A family divided: When parents, kids disagree on COVID-19 vaccines

For almost all Canadians, vaccinations are essential, especially as the holiday season approaches and families are fending off the Omicron variant. Now nearly everyone can receive the COVID-19 vaccine, including children.

But some families are still debating whether to get it. While most Canadians have been fully vaccinated against the virus, there is an adamant minority who refuses.

At the Callahan dining room in Trenton, Ont., opinions vary. The mother, Valerie, and her 16-year-old daughter, Brooke, have both been vaccinated. Paul, the father, is not. The avid hunter cites his faith in God as his reason.

“His blood is shed all over me, so it’s like my shield,” he says.

Click to play video: 'What happens when parents and kids disagree on COVID-19 vaccines'
What happens when parents and kids disagree on COVID-19 vaccines

“I understand completely,” his daughter says. “I used to go to church twice a week … but there’s a point where there’s a line drawn.”

That line is her 11-year-old brother, Noah.

He says he’s eager to get the vaccine, but Noah’s doctor told him to wait. He was born with a heart defect that could make him vulnerable to side effects, his mother says.

“If you can’t do it for yourself … do it for Noah,” Valerie, 46, says to her 49-year-old husband. “Noah doesn’t have a choice to get the vaccine, so people around him need to protect themselves to protect him.”

From left to right, Paul Callahan; his 11-year-old son, Noah; his wife, Valerie; and their daughter, Brooke, 16, are pictured here on Feb. 22, 2020, at Toronto Pearson International Airport before leaving for a Caribbean cruise. Valerie Callahan

Soft-spoken Noah likes to keep up with the news. The Grade 6 student says he watched the debates between former U.S. president Donald Trump and President Joe Biden because he found the feud “interesting.”

He says he pays attention to COVID-19 outbreaks nationally and around the world. Noah has noticed most of the people who got the virus in Canada since the vaccine rollout started had not been vaccinated when they became sick.

“Those people are setting themselves up for failure,” he says.

Noah and his dad call each other “selfish” for different reasons. Paul says he feels unheard by his family. Noah says his dad’s decision shows he doesn’t want to be with his family when they go out. Ontario guidelines require people to show proof that they’re fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to get into certain public settings, so Paul has been missing from recent dinners out, birthday celebrations and Noah’s hockey games this season.

“Every time I bring back a medal, I’m going to rub it in his face,” Noah says.

Valerie says her kids have cried at the dinner table over Paul’s decision.

“This divides us,” Valerie says, wiping tears away from her face. “We’re still doing things just the three of us, and it’s not a family unit.”

Noah says whenever he talks to his dad about why he should get vaccinated, it “ends in an argument.”

“The more I talk about it, the more anger builds up inside me because … you’re forcing me to do something that I don’t want to do,” Paul says to his family. “I’m not stopping you guys from doing it.”

Whose choice is it to get vaccinated?

In most provinces and territories, including Ontario, there is no stipulated age of consent for medical treatments, meaning adults and children can make their own decisions on whether to get vaccinated, regardless of age.

“The question is, do they understand and do they appreciate what they’re consenting to?” says Dr. Kerry Bowman, who teaches bioethics and global health at the University of Toronto. “If, in fact, they do, they can consent.”

Click to play video: 'Dr. Samir Gupta answers parent questions about the COVID-19 vaccine'
Dr. Samir Gupta answers parent questions about the COVID-19 vaccine

This situation also requires a health-care provider who can weigh in and confirm that the child is able to make their own medical decision, says Dr. Joy Hataley, a family physician based in Kingston, Ont.

“The care provider must also be willing to vaccinate the child, who is capable of consent, regardless of the parent’s wishes,” Dr. Hataley says. “Clearly, this decision becomes increasingly challenging the younger the child.”

Skepticism among parents

Younger Canadian children have waited more than a year and a half to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Now that the federal government has cleared kids five and older to get it, children have become more involved in what Dr. Bowman calls “vaccine wars.”

“Children are going to get caught in the middle of this,” he says. “It would be appalling to pull children into these wars.”

