eating · eating disorders · family

Eat me, drink me: Philosophical reflