature now on highly sensitive children, it’s not enough. Quite often I sense that my husband and I are fumbling in the dark as we try to raise our son to be an independent, confident person without crushing his spirit. 

It’s 11:30pm and he’s been trying to fall asleep for several hours. Tired from my full day of clients and having woken up early with my four-year old, I’m not pleased with his interruptions as I try to finish work on my computer before going to sleep myself. Some of them are the classic declarations of a child who can’t fall asleep: “I have to go the bathroom” and “I’m thirsty.” Mostly he remains quiet, knowing that he’s long past the age when we’ll lie down and hold him every night (although that’s what he would prefer). But his tossing and turning and talking and getting up and interruptions are driving me batty.

I go downstairs to talk to my husband.

“This has to stop. He’s nine. He should be falling asleep more quickly without needing us close by,” I say with a hard edge in my voice.

“Yes, but we can’t force it. We know that doesn’t work.”

I think back to the time when he was about a year old and, after suffering through endless nights of waking up 10-12 times to nurse and walk, we tried to “sleep train” him. We left him to “cry it out” in his crib and after about ten minutes of pure torture for all of us, he threw up. That was the last time we allowed ourselves to be seduced by a method that may work for some babies without negative longterm effects but could never work for our son.

I know he’s not a baby, but everything we’ve tried over the years has resulted in some sort of failure. From herbs to melatonin to gradual desensitization to mindfulness to creative visualization to getting a kitten to exercising more during the day to homeopathy, the nighttime hours have continued to baffle us as parents and twist like a black sheet around our son every night. Nighttime is when the anxiety is unleashed. Nighttime is when the shadows arrive.

My husband breaks me out of my reverie and says, “I think this is all part of the package of who he is: his mind never stops. He’s highly sensitive. Who knows what’s going through his brain?

With understanding comes compassion. My husband has reminded me of who my child is and released me from the grip of wishing he was someone else or that our story was anything other than it is. I return upstairs and climb into bed beside him.

“Tell me what’s on your mind,” I say to my son.

“I don’t really know. Just everything.”

“Tell me one thing.”

“I’m thinking about those big birds that everyone will have at Thanksgiving. I don’t want to see it, Mommy. It makes me too sad.”

Ah, so there it is. And tears fill my eyes. My sweet, sensitive, empathic, vegetarian child in a meat-eating family who’s lying here close to midnight thinking about the animals that humans kill and consume. The other day when we were shopping at the grocery story the checkout clerk handed me a flyer about Thanksgiving turkeys. I stuffed it into the grocery bag, and the next thing I knew he had ripped it in half.

“What are you doing?” I asked him.

“I don’t want you and Daddy to get one of those birds again,” he said with a long face.

“I know, sweetheart. I know it’s a hard day for you. But everyone else in our family eats meat and if don’t have a turkey it won’t be a real Thanksgiving.”

He suffers through Thanksgiving every year. While he would like to stage a coup, he usually finds a way to tolerate the blatant display of death that defines this quintessential American holiday. But it hurts him deeply inside. At nine, he knows he can’t control everyone else to appease his pain, but he still dreads the day. It’s not necessarily the meat itself (my husband and I eat plenty of chicken), but that the large bird arrives whole, is stuffed whole, cooked whole, and then sits whole on the counter until carved. When I put myself into his shoes, I can only imagine how horrifying it must to see such a blatant and graphic display of death. To him, it’s no different than purchasing, prepping, cooking, and eating a cat.

So I say to him, “Lovey, if we don’t have a turkey it’s not going to feel like Thanksgiving to our extended family. But maybe this year we’ll just have Thanksgiving with our family, and if anyone else wants to come even if there’s no turkey, they’re welcome to come. How does that sound?”

“Yes, Mommy, that sounds good.” I can feel his soul exhale. There’s a visceral release inside of him.

“We can’t do that every year, you know. But you’ve tolerated it for several years so maybe we can honor you this year. Let’s talk to Daddy about it tomorrow.”

And then he falls asleep.

