Where’s the Line?

On Saturday, my daughter had the following treats:What Happens When My Cousin Makes Birthday Cakes

  • a ‘juice drink,’ chips, crackers, and candy at a birthday party,
  • bubble tea (liquid candy–and a long-promised reward) with me,
  • and frozen yogurt with my mom.

On Sunday morning, she had a donut for breakfast, and macaroni and cheese from a box for lunch.

My husband and I had kale in our breakfast. We’re vegan. If my daughter had been with me, she would’ve loved  our breakfast of potatoes, veggies, and vegan sausage.

My daughter generally eats whole foods. She loves her greens and beans, her tofu and kale, carrots, apples…prunes. This is a kid who cried because she didn’t get hot lunch at school on the day they were sampling brussels sprouts. She cried for brussels sprouts.

Birthday Brunch: love those veggies!
Birthday Brunch: love those veggies!

She cheers for cauliflower. She lives for lentil soup.

Really, she hasn’t encountered a plant food she doesn’t like. And she doesn’t have much of a sweet tooth. We save up candy from birthday parties and holidays throughout the year, then use it to decorate gingerbread houses at Christmas. On Easter, I finally threw away her chocolate Easter bunny from last year. 

We don’t buy soda. We rarely buy chips. When we have cookies, they are homemade from scratch and involve whole wheat flour, peanut butter, and oatmeal (and of course, dark chocolate chips). We don’t go to fast food–my daughter has never stepped into a McDonald’s, to my knowledge.

And when she has treats, I want to be the one to give them to her. I take parental responsibility very seriously. I’m the kind of mom who has my kids to pick up the toys they’re playing with before getting out the next one. I make them put their clothes in the laundry basket, clear the table, and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’

It’s tiring. And I could use some help.

Where does community responsibility kick in?

When I complained–mildly–on Facebook about all the sugar my kids had this weekend (it was my two-year old’s first night away from us. He spent the night at my mom’s! And I am SOOOO grateful), I was told to be appreciative. That the rules are different at grandma’s.

Well, yes. I am appreciative. And I know the rules are different. They watch lots of movies, they eat things I wouldn’t feed them (or even consider food). It’s rare, and it’s okay. But where is the line? What if they were watching violent movies? What if they were given meat? What if they were given toy guns to play with? Real guns?

Should I just bite my tongue and be grateful? Where is the line?

And what about the church they go to, the church that serves donuts? Why shouldn’t it serve bagels and fruit?

There is a double-standard in our society. Whenever we try to do something to improve the nutrition of foods in schools, restaurants, public buildings–like Bloomberg’s law in New York limiting the size of soda–people cry ‘nanny state’ and ‘parents need to take responsibility.’ Here’s a case in point: Junk Food Studies Ignore Parent Responsibility.

School Store: Where's the Food?
School Store: Where’s the Food?

Parents get blamed for taking their kids to fast food. And you know what? I have empathy for those parents.

I used to work full-time. I used to be a single mom. I used to take the bus everywhere, toddler in tow. So, yeah, we ate out at restaurants. We bought food that was quick-cooking. I bent my rules, and tried to feel okay about letting my standards slide. I spent a lot more money than we would’ve have if we ate at places like McDonald’s. Most parents are just doing what they can to get through the day–they ARE short on time and money, and they feed their kids what’s available and affordable. And often, it’s crap.

But, then there are parents like me… I try. I try HARD. Just last night, we were at a Cinco de Mayo party that had a piñata… for two kids, including my two-year-old son. Unlike my daughter, he does have a sweet tooth, and it is much harder to persuade him to eat veggies or fruit. Another mom there somehow persuaded him to eat some melon–a first! But he was much more excited for the junky candy from the piñata.  I convinced him to go home and trade them for dark chocolate. It wasn’t easy.

At least he likes broccoli
At least he likes broccoli

That’s the kind of mom I am. The stick in the mud. The party pooper. The one who risks damaging relationships with family and friends because I care so much about what my kids eat and want them to have healthy habits for a lifetime. Not just today… but for their whole lives.

