You may have seen the recent articles about the effect that sugared soft drinks have on a child's chances of becoming obese. Just one soda per day, it seems, can raise his risk by 60%.
Are you also aware, I wonder, that about 15% of all children in the United States are overweight?
It's not that easy to make a child fat, you know. They are by nature perpetual motion machines, and their bodies are pretty darned efficient little furnaces, burning calories at a rate we adults can only dream of. To make a child fat, you have to do a whole lot of things wrong for a fairly long time. But when it comes to screwing up children, our society as a whole is both expert and dedicated.
Of course, it isn't just kids that are fat in our society. Here are some more numbers for you: 63% of all adults in the United States are overweight and 23% are obese (more than 25% over their proper weight).
All those chubby children have lots of role models.
During the eighteen years that I ran my home daycare, I was constantly appalled by the way parents fed their children.
When a child arrived, whatever the time of day, I would ask the parent whether the child had eaten anything recently, so that I would know when he would need to be fed.
One day, when I posed that question to the mother of an eight-month-old girl, I got this proud response: "Her just ummed up two chocwit doughnuts and half a widdle bag of tater ships!"
I can forgive the baby-talk, but not the menu.
"Are you out of your mind!?" I exclaimed in horror. "You'd be better off feeding her out of the garbage can!" (I won't pretend that I'm always diplomatic in such situations.)
In normal adult language, the mother replied, "Well, what was I supposed to do? That's what her brother and sister were eating, and she insisted on having the same thing!"
(Whenever I would call parents on some dumb thing they had done with or to their children, I would always get that sort of helpless "What else could I do?" response, as if they were forced to be irresponsible toward their children and to ignore their needs.)
In the first place, I firmly admonished her, the brother and sister (five and eight years of age) should not be eating doughnuts and chips for breakfast. In the second place, unless the baby had a gun, there was no reason to give in to her demands for junk food. If she demanded one of her father's cigarettes, would they let her have it?
I remember the time I bought a box of Girl Scout cookies from a girl in my daycare. A seven-month-old who saw the box went nuts. She knew what was in the box, and she wanted one!
I don't think a seven-month-old should ever have tried Girl Scout cookies. At that age, babies should only be on certain types of solid food. But most of the parents I know are already stuffing sugary or salty (and fatty) junk foods into their babies by the time they are seven or eight months old.
And since most American adults drink soda constantly, these folks are also letting their infants and toddlers sip their Coke, Sprite, or other soft drinks, and usually buying them their own sodas by the time they are two years old. (I wonder if they realize the degree to which filling those tiny tanks up with soda complicates the process of potty-training.)
I could tell you horror stories until the cows come home, but I'll share just a couple more.
I always made sure that the grade-school kids in my daycare ate breakfast before leaving for school. (I'm sure I don't have to explain why that is important. At least I hope I don't have to.) One day, a nine-year-old boy (let's call him "Jacob") said to me, "Tina, I'm really not hungry. Can I just skip breakfast today?"
Alarm bells went off in my head. Jacob was a big boy with a healthy appetite. If he wasn't hungry, that meant either that he had already eaten or that he was not feeling well. I needed to know, because I would not send a sick child to school.
"Jacob," I asked, "did you already eat at home?"
Jacob answered that he had. But the way he answered caught my attention. There was a sheepish, "guilty" quality to his response, as if he had done something he wasn't supposed to.
So I asked him, "What did you have for breakfast?"
"Gummi Bears," he mumbled, looking down at the floor."
Now, Jacob knew I wasn't going to get all upset at him, but he also knew what I thought about substituting junk food for real food at a major meal. I began teaching all my little ones about nutrition at an early age, and Jake had been with me since he was two months old. As a child, he could not resist the offer of an entire bag of Gummi Bears for breakfast, but he also had absorbed a lot of my attitudes about what is and is not appropriate nutrition.
And since his father is an adult-onset diabetic, and that condition runs in his family, I had even had extra discussions with him about the effect sugar can have on someone with a genetic tendency toward adult-onset diabetes. (It runs in my own family, too.) He knew, perhaps better than his careless parents, that he should not be eating Gummi Bears for breakfast.
Of course, it wasn't Jacob's fault that his parents plopped him in front of a television set (Oh, I'll write about that, too, eventually!) and plied him with Gummi Bears so that he would not get in their way as they rushed about getting ready for work.
But I can't help wonder what their problem was. Jacob was not an annoying, demanding child. He would not have gotten in their way or slowed them down, so there was really no need at all to "bribe" him with TV and junk food to stay out of their hair. They just couldn't imagine not giving a kid sugary snacks and making him watch TV.
But even if he did need to be distracted, couldn't they have given him a wholesome snack instead of candy? Not only had they pumped a dangerous dose of sugar into him--they had also ruined his appetite for his real breakfast.
That blood-sugar spike that ruined his appetite was not going to last the way the more gradual raising of blood sugar by protein and complex carbohydrates would. By 10:00, that little boy was going to be ravenous and possibly even nauseous from hunger.
I packed him an extra lunch and sent a note to his teacher asking that she allow him to eat when he felt he needed to. Fortunately, since I live right across the street from the elementary school, and I had been the daycare provider for a lot of the kids who had gone to that school, the teachers and administrators there knew me and trusted the way I dealt with the kids. (They also knew I would come in and deal with them if I felt one of my daycare kids was not being handled properly.)