The mainstream has always encouraged us to respond differently and, in our opinion, callously to his sleep troubles, and now their messages traipse through my brain: “You should have let him him cry it out as a baby”; “You coddled him and now you’re paying for it; this isn’t good for him, either.” But I don’t hang out in that space for very long. I know in my gut that the mainstream never had answers to our sleep challenges, and they still don’t. Our culture simply doesn’t understand highly sensitive children, and, unfortunately, having difficultly falling asleep is one of the hallmarks of a sensitive soul. I feel angry and disappointed and frustrated that there’s no one to guide us through this area. But I also trust that my husband and I will figure it out, that through discussions and gentle experiments we’ll resolve the issue in a way that works for all of us. Eventually. At least that’s my hope.

At the same time I recognize that sometimes parenting challenges simply don’t have immediate and convenient solutions. With every gift comes a sacrifice, and I know that the gift of parenting this exquisitely sensitive child, a child who lies awake on a Tuesday night thinking about the millions of big, dead birds that millions of people will display on their Thanksgiving tables in a few weeks, comes with challenges. He needs us. He’s nine years old and the voice in my head says, “He’s nine. He shouldn’t need you so much at night.” But I know from counseling hundreds of adults who embodied my son’s exact level of sensitivity as children that if we don’t attend to him in these ways he’ll grow up with the constant companion of anxiety. “You’re coddling him!” says the mainstream. Call it what you will. For now, without any other feasible solution and until we can teach him how to manage his sensitivity in healthier ways so that it doesn’t morph into anxiety, we will continue to stay close by as he finds his way down his long, winding, sometimes painful road to sleep.

Follow up: As I expected, when I presented the idea to my husband of a turkey-free Thanksgiving, he was immediately on board. Love this man. He told me about a show he was watching about Native Americans and how they won’t eat turkey and call the day Thanks-taking – as in, thanks for taking our land. So we’ll find a different way to honor this day and focus on that it’s really about: a day to connect deeply to gratitude, perhaps a way to give back in some way, to honor our land and the Native people that used to roam freely along these waterways. Right now I feel almost unbearable gratitude for this child who will grow into a man that will work hard to preserve our beautiful planet and all its inhabitants. May his spirit never be crushed. 


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40 comments to The Boy Who Couldn’t Fall Asleep

  • Gabrielle

    Love this post! What a beautiful son you have and what a loving mother you are. Thanks for the reminder to always stop and look for underlying issues with our children. The other day my 2-year-old son couldn’t stop talking about the car wash and it was really annoying. Once I realized he had been scared while we were going through the car wash, I explained that it was over and he was safe and he stopped chattering about it. I will remember to always respect his fears and listen to what he’s trying to tell me.

    • It’s sometimes so challenging to find the underlying issue but I’ve found that it’s almost always there, if we only take the time and patience to get down on their level and see the world through their eyes. I’m so glad you were able to decipher what was encoded in the talk about the car wash.

  • Michaela

    Dear Sheryl,

    I’m so touched by your approach (both of you and your husband) to the sensitivity of your son!
    And like you say so wonderfully: “with every gift comes a sacrifice” – you truly honor his gift even when it is not easy to do!
    Thank you for your regular letters and messages – I appreciate them so much!

    Kind regards

  • Tamara

    With your mom living so close now, perhaps a way to have turkey in the future is possible. Could it be cooked and carved over there and brought to your house as just a platter of sliced meat? Sending both boys big hugs!

    • Yes, that would definitely be possible. For this year, we’re going to honor him completely and meet my family at the science museum for some fun before we come home and do a ritual to honor the people who used to live on our land. Hugs received : )!

  • Marybeth

    Sounds like you are doing exactly what is needed: responsive parenting.
    And to the mainstream that ever says ‘you should have sleep-trained him’ or ‘you are coddling him too much’… nonsense by my opinion.
    I am no fortune teller nor have a crystal ball, but I think sending a distrustful message at the tender stage of infancy creates WAY bigger problems down the road–bad relationships, attachment/trust issues in adult relationships.
    You just can’t hug or respond to a baby too much.
    And to me, the rule is the same for kids–obviously to a lesser degree as they need less–but why wouldn’t one respond? We’re parents after all:)
    You are doing what feels right and that IS right.
    But just my opinion:)

  • Sarah

    Thank you Sheryl. While my family eats turkey every year, I have green curry with tofu and brown rice that we buy the day before. I’m not vegetarian, though I used to be, and I still have trouble with eating meat (and with the origins of Thanksgiving). I also remember when I was raising a basil plant, that eating the leaves would make me feel sick (like I was eating a friend). I’m not sure yet how not to be so punctured by the cycle of life and death, but I thank you for sharing your family’s journey with us and I wish your son peace.