I want to be the one who decides what rule to bend, what treat to give. And I still want that treat to have some redeeming qualities (like the homemade muffins and watermelon we sent to my step-son’s baseball practice… which got rejected).

Sure, you might say–but it’s okay every once in a while.

Well, yes, that would be true–if this only happened once in a while. For most families, it happens every day.

Every day, multiple times a day, is not “once in a while.”

So many other people give my daughter treats. In preschool, I discovered they bribed her for good behavior with jelly beans. I discovered her father brought her ‘fun size’ candy bars when he visited her there several times a week (yes, we had good reasons for supervised visits). In kindergarten, I discovered late in the school year that her teacher gave them snacks like animal crackers and goldfish crackers. So did the after school program. My child doesn’t need those extra calories–her meals are designed to cover her needs for the day. She doesn’t need white flour, extra salt, hydrogenated oils, fake flavors and colors… sugar in all its many forms.  Those little extra treats add up to lots of extra, empty calories. 

I transferred her to a Montessori school, in large part so she would be subject to fewer commercial influences (e.g., all the school fundraisers that feature junk food either for sale or as the prize), and it’s much better. But what about every other kid out there?

We are failing them as a community.

I want my community to step up and take some responsibility. My daughter is at the obese end of her growth chart. She’s big. She’s strong. We try to do everything right, but she has a belly.  And I am tired of being undermined by the community that is supposed to care about children. I am a responsible parent.

But parental responsibility only goes so far, especially when there are so many pressures, both subtle and not so subtle, working against you. We all need to take responsibility–as a community. Together.

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22 thoughts on “Where’s the Line?

  1. I agree with what you are saying here, and it’s very difficult leaving children in the hands of others hoping that they will feed them in a responsible manner, but everyone has their own way of thinking about food, and I think this is an extremely hard battle to fight! My sympathy is with you!! 🙂

    I noticed you said that your daughter doesn’t need those extra calories that are being given to her, mainly sugary foods, and I would agree that giving children lots of sugar in various forms is bad for all sorts of reasons. But could I share something with you that I discovered in recent years that has enabled me to lose a lot of weight, getting down to a sensible weight for my height. I’ve never been someone who eats very much sugar, and yet since the early 90’s I began to gain weight very slowly. For years I could not figure out why, I tried cutting out all sugar, it made no difference. For some unknown reason I just thought I’d try cutting out virtually all butter and oil, and very little packaged foods with fat in them. Very slowly but surely I lost several stone in weight, and I’m nearly at my target weight now. I weighed myself every day for months just to discover what foods personally made me gain weight, and found that fats where the foods that were my worst enemy, and not sugar (but of course sugar is often combined with fats in very yummy addictive foods!) I also found that pasta was terrible, one very small fat free meal with a handful of pasta, and I would gain 3lb by the next day, and that wouldn’t shift for over a week!!! 😯

    My brother has been struggling with his weight for a while now, and recently (reluctantly) gave up nearly all fats in his diet, and changed nothing else, he’s now losing weight within 2 weeks of making that change – he was shocked! Neither of us have ever eaten a large amount of fatty foods, so we would never have believed that the small amounts we did consume were keeping our weight high. I feel we are being sold a lot of foods we really don’t need to eat. There are many people around the world who do not eat the kind of so called healthy fats we eat, or dairy products, and they are not all falling over ill with malnutrition as we are very often lead to believe will happen to us if we don’t have some of those essential every day foods! I have many friends who have been vegetarian over the years, and who eat little or no sugar, and all of them are now overweight. And I was also a vegetarian for a number of years and that was the time I gained the most weight, I never thought that healthy oils like Olive Oil, even in small amounts could cause my body very slowly to gain a lot of weight over many years!

