Kids aren’t the problem. Parents are.

by Christina on March 11, 2014

Nearly every week I read an essay or blog post in which the writer, a parent, declares her outrage over no birthday cupcakes in school or no chips at soccer games or (fill-in-the-food-affront-of-the-day). “Let kids be kids!” the argument goes. “It’s just one cupcake… one party… one day a week.”

Someone slaps on a link-bait headline, the post goes viral, and commenters pile on with screeds against food nazis and predictions of childhood ruination.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed a shift in the comments. Yes, sadly there’s still the kind of hate that makes you want to turn off the whole internet. But now there’s an opposite kind of reaction, too, from parents who are fed up not with some perceived assault on their sensibilities, but with the very real assault on their kids. As in: Can we just cool it with the constant junk, already?

I chalk this up to several things. First, it’s getting harder to ignore the realities of a food system tainted by GMOsfactory farmingBig Food indoctrination and subpar ingredients. Second, there’s been a dramatic (and not unrelated) increase in childhood food allergies, behavioral disorders and digestive conditions, which has forced extra vigilance.

Finally, and importantly, it appears that more people are waking up to the fact that we live in a 24/7 food culture that feeds kids at every opportunity, a culture that uses food for everything from reward to distraction. When every event is a “celebration,” when every treat is “special,” it’s impossible to keep framing junk as an occasional indulgence. It is never — not ever — “just one” anything anymore.

If this awakening continues, if more parents start to step up and speak up, we may see some real change yet. But we’ll get there a lot faster if we all acknowledge one other thing:

offendedKids don’t care. Parents do.

In 10 years of being “that mom” — the one who organizes junk-free class parties, who pushes for healthier camp snacks, who speaks up not only for my kid but for all kids — I have never seen a child protest. Not in any grand you’re-killing-my-childhood kind of way, at least. For kids, the food is secondary to the fun.

But parents are a different story. Even in my generally reasonable circles, I run into it. I’ve seen parents go rogue on sign-up sheets and walk in with doughnut holes and cupcakes. “Come on, it’s a party!” I’ve heard them blame their kids when they ignore a teacher’s request and send in Halloween goody bags and candy Valentines. “Bobby really wanted to share with his classmates.” Meanwhile, Bobby looks utterly disinterested in distributing the junk he supposedly was eager to bring.

I know I’m not alone. I hear all the time from readers who say it’s other parents, not kids, who sabotage or complain about their efforts to clean up classroom or extracurricular food (or nix it altogether). Some of these acts are confrontational — like defiantly bringing brightly colored baked goods to class parties — but often it’s more about passive-aggressive scoffing and snark.

What is up with that? Food is touchy, to be sure. We all have different ideas about what’s “best” or “healthy.” And it’s easy to feel judged or criticized when someone makes choices that are different from our own. But why is it any more offensive to attempt to curb junk food than to offer it in the first place?

I get that there’s an element of nostalgia here. Though, given my own hazy childhood memories, I have to wonder how much of that is real and how much is wishful remembering. Sometimes it feels like parents have collective amnesia about the food realities of our own childhoods. We certainly weren’t eating cupcakes (or their equivalent) in school every week or gulping sports drinks any time we got near a field. And, in any case, ingredients weren’t nearly as worrisome then as they are now.

I don’t deny that food can create powerful memories. I just don’t think that food has to be junk to be a treat. For years we brought homemade gingerbread cookies and clementines for Tess’s school birthday, since she’s a Christmas baby. The last couple years we’ve brought fruit and also croissants from a local bakery that uses terrific ingredients. (For the record: The kids always gobble this stuff right up.) And I like to think Tess will remember this fondly.

But you know what Tess remembers most about those birthdays? The sweet traditions, like classmates passing around a “wishing stone” and sharing their wishes for the birthday child, or the year she got to wear a gold crown and cape because she was the birthday girl. And, in recent years, it’s the way her classmates sing “Happy Birthday” with a loud “cha-cha-cha” at the end.