  • Lalalove

    Geez I relate sooooo much to your son! What an awesome child (and I’m not just saying that bc he reminds me of me hehe). 🙂

  • Kate

    Sweet, sweet 9 year old boy. A dear friend of mine in her early 70’s is highly sensitive and when the grass is cut she feels it in her soul. It’s very hard for her. Hope you have a wonderful meatless Thanksgiving in deep gratitude. ~Kate

  • Jen

    Such keeness.I recently saw the work of Julie Heffernan,an incredible artist of this caliber of sensitivity that Everest is seemingly made of.I cannot wait to hear of how he is channeling it as the years unfold.And Sheryl,what a huge gift you and Daev are to be nurturing the extra challenges of a gifted child.

  • Heidrun

    Dear Sheryl –

    Thank you so much for your post. I so appreciate how you are sharing your process & how much thought you & your husband are giving in how you want to interact with your son.

    I, too, was struggling when my son was young with him falling asleep & staying asleep. Fortunately, after a long journey, I came across Patty Wipfler’s work from Hand in Hand Parenting (www.handinhandparenting.org). She calls her approach “Parenting by Connection”. I’m not sure if you are familiar with her work or if you have heard of her. In my opinion, her work is a hidden gem. She now has a course about children’s sleep in her menu of services. Would love to hear your opinion about it if you would be willing to check it out.

    Warmly, Heidrun

  • Nikki

    Sheryl- Thank you for sharing this. It’s such a good reminder to stop, look and listen. I feel it can be applied in so many ways. I was curious if you’d seen the work that Caroline van Kimmenade has done on HSPs. I did her online program and found it really helpful. I wonder if there’s anything on her site that you haven’t come across yet for you and your son.
    The ritual you are going to do as a family this year for Thanksgiving sounds beautiful!

  • You followed your own instinct and you were exactly right, which is far more important than following mainstream advice from people who don’t know your son like you do! The world needs more people like your son (and you, and your husband!) to make this world a better place. Thank you for inspiring us with your day to day experiences and for being so open, real and honest.

  • Leaf

    Maybe you and your family might enjoy watching Benjamin Zephaniah perform his poem ‘Be nice to your turkeys this Christmas’, which my 13 year old son and I watched after we read together your post about your son > http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v4AgPSjzXkw. We read it together because I hoped he might see both that children’s sensitivities can indicate and identify valuable and valid concerns about human existence and activity, and that mommies often wonder if they’ve done the right thing for their children when voices from the mainstream start to play in mommies’ heads. Thank you for sharing these pictures and thoughts and experiences.

  • Janelle

    Hi Sheryl!! I had to comment on this blog once I saw it in my email! I’m going through some sleep “issues” currently with my four month old baby. I also read all of the sleeping books and just can’t get her to sleep through the night. She was sleeping through the night from 5 weeks old until she was three months. When she turned three months old we moved her into the crib. She’s no longer swaddled because she can roll over and I’m scared out of my mind about SIDS.

    Anyway, I saw that your dear son threw up when you tried “crying it out”. I swear everyone I know was giving me the advice of “just let her cry it out, she’ll never be able to sleep on her own if you don’t.” I didn’t want to let her cry at all and neither did my husband. After reading all of the books and trying everything in the world, we decided to try “crying it out”. This only lasted five minutes and she also threw up! I picked her up so quickly and cried and cried! I couldn’t believe I listened to all of those people that gave me that awful advice! I don’t think I’ll ever do that again! It’s so sad 🙁

    I’m so thankful for all of the advice that you gave me during my engagement and first year of marriage. It has helped me so much as a wife and as a mother. I’m not following any advice from the books I’ve read, I’m following what you have taught me. I believe that so much of my anxiety was from feeling abandoned during my parents divorce. My dad just wasn’t around and I still have issues with that to this day! I’m not going to abandon my daughter and leave her to cry by herself in her room. I don’t ever want her to feel the pain that I felt. I REFUSE to let her cry it out. If she needs to cry, I’m right there with her rubbing her sweet face. I don’t want her to feel abandoned by leaving her in her dark bedroom. The only way my sweet baby knows how to communicate is to cry, she needs me, and I’m not just going to leave her in a room to deal with it herself! That’s just awful! I even read “The No Cry Sleep Solution” and it didn’t work. That’s okay, I’m going to just keep helping her and doing what I think is right for my baby.