One six-year-old in London, Ont., is facing her own dilemma. Even though she wants to be vaccinated, her mom says her father is too scared to let her.

The mother does not want her family to be identified in this story, since she says she is uncomfortable giving out her personal information in general, let alone to businesses about her vaccination status to “get in somewhere.”


Her daughter says her friends have already been vaccinated.

“I don’t want to get sick,” the girl says.

The child’s father, who has been vaccinated, declined an interview with Global News. His unvaccinated wife says, as a family of colour, her fear around vaccines stems from seeing that the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected racialized communities in Canada.

“If people of colour are reacting this way to COVID, I’m unsure how she’ll react to the vaccine,” the mother says of her daughter. “As a person of colour, should we be more scared?”

But the chair of the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity says race doesn’t make you susceptible to COVID-19. Instead, the disparity is rooted in socioeconomic factors, including access to health care and living in densely populated neighbourhoods.

“There are no racialized mortality risks from the vaccine,” Dr. Akwatu Khenti says. “Having an adverse reaction to the vaccine depends on her biology, not her race.”

Click to play video: 'Ask an Expert: Helping children with needle phobia'
Ask an Expert: Helping children with needle phobia

Cases of the virus in younger children make up 11 per cent of all Canadian cases.

“Are we vaccinating the children for the safety and well-being of the children themselves?” Dr. Bowman asks. “Or is it better for society to help pull society out of this pandemic? I actually think it’s the latter.”

A Canadian poll taken just before the government green-lit the vaccine for kids showed more than half of parents were ready to have their children vaccinated right after the vaccine approval, but 18 per cent said they will wait and eventually get their kids immunized. Nearly a quarter of parents said they will not be vaccinating their children.

A recent American study conducted by Boston’s Northeastern University found echoes of that hesitance. Parents are increasingly concerned about vaccinating their children, with some of the main reasons being the vaccine’s newness, efficacy and side effects.

But health experts say parents should remember that giving children the COVID-19 vaccine is largely safe, effective and could be a huge help in curbing COVID-19 cases. However, so far, only one per cent of young Canadian children have been fully vaccinated.

“The decision to vaccinate children is actually a much more ethical decision than a medical decision,” Dr. Bowman says.

How to talk to your family about vaccines

The first principle to maintaining relationships, even if you have different opinions on vaccines, is to be “non-judgmental and to really listen to what other people have to say,” Dr. Hataley says.

“Whether or not you agree with it isn’t the point,” she says. “Everyone believes their viewpoint to be valid and needs to be validated in terms of being heard.”

Where our relationships are concerned, we don’t want to come out of the pandemic in a worse situation than we were when we went into the pandemic, Dr. Khenti says.

Hataley’s advice to families with mixed opinions is to set aside a limited timeframe — even five minutes — to talk about what they’re thinking. Then, the conversation ends until the family comes together again days to a week later.

“The wonderful thing about humans is we do change. We change our minds. We take in new information. We see things from a different angle when we hear other people’s perspectives.”

When it comes to children, health experts are sending out a resounding message to parents: listen to your kids, and let them know they have the power to help end this pandemic.

“Children are far more versed in the information surrounding COVID than we realize,” Dr. Hataley says. “They hear our conversations as adults in the home. They overhear news. Just go out into the playground and listen to kids chatting.”

Noah told his dad that as he gets older and more serious about hockey, he will want him to be there even more. If Paul gets his COVID-19 vaccine soon, he’ll be fully vaccinated in time for Noah’s upcoming tournament. But his father has not budged.


“If you were on the same page as me with believing in God, you’d be on my side,” Paul says.

“He’s so set on it,” Noah says. “But I know it’s his choice, and you just have to respect other people’s choices.”

If talking to your family about this issue continues to give you déjà vu, Dr. Hataley says to bring in a trusted third party, like a health-care provider, who can “keep the conversation evidence-based.”

Dr. Bowman says while solving this equation will never be easy, he offers this advice to families: “If we use our hearts and we use our minds in conjunction, we can find a way.”