Are there some kids who do protest? Who do complain or turn up their noses at healthier fare? Sure. I’ve heard some of those stories, too. But ask yourself why. Kids aren’t born craving Doritos or Skittles. Those are learned habits, acquired tastes. And so are the associations that go with them. Plus, if a child sees a parent getting mad or upset about something, how do you think that child is going to react herself?

Really, though, so what if kids do protest. Kids protest a lot of things. Bedtime, baths, brushing their teeth. The list is endless. But no one argues we should just throw up our hands at those. Parenting is hard. Really hard. And sometimes it plain sucks. But it’s also an amazing privilege, and we owe it to our kids — to all kids — to get it right. Either we set the example, or someone else will.

Want more info on how (and why) to make some change? My resources page is a good place to start. And check out these two posts in particular:

Why school and junk food don’t mix. And what educators can do about it.

Teaching your kids about food will not cause eating disorders

Spoonfed on FacebookSpoonfed is on Facebook. You’ll find links to blog posts, news and commentary on raising food-literate kids, questions and comments from readers, the works. Stop by, like the page, chime in, spread the word. (Thanks.) Also please consider subscribing by e-mail or RSS feed (which you can do at the top of the blog).

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nichole T March 11, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Honestly, I was once on the side of those who argued to “let kids be kids!” And have treats at these events. However, once I realized how many “special” events were going on, and how they added up, I changed my mind. I also had to concede that I came from a family that rewarded with food, and that likely contributed to some of my own food issues. I think people react out of deep emotion on this, and it is hard to reason. I think knowing the stats helps. It makes it less personal.

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2 Casey March 11, 2014 at 5:14 pm

Having been “that mom” too, it’s good to see the norms shift is happening: “In 10 years of being ‘that mom’ — the one who organizes junk-free class parties, who pushes for healthier camp snacks, who speaks up not only for my kid but for all kids — I have never seen a child protest.”

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3 Paula March 11, 2014 at 7:15 pm

I totally agree with you! Loved your article.

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4 Angela March 11, 2014 at 9:53 pm

This echoes my thoughts to a T! I couldn’t agree more. I find being “that mom” less and less difficult each day.

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5 Ilonka March 11, 2014 at 11:13 pm

I appreciate this post. Thank you!

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6 Carla Golden March 12, 2014 at 8:39 am

Here! Here! Excellent article. Thank you. I am definitely “that parent” in my daughter’s classroom. In my daughter’s Montessori school where the educators are very focused on brain development, I have succeeded in sharing with them the impacts of sugar, HFCS, MSG, and food chemicals on the young brain. At least there are fewer Oreo cookies and microwaved bags of popcorn going around.

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7 Jennifer Z March 12, 2014 at 9:21 am

I am very happy to see the shift away from food at every event for other reasons:

1) Providing food for an entire class or team is limiting to people who don’t have the budget to do that. They might already be struggling to pay the fees to play, or to buy a birthday cake mix from the store for just their family celebration, and their kid gets left out of the fun or isn’t allowed to participate in the recreational activity because they don’t want to put in the embarrassing situation of not being able to be the “snack mom”.

And 2) I am beyond sick of entitled parents whining about having to watch out for food allergies like it is just ruining their enjoyment of life to not have pink frosting (dye allergy) or peanut butter sandwiches. My kid has no allergies, and I am just plain thankful that I don’t have to deal with that on a daily basis, and can’t stand people who find it too “inconvenient” to keep from murdering a kid because their kids “has” to have peanut butter or wheat flour or dyes.

Kids do not need snacks at every event. Water at sporting events, especially in the heat, is the only exception.

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8 Meridith Larson March 13, 2014 at 2:18 pm

YES! #2 is so obnoxious. My daughter’s school is peanut free because there is a child there with an air-born allergy. Yet at the PTO meeting the other parents and the principal (!) were complaining about worrying about peanuts. HELLO – this is a child’s life and you are worried about having a nut bar during school hours? CRIPES!

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9 Kiki March 12, 2014 at 4:54 pm

Good post. It’s a sad reality that a lot of junk food is the cheaper and faster option for school events, especially when both parents work full time and already spend so much time on food prep at home. Probably much easier to say don’t bring food at all. I know a lot of parents who would not be happy with croissants! Good for you on stopping the sugary cookies. It’s really hard with the food sensitivities and allergies to have something where everyone can partake and all parents are comfortable.

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10 Christina March 12, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Kiki: Very true about the junk being cheap and fast, but the crazy thing is that some parents will actually go out of their way to make, for instance, cookies with brightly colored frosting. So that can’t be explained by money or convenience. And, truly, with some label-reading, there are better packaged options out there — and not just fancy organic ones — so I tend to lose patience with that argument.

I do agree, though, that in many cases no food is the better option all around.

About the croissants: You can’t please everyone, but I’ll tell you these croissants please everyone who’s ever had them, and not a word of protest from any parent.

Not sure what you mean by “sugary cookies”? Are you talking about the gingerbread cookies? If so, I can assure you they aren’t sugary in the least. Just a little molasses and maple sugar. And I didn’t stop sending them because they’re cookies. I stopped because Tess asked for the croissants instead. Not all cookies are bad, you know…

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11 Sarah@Kids Heart Real Food March 12, 2014 at 10:13 pm

This post made me want to stand up and cheer, wave my flag and do a happy dance. You’ve articulately captured all the pent up feelings I have when other moms make comments alluding to Tyson being a deprived child because he is a nutritionist’s son. It is SO, SO true that the argument that “it’s what the kids want” is not a valid reason for doing something that is so detrimental to their health. Paralleling this to wearing a seatbelt and having a bath is brilliant – I’m going to use that one :) Thanks for continuing to stand up for all of us who continue to be “that” parent.

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12 Liz - Meal Makeover Mom March 13, 2014 at 9:40 am

Great post. I could not agree with you more. I went through this same challenge in my community about 10 years ago, and happily, we made many positive changes. We were early adopters of good nutrition, but getting there wasn’t easy. For starters, we managed to get the junk food off the soccer playing fields — it started with a letter to the editor of my local paper titled, “Bring Back the Oranges, Please” — and was followed by a “guideline” issued by the Lexington United Soccer Club (in MA) for Fruit and Water Only as halftime and post-game, parent-provided snacks. The schools went to food-free parties, largely due to a Food Allergy Policy, which our awesome school nurses wrote and championed. And our school’s federally mandated Wellness Policy, which I helped to write, called for the elimination of “a la carte” snack sales during elementary school lunches.
My argument was always this: If our school curriculum called for comic books as the major mode of teaching reading and writing to kids, parents would freak out, because they demand excellence and a good example from their schools. So why do we allow junk food at schools and on playing fields? Where is the excellence there? Let’s set a great example for our kids. We owe them that!
Let me know if you want to see my letter to the editor or the soccer snack guidelines. I’d be happy to provide links…

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13 Christina March 13, 2014 at 11:19 am

Liz: That is fantastic! And I love this: “If our school curriculum called for comic books as the major mode of teaching reading and writing to kids, parents would freak out, because they demand excellence and a good example from their schools. So why do we allow junk food at schools and on playing fields? Where is the excellence there?” And yes, I would love links to your materials, thanks!

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14 jen March 13, 2014 at 9:43 am

Yeah, I know a ton of parents who would not be happy with pastries or sugared cookies (maple sugar or not). I think it’s parents’ decisions when to “treat” kids with this stuff, not anyone elses. Especially, as you say, “It is never — not ever — “just one” anything anymore.” The day before/after is always someone else’s party!

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15 Christina March 13, 2014 at 11:17 am

Jen: True that. The point of mentioning those items, however, was to explain that, even with those treats, that’s not what my daughter remembers about her school birthday celebrations. Also, I think far too many people get hung up on types of food instead of the ingredients in food. And that unfortunately is one of the big reasons we have so many food issues in this country. I go into great detail about that here: Teaching your kids about food will not cause eating disorders.

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16 jen March 13, 2014 at 11:23 am

I agree that’s not what’s remembered at kids’ parties. I just think it should be up the parents, and know a lot of parents who would not be happy with the ingredients of those pastries and cookies, especially during the day at school during learning time. Great that fruit was a choice though and give the kids the option.

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17 Christina March 13, 2014 at 11:31 am

Jen: What ingredients would those be? Do you possess super powers where you can analyze ingredients through the internet? :-)

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18 Sherry March 13, 2014 at 1:48 pm

I, too, am “that mom.” I’ve got a 4th grade son with crazy food sensitivities including wheat, food dyes, dairy and many other minor things. My other 1st grade son is still in the “parents are assigned a snack once a month” stage of school. I’m the mom who sends in clementines or fruit shish-ka-bobs. He always reports back that most of the kids loved them… especially the kabobs. I am embarrassed by the amount of candies and snacks that we have to throw away after Halloween or Valentines Day.

Bravo to you for writing such an insightful and truthful post. I’ve hopped on the wagon of contacting government representatives for labeling and/or getting rid of GMO’s in our food. It’s a shame we have to fight and debate in order to have access to healthy foods for our families.

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19 Jessica @ Little Nesting Doll March 14, 2014 at 9:44 am

LOVE THIS. So much, you got me back on my soapbox on the topic (and I linked to this post). Bravo!

http://littlenestingdoll.blogspot.com/2014/03/lnd-links_14.html

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20 Kiki March 14, 2014 at 10:33 am

Yay, Sherry! I think fruit is probably the only item and least controversial food to bring. As I mention above I know a ton of parents who would not be happy with baked goods (obesity concerns, no sugary stuff during the day etc.). In our school there’s a no food policy since the kids don’t mind and so things aren’t left to other parents to decide what is ok for other kids. What may be deemed ok by one mom shouldn’t translate for the whole class. It’s a complicated issue, for sure.

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21 Pavla March 15, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Thank you so much for the excellent article. I’m not a parent. I’m a nurse and see the rising number of children with obesity and other issues. It’s so nice to see that some hospitals like Children’s in Seattle has taken a step towards trying to manage that problem by not having sugary drinks ion their campus.. It is so sad to see kids who are obese – their parents should be guiding them towards better diets.
Keep up the great work! I love your recepies and have your cookbook as well.

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22 Christina March 16, 2014 at 12:13 pm

Pavla: Ugh, hospitals that sell junk food and soda are a huge pet peeve of mine. Glad that you, as an insider, are seeing some change on that front. Thanks for the kind words, but I think you might have me confused with another blogger… I don’t post recipes and I don’t have a cookbook. ;-)

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23 MojoS March 16, 2014 at 10:48 am

Obesity is definitely a problem, part of the reason why schools should have policies against parents bringing in food, which typically means fatty treats (croissants, muffins etc., healthy or not). Parents lose the control when all this stuff is offered to kids at school. It’s sad that a lot of inexpensive foods are crap, the fast food etc. The reality is that we’re lucky to even be talking about these issues, a lot of folks are simply trying to survive, so any food (healthy or not) is a priority.

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24 Christina March 16, 2014 at 11:59 am

Mojo: I completely agree that the ideal solution is no food in the classroom at all. I haven’t pushed for that in my own school because we have very small classes, and a strong schoolwide emphasis on no food rewards, avoiding junk at parties, etc. So it’s just never been enough of an issue for me to make that case. But I know I’d feel otherwise if our school situation were different, especially because many people have very different ideas about what’s “healthy.” (I don’t worry about high-quality saturated fat, for instance — the benefits of which are now backed by solid science — but I definitely worry about artificial additives, HFCS, trans fats, highly processed vegetable oils and refined sugar.) You make a good point about this being a “high-class problem,” so to speak, but I’d argue that the food culture has devolved to the point that it isn’t precious at all to discuss this stuff. It’s critical.

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25 MojoS March 16, 2014 at 1:38 pm

It’s great that you’re a at place with homogenous views on food, but that’s definitely not the reality in most schools (or in life!). I think the artificial stuff is a problem but with Lipitor sales through the roof, I’d argue we’ve got a (even healthy) saturated fat problem on our hands as well. I’d be bummed if my kids were given high fat (or HFCS or artificial) treats all week long for bday parties in school. It’s not just once in awhile anymore. They don’t have obesity problems but with so many studies showing links to high fat and learning, let’s keep it out of schools at least and let’s parents dole it out, in the quantities they want) at home. Check it out. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130617110813.htm

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26 Christina March 16, 2014 at 8:29 pm

Mojo: Oh yes, I realize that’s not the norm. And clearly I’m on board with the whole “it’s never just one” thing. (Wait a minute, that’s what this whole post is about!) As for the fat thing: There are just as many studies supporting its benefits, and debunking the lipid hypothesis and the evils of dietary cholesterol. But, truly, those things become a lot less worrisome when people just eat real food and stop obsessing about nutritionism.

Hey, BTW, I have gotten quite a few comments in recent months from this IP address, all with a similar theme but under different names. Any idea why that is?

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27 MojoS March 16, 2014 at 9:05 pm

This is a shared computer, so that’s probably why? Agree about the real food part. I just got a note to bring in something healthy for a school potluck- will be interesting to see what shows up!

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28 Christina March 16, 2014 at 9:50 pm

Mojo: Well that’s better than making it a free-for-all. And maybe people will surprise you! Interesting that so many people sharing one Boston computer would be reading my blog! And that you’d all have such similar views on things!

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29 Jen March 25, 2014 at 9:51 pm

Thank you for this article! It’s always encouraging to read about the ways other moms are handling the junk-food issue.

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30 letshavemixture March 26, 2014 at 7:46 am

There are a lot of views to this debate and parenting similar to how you live your life is a personal choice. However I commend you on taking a stance that it is not the children making this choice. We as parents, educators, role models must help our children decide how they want to live. I am all for letting kids be kids and yes some of my best memories as a child and an adult center around food. However most of us were raised when obesity and type 2 diabetes were not at epidemic levels in our country much less the children of our country. Rather than nit pick the type of food being served all the time, I think we need to evaluate is food needed at all!
Most all of us were served breakfast by our parents. We went off the school and had lunch and probably had a snack upon returning back home. I do not recall a friend dying of starvation yet we never had snack at school except on the rare occasion of a birthday or holiday celebration, yes it was probably a sweet and it was most likely homemade. Many days I went to an afternoon activity and I never had food or a treat or anything given to me by the activity coordinator. Why does my daughter get a piece of candy for a dance class I pay for. Yeah! you took my class today. Please! It is defintly the parents, educators, teachers, etc. that are influencing the idea all things revolve around food . Yes I too agree with many of the above statements on the type of food, but as I stated initially the problem is bigger than just food it is a way of thinking.

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31 Sandmama March 27, 2014 at 10:07 pm

I recently pulled my kids out of an extra-curricular gym class over the after snack. I just couldn’t see the point of paying for extra gym if it was going to be ended with garbage food each time. Thanks for your article, I’m a great believer in the notion that multiplication is the problem more than any single foodstuff and a LOT of parents don’t seem to ‘get’ this. There are no ‘special’ food events when every single activity is followed up by ‘special’ foods. We try pretty hard to avoid this, but it is NOT easy. Great to have these kinds of supporting articles!

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