    I realise this may not be relevant to your daughter, but I just thought I’d share it in case it may help. Sorry this is so long, but it was difficult to say in only a few sentences!!
    Suzy 😀

  2. Kylie – I, of course, feel your pain. It’s incredibly frustrating and disheartening when you feel like your efforts to feed your family healthy are continually being undermined. I agree that it needs to be a community effort. The problem is, not everyone in the community is going to know or care as much about food. I recommend getting out there and advocating for healthier choices–at school, church, etc. Have a heart-to-heart with your mom. A school food reform advocate recently said to me, “Nothing is going to change if parents don’t demand it!” If you are polite and make it easy (by, say, offering to provide healthy snacks for an event), they may be willing to try something new. We ARE failing them as a community. So let’s get out there and try to make change. Just my two cents!

    1. Yes-I definitely agree! I actually was part of a group that got nutrition standards passed for our schools, so they no longer sell soda and have limits on the sugar and fat in foods sold outside the school meals program. I’m thinking about launching a campaign called “Bring Back the Oranges” that would have parents pledge to bring healthy snacks to sports practices and games. Change has to go slowly and gently, in a friendly way, and I thought that this sentimental approach (everybody remembers those quarters of oranges!) would be a good way to go. Thanks for your comment.

  3. hmmm 1.  I called and told you we were going to go for frozen yogurt – at that time you could have said no.  2.  The donut was not for breakfast – we had breakfast at 6:00.  The donut was at 8:30 at the park…and yes, the church serves bagels.    3.  I had not realized that the Annie’s Organic macaroni was poison. Oh well lesson learned.  


    1. You’re right, of course. I could’ve spoken up then, but didn’t want to ruin the fun. Thank you for raising me to eat whole grain bread, scratch-cooked food, and lots of veggies. Thanks for raising me to consider soda and sugar cereals a rarity–I fondly remember getting them once a year on Christmas. Thank you for setting a good example as mother who continues to speak up for her kids–like how you pointed out your youngest son couldn’t eat the pasta on Sunday and reminisced about your advocacy for him in high school. As an adult now, I’m sure he appreciates all the concern you still have for his welfare. All parents should be advocates for their children, and I’m still learning to speak up. It’s going to be rocky, since I’ve been keeping quiet about my preferences for so long, in order to keep the peace and not sacrifice the fantastic, loving relationship you have with my children. I’m so grateful for all your help. What happened over the weekend made me think about the larger context that my children live in, and my role in helping navigate and shape that. That’s what I’ve done for about 12 years in my career, but it’s been harder to do that in my personal life.

  4. Preaching to the choir, sister. I am astonished at how often my daughter gets offered sweets. I’m a stick in the mud, too and I am absolutely okay with it. My 9 year old knows what nutrient dense foods are, has eaten at McDonald’s once (someone else’s ill-inspired birthday party) and can explain why cereal boxes have cartoons on them (marketing). She’s a self-declared vegetarian and I couldn’t be prouder. She isn’t prevented from eating anything, but she is educated about choices and wow, she’s hitting that age where I can see our hard work and diligence is paying off. Active, happy, focused and knows how to make good eating choices. Keep up the good fight!

    1. Thanks Michelle–I’m assertive in so many areas of my life, but sometimes wonder if I’m missing the mama bear gene. I’m starting to be okay with it, too, but I need to learn how to speak up early, before repression turns to aggression (to coin a phrase). Your daughter sounds fantastic! Thanks for your support.

  5. You’re singing my song, Kylie. I agree–it is exhausting to try to do right in terms of our children’s nutrition when everything in society fights against it. I used to be more restrictive with my kids than I am now, but they’re teenagers now, and I’m not around for all their meals (my oldest eats lunch in the school cafeteria). I just have to hope that the foundation I set for them will lead them to decent choices in the future. Will my oldest always choose pizza and subs over a salad and lean protein? For now, he does, but he’s 16. I have to hope that when he’s off to college, some of my earlier efforts will come back to him.

    By the way: “I make them put their clothes in the laundry basket, clear the table, and say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’”—Thank you for doing this. It’s amazing how many parents don’t, and as a result, it’s showing in our society. Every time I encounter a polite child, I complement the parents. That lovely behavior doesn’t happen by accident.

    1. Civilizing my children is constant work, but hearing that little ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ makes it all worthwhile. When my daughter was two, she would say ‘bless you’ to people when they sneezed. It was so cute. Not that she’s an angel–she’s a very challenging kid–but it IS gratifying when you can see that your hard work has paid off. And the best way to see that is when they go off on their own and make their own choices. I just want them to always have healthy choices available to them 😉

      1. Also, Carrie, I was writing this while we were bantering on your blog, so go sing that song to the tune of “Elephants on Parade!”

  6. I used to work in an elementary school, and the snacks the kids get are crap. Juice boxes with fruit roll-ups. Doritos and Country Time Lemonade. And that is, of course, after a school lunch of chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes, and a roll. It’s crap–all of it. And I feel like it’s so unfair for people to say things like, “It’s only once in a while,” or, “Let kids be kids.” Since when did letting kids be kids come to mean letting kids have junk food whenever it is presented, no questions asked. It’s hard to have healthy kids when everyone shames you for enforcing rules to keep them healthy, but at the same time will shame them if they’re perceived as “fat”. Ugh. People can bite me. lol

    1. You said it well!!!

      Kids don’t need to eat a 300 calorie cookie for dinner at sports practice. They just don’t. Not after buying crap from the school store after school, eating crap for lunch, and being given crap for a snack. After eating sugar cereal in the morning. It’s craziness.

      When DID it happen? Sometime between when I was a kid and when I became a parent. I want to be part of making it stop.

  7. I feel your pain. It’s not just kids either. I’ve written a few times about the angst that comes along with living with a responsible type 2 diabetic. Neither my husband or myself consume any sugar, but it’s not easy. Everyone tries to convince him that he’s being rude, or that I’m being mean, or that a cheat doesn’t hurt. I can explain habit-building all I want, and that it isn’t being rude to want to live, and that in his case… a cheat could cause a coma, but nope. On top of that, we have to hear all the time about how all type 2 diabetics are unhealthy and don’t care. I have no idea how we’d manage if we weren’t so used to doing things our own way and disappointing others– we’re already weird, so we just rock it. But for someone who really wants to fit in (or needs to, for jobs and the like)… I don’t know how you fight the pressure of the community. I feel bad for the type 2’s who eat everything all the time, because I get it– it’s fast, often times cheaper, and it makes others happy.

    You are absolutely right to start those values early, and maybe the easiest thing is to find a community of friends who feel the same and can support you and your kids?

    Loved this post, it’s so well-expressed and heart-felt. 🙂

    1. Oh, thanks! When I was writing this post in my head yesterday, I thought about people who are diabetic, and how my perception is that it’s easier to explain a dietary choice–a dietary rebellion!–when you have a medical condition. But, obviously, it’s not easier, is it? Because we make a choice, based on lots of research, that is our way of trying to prevent disease and live lighter on the earth, it’s hard. Fortunately, a lot of my friends are of the same mind-set, or at least understand it. It’s harder with family. Families can be so complicated for so many reasons already, but to throw in dietary differences, then you really tap into lots of deeper values and meanings that are hard to articulate. Since we opt-out of mainstream food choices, we’ve sidestepped a lot of the pitfalls that I imagine plague a lot of families. But as a blended family, we have kids who live most of the week in another household who eat a very conventional American diet, and have trouble adjusting their palate and expectations. It’s something that is on my mind a lot, and I should write about it more here.

  8. I read an article in one of the papers a few weeks ago saying about how we’re all addicted to sugar without realising it, that there’s something in the fructose that is detrimental to our health because it stops us feeling full and so we keep on eating. The healthier we eat, the less this affects us – and of course there’s a greater reduction in the chance of developing diabetes.

    The obsession with sugar also goes back a long way. It was used as a status symbol in Victorian times because sugar was expensive and if you had home-made cakes that were really sweet, you were clearly well-off. This seems to have hung on to our life these days, and so everything must be sweet for people to want it. We’re the ones who can make the change, so we need to keep on showing society what to do and live the change to make the message heard.

    1. Really good points!! There is so much that can be said about the culture and history of food, and a lot of it has to do with status, belonging, and acceptance.

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