“Can I Have Another Snack?” The Trials and Tribulations of Parents and Food
November 12, 2012
By David J. Leonard
Food is always a challenge on the parental grind. Whether competing with commercials that highlight the nutritional value of the latest sugary cereal (food coloring, sugar, corn syrup, and FIBER) or the newest cross marketing promotion that requires a burger to secure “that thing,” I often find myself fighting an uphill battle. If only fast food “restaurants” and tween characters were in the business of selling apples and broccoli, I might find the challenge a little less taxing.
While the challenges of competing with hyper-marketed, colorful, and processed sugar delivered in various shapes and sizes is nothing new, I have found the struggle to be especially difficult with my oldest daughter (almost 9) over the last year. Partially reflecting her increased independence – the ability to get her own food from the pantry – and her growing appetite that has not resulted in an expanded menu, I have really had to look inward to evaluate my own reactions. Is my concern about her intake a normal response to children’s insatiable desire for unhealthy yet appealing foods? Is this about my failures as a parent, as someone running around, pulled in different directions, and thus unable or unwilling to have the conversations and the battles over the difference between fresh fruit and packaged fruit snacks? Or is it a gendered reaction particular to my buying into society’s demands about female beauty and skinniness? In other words, is this specific to my daughter, whereupon my level of awareness when it comes to my son will be different? I don’t know the answer to these questions, which is telling in itself.
I have found myself in dialogue with myself, asking often if my reaction is wrapped up in the gendered policing of girls’ and women’s bodies? For example, is it two cookies is too much or two cookies for her is too much? In this regard, am I giving voice to the daily lessons widely disseminated in the media and countless other institutions? Am I serving as a conduit of these destructive and hurtful lessons? Whether I am subconsciously buying into these societal beauty standards, merely trying to “protect” her from a sexist society (or harmful foods), or simply just trying to get her to eat in healthy ways, these moments have forced introspection as a parent. They have forced me to think about my own capitulation, wondering if the lessons learned from media, from schools, from everyday interactions, those grounded in misogyny and sexism, are impacting my parental choices.
While the efforts to empower our children with food knowledge (yes, fruit snacks are not fruit; 100% fruit juice doesn’t mean right squeezed into the bottle) and to provide knowledge so that kids can make good choices about what they put in their bodies through their own lives, I also find myself worrying about how my parenting, how the arguments about food, how the struggles about soda or snacks, may have a deleterious impact on her in the long term. That is, is making food into a source of conflict a problem in itself? Anthony T. DeBenedet, explores the larger issues at work here:
Sure, promoting healthy eating, regardless of one’s weight or age, seems like a positive thing on the surface. But here’s the potential downside: We know kids and teens react differently than adults to external pressures like persistent messaging. Sometimes these pressures can translate into incredible waves of anxiety and fear. At the extreme, a healthy-weight youth could be pushed to monitor his weight more frequently or even begin an unsupervised diet — behaviors that might represent an impending eating disorder.