Jacob was allowed to eat when his Gummi Bears wore off.
Let me tell you one more story.
I never provided sugary cereals to my daycare kids. I fed them non-sugared cereals, and I never added sugar. All the kids grew up eating their cereal without sugar, and perfectly satisfied to do so. If you aren't used to excess sugar on your food (or excess salt, for that matter), the food tastes just fine without it.
But a pair of sisters who had been with me from the time they were each two months old suddenly began to demand that I add sugar to their cereal when that's what they were having for breakfast. How weird, I thought. Why would they start craving sugar on their cereal?
I found out that afternoon, when the mother admitted to me that she always put sugar on her own cereal, so she had also started adding sugar when she gave the girls their cereal. They had not asked her to, mind you, she had just started doing so because she felt it was unfair to put sugar on her own cereal while not letting them have it on theirs.
I have to give the parents of my daycare kids credit for one thing. Most of them recognized that I knew what I was doing and that I really did have their children's best interests at heart. They also understood that when I talked to them about their irresponsible parenting behaviors, I was trying to help them be better parents.
They did try to follow my advice, because they knew I was on their kids' side. They meant to be more effective parents than they sometimes were. But they were weak, and all too often gave in to counterproductive impulses.
So many of today's parents are essentially children themselves, even when they are in their twenties and thirties, because they have been conditioned by our entire culture to respond to impulse, to expect immediate gratification, and to put their own short-term whims and desires over responsible behavior and over anyone's long-term needs, including their own or their children's.
Although I deplored the fact that most of my daycare kids spent virtually all of their waking hours with me rather than with their own families--simply because I honestly believe that children need to be with their families--in one sense at least, I was glad that I spent so much more time with them than their parents did. At least I knew that as long as they were with me, they would be eating real food and playing outside or engaging in interesting and developmentally appropriate activities, rather than watching TV and, usually, stuffing themselves full of sugar, salt, and fat.
Let me tell you what happened to my doughnut- and chip-eating eight-month-old, who is now a beautiful seventeen-year-old with excellent eating habits.
This little girl was one of those who spent fifty-five hours a week with me, and sometimes spent time with me on weekends as well. To put it bluntly, I raised her from the time she was two months old until she was six, when she started school full-time, and I probably had a deeper and more long-lasting influence on her values than her parents did. (I wish parents would give some consideration to that probability when they leave their kids for so many hours with daycare providers whose values and behaviors might not be what they want their kids to adopt over the long term.)
At age twelve, she became a much-in-demand babysitter among the parents in her neighborhood and among her parents' friends and acquaintances. (She was good--I know because I trained her myself.) She made $6.00 an hour for one child, plus an extra dollar an hour for each additional child. By the time she was fifteen, she had saved quite a lot of money, and had so many babysitting jobs that people would get on a waiting list to hire her to watch their kids. (I also trained her not to get taken advantage of financially as I had been when I babysat, by the way.)
She has never had to look for a different kind of job, because at her age she could not do better than she already is doing. Besides, she just adores small children and loves taking care of them.
Soon after she started babysitting she told me that she follows the "Tina juice rule," as she called it. Since most of the kids I sat for were "trained" to fruit juice before they came to me, it was almost impossible to break them of it altogether,** so I did allow each child one four-ounce cup of juice with breakfast. One. No seconds. Water and milk were the other beverages with meals, and water was the between-meal beverage.
American kids don't drink anywhere near enough water, and many of them drink way too much milk. Too much between-meal milk also interferes with a child's willingness to eat at meal times, and milk is not a "perfect" food. It lacks many essential nutrients, and a child who drinks too much milk past a certain age won't eat enough of the other foods he needs to develop properly. One of my nephews became seriously anemic and his physical development was set back because he was allowed to drink milk constantly, all day long.
The older brother of the little doughnut girl also ended up with his teeth nearly destroyed by a runaway case of lactobacillus (the cause of "baby bottle mouth" in toddlers) by the time he was 19, because he never drank water, but sucked down milk all the time instead (not to mention soda and juice). By the way, her younger. brother had such serious tooth decay by five years of age that he had to have three root canals--at age five! Again, always with the milk, soda, and juice.
But the doughnut girl herself has perfect teeth. She never did get to ingest that much sugar, since she was always with me, and she drank enough water to keep her teeth regularly rinsed, even in between brushings.
And now the children she babysits for are learning from her what she learned from me. Nutrition is life. You are what you eat--and your kids are what you feed them. The food habits you encourage your kids to develop when they are very young will follow them throughout their lives.
Bad eating habits can cut many years off your life and can undermine your health even while you are still alive. Teaching your children to eat what is bad for them and to avoid eating what is good for them is as wrong as offering them cigarettes. It will kill them in the long run, and seriously undermine their health for the rest of their lives.
It may be gratifying in the short term to please your kids--or at least to shut them up--by plying them with junk food. But you really do know better, don't you?
**Juice, my dear parents, is really just sugar water with vitamin C. Most of what is nutritious about the fruit is not in the juice, but in the flesh of the fruit. Don't get your baby hooked on sugar by giving him juice instead of water as a between-meal beverage! Water is not poison. Why do you train your kids never to drink it, but to insist instead on juice or soda when they are thirsty?