    I think about her being a teenager, if she has a problem and needs me, would I really just send her in her room to deal with it herself? Absolutely not! I want to have a good relationship with my baby, I want her to know she can trust me and that I’ll always be there for her. Even though she probably wouldn’t ever remember “crying it out” I don’t care, I’m not doing that! I want to develop a good relationship with her now and have that relationship last a lifetime. So, thank you, thank you for everything! Everest is so lucky to have you for a mother 🙂

  • Janelle

    One more comment that I’m so sick of hearing is this: “You know why she can’t sleep in her crib it’s because she always sleeps in your arms. You shouldn’t ever hold her and let her fall asleep in your arms, you have spoiled her, it’s your fault she’s not sleeping.” I want to say EXCUSE ME!! She’s freaking four months old!!! That’s crazy to say I’m spoiling my baby, she’s a baby!!! She’s only this little for a while!! And I plan on cuddling as often as I can!! I stop letting her fall asleep in my arms and that didn’t help her sleep any better. A few days ago my hubby and I started letting her fall asleep in our arms again. I think that she just likes being cuddled because she’s been napping for the past hour by herself in her crib 🙂

  • Hi Sheryl:
    I just want to say this is meaningful post. I was a highly sensitive child as well (and am as an adult). Though, I have learned tools to manage this over the years, and it is a gift, in many ways, in my marriage and my life’s work. I admire your work, and I LOVE that you always reply to people when they post comments. I respect your integrity. You rock!

  • Sheryl,

    Great post, and thank you for sharing!

    I was a very sensitive child who couldn’t fall asleep at night without feeling anxiety until I was about 11. It was terrible; I dreaded bedtime.

    Like your son, I would think a lot. I would think about people I loved evenutally dying, my feelings of abandonment in the dark, etc.

    Now I am able to talk my anxiety out in therapy, and figure out what the underlying issues are, and how to feel the feelings instead of the anxiety.

    Children, however, are unable to “talk” it out because they do not yet have an understanding of how our mind makes connections, or what causes anxiety, let alone what anxiety is.

    I am glad your son has understanding parents who don’t shame him for his feelings, who allow him to be expressive, even if it’s frustrating, instead of sweeping his feelings under the rug.

    Talking openly about anxiety really does help, and because you create that environment for him, he will have a better understanding of, and a better grasp over, his anxiety as he gets older.

    • If you feel comfortable sharing, Danielle, I’d be curious to hear what shifted when you were 11.

      • Danielle

        The shift happened when the whole sixth grade class went camping and a teacher who cared about me a lot convinced me to go. I had so much fun sleeping in a cabin with my friends; the activities left me so tired and I fell asleep right away.

        I still have some problems falling asleep and am more of a night owl. I think the sleep anxiety was the first sign of my anxiety. As long as I don’t have pressure to sleep, I’m just fine. I think that pressure really gets to children. Again, good parents like you are extremely helpful!

  • Tanya

    Hi Sheryl, heart wrenching post. I feel your child is picking up on something profound for his age – we are a long way from the days where each family cared for and nurtured their animals and appreciated the sacrifice. I only got that connection with food and animals a few years ago and few people really get it until they see what lies behind the abattoir walls. It’s lucky he has parents who appreciate how precious this quality is and can nurture it instead of calling him too sensitive. It would be hard carrying that burden of understanding alone.

    • I believe that there’s an entire generation of highly, highly sensitive children who are here to help us heal our planet if we only stop long enough to listen. The phrase “too sensitive” will never be uttered in this house!

  • Jill

    I like how real this post is – showing your frustration, having your husband work with you and getting through to your child. I admit, sometimes I read this blog and wonder how calm you can be all the time! But I really appreciate this story from beginning to end.

    I was a very sensitive child and often had night terrors. I would remain awake at night thinking of things just like this (not turkeys, but other things like school, friends, whatever else) but I don’t recall being asked what was on my mind. If I did, I would hardly share since my worries would be cast aside as being silly or ridiculous. It’s awful being a child and having anxiety and panic attacks and not knowing really what is going on; you think those feelings are normal and expected.

    Now as an adult, I still have sleepless nights, but am learning to figure out how to control them since this constant state of worry is not good or normal! Last night was one such example – my husband and I are battling a business that did us wrong, and as a result, my schedule for this Thanksgiving week is turned upside down. When I couldn’t sleep because I had so much “to dos” on my mind, I just got out of bed and wrote them down and it helped to calm me.

    Thanks for sharing and happy Thanksgiving (turkey or not!)

    • Thank you for sharing, Jill. And just so you know, I’m far from calm all the time! I’m glad that this post humanized me as as mother because I would never want to spread the image that I’m a “perfect” mother. I don’t think that mother exists : ).

  • Maggie

    Thanks for the article. I could relate to it, being a very sensitive adult as well. I feel like I have grown with you. Your articles gave me strength from the time I was engaged, married and now a mother. My one year old has had sleeping issues and I tried the cry it out method and I couldn’t do it. It’s so cruel!! Thanks for this article and I now know I made the right decision. It has been a tough year, going through PND but I’ve come out stronger. Keep on writing, you are helping a lot of people. Love from the UK!!!

  • Chris

    It’s so helpful for me to read your journey. Thank you. My son has had so much to deal with in his 2 years, multiple visits to hospital, surgery, his treatment will continue till he’s 5, he may have long term health issues. He cries a lot when we’re out, isn’t talking yet, isn’t walking and recently lost what little language he had. I don’t know yet if he has a possible chromosomal disorder or if his issues are solely to do with the trauma he has been through. It is very very hard to deal with a little one who has had medical trauma and is also exquisitely sensitive. It tests everything I have, but it is also such a gift. My son is a twin and meeting my childrens’ very different needs is not an easy thing. I get lots of advice about managing my son’s behaviour. So far I’m ignoring it.

    Reading your post I recognise that being HSP is something a person has for life and I am thinking that the trauma my son went through from birth, it’s most likely that will be with him for life. Early medical intervention leaves a huge imprint. He is living with that and as his mother I am too, so is his twin sister and their father. I can’t “train” that trauma out of him by controlling his behaviour, all I can do is give him the space to let it out when he needs to.

    • It’s so good to hear from you, Chris, and I’m sending you hugs and blessings as you navigate both the challenges and blessings of your situation. Your attentive and loving mothering always shines through.

  • Lyndsie Coon

    I’m new to your site but each time I stumble upon your blog, I am mesmerized by your eloquent words. I needed some encouragement that relates to families on Thanksgiving. I had a defensive outburst with my mom and brother today on the topic of Walmart being evil or not . Afterwards, as I asked myself why I reacted so harshly and why I’m still holding onto it, I realized how ever since my early days as a sensitive child I have felt alone and different. Your writing touched the inner child in me because as I read about your son’s trials , it was yelling, “I can relate!’.

    I love how you and your husband realized there is a root cause to his dreams and anxiety. When I was reading about his challenge with accepting the the consumption of his friend at Thanksgiving, I thought “That beautiful boy could try tapping (Emotional Freedom Techniques) when those emotions come up.” You have perhaps heard of this energy release technique, which is safe and easy, even for children. I’ve heard the EFT coach Brad Yates has crafted some programs around tapping with your child. Thanks again for bringing such clarity and insight into my life. I look forward to reading more of your posts. All my best!!!

    • Thank you so much for this suggestion, Lyndsie. My mother did some tapping with Everest several years ago but I think it’s time we try again. I’ll definitely check out Brad Yates’ site. And I highly suggest that you read “The Highly Sensitive Person” by Elaine Aron if you haven’t already. It’s life-changing!

  • MarySue

    I am also a highly sensitive person. I will never meet you or your son, but I wish I could hug him and tell him how glad I am that he is who he is. I was a very sensitive little girl who was whipped into submission and “perfection” by a dad whom I loved dearly. I dared not act like a “sissy-sissy, girly-girl.” If I did the slightest thing “wrong,” I had to lie across a bed and be whipped with switches and belts until I was bruised and exhausted. While I was screaming with terror and pain, my dad would scream questions at me (about behaving), and I had to answer with “Yes, sir,” and “No, sir” between sobs. I could barely breathe. My spirit was completely broken.

