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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


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