    I will be 60 next week, and it has taken years to get back to even being close to the person I could have/should have been. I still suffer with LOTS of rage and self-hate, and I cry several times a week about pretty much everything. I grieve for the life I wish I could have lived. I am an intelligent person, but I have done nothing with my life. I have no self-confidence. I wish I had been allowed to be my little sensitive self. My life would have been so different. If you’re wondering where my sweet mother was, she was very depressed and afraid of my dad too. My dad mellowed as he got older, and before he died, he said he knew he did “some things wrong.” The thing is, I loved my dad so much. He could be silly and so much fun. I know he loved me. I miss both of my parents, but I didn’t start to relax into my life until after both were gone. I still have a great deal of anxiety and tend to stay shut-down as much as possible, but I have a job and live my life as any other seemingly “normal” person. I think people who know me would be shocked to read this. As you can imagine, my life has been a huge mess. I’m thankful that I have a son, daughter, and a god-daughter – and grandkids – that make me feel like my life hasn’t been a total loss. There’s a lot more I could write, but I’ve gone on long enough. I hope my point has been made.

    Oh, I’m a vegetarian too and can’t stand how people think animals are things to be tortured and killed for someone to eat. They love, play and have emotions too. I understand your son’s feelings so well. I hope my message doesn’t offend you. Being highly sensitive is a wonderful thing, but it seems like our society would much rather someone be a crass hard-ass than be kind and sensitive. People like your son, if encouraged to be who they are, are the ones who can make the world a better place.

    • Offended? Hardly. This is one of the most heartbreaking, honest, vulnerable comments I’ve read. Thank you for having the courage to share. And that sweet little sensitive girl is inside you, perfect and whole. You have much life left (sixty is the new forty : ) ) and I encourage you to embrace that sweet child within so that you can live the life you’re meant to live and be one of the people who will make this world a better place.

  • Nina

    Thank you for sharing. It really has helped me when my son is acting in a way that is super frustrating to think, this is just a phase…this is a transition. And to remember this isnt his way of trying to make me crazy, often his own little mind is just as freaked out and upset by how he is feeling/acting. Ive learned that from reading your blog, thank you. One thing that works for my just can never turn it off mind is journaling. I have, inconsistently, throughout my life but it was borne home when doing Artist Pages by Julia Cameron. Just three pages of stream of conciousness…no going back to it, no agenda, just getting it all out so my mind can stop thinking of the same things over and over.that may help your son too.

  • Ashley

    I have so much gratitude reading this post Sheryl. Really, I do. I see him being held and loved and nurtured. And it warms my heart to think he will engage in this world cherished as he is with enough courage and bravery to bring forth compassion and sensitivity to us all. Thank you for sharing!

  • Christie

    Thank you so much for this post. Sometimes I feel like we are the only ones with a highly-sensitive child-it’s often disheartening hearing other parents talk about how their kids are sleeping by 8:00! Our 9 year old daughter, like you son, is often up very late with “everything” on her mind. Bedtime has become the worst part of the day. We also have tried everything:meditation CDs, bedtime poem books made by special family members, a new ipod shuffle with special peaceful stories, bedtime tea, lavender baths etc. The best thing for us has been cuddling and chatting and just being there for and with her. She often still comes into our bed during the night. As you said, very difficult to do for a parent at the end of a long day; but I do know from personal experience that if children, during those formidable years, are not treated with compassion and made to feel safe, anxiety and low self-esteem, exactly as you said, will be the result. Thank you so very much for sharing this experience. It is comforting to think that we are not alone and I will now perhaps smile in gratitude for all of the like-minded parents having a similar bedtime experience (as I once did during the wee hours of the night trying to nurse a crying babe). By the way, my daughter is also a vegetarian 🙂

    • Thank you so much for sharing, Christie. I find it comforting to think about your nine year old, vegetarian daughter being comforted by her parents the way we’re comforting our nine year old, vegetarian son! Perhaps one day they’ll meet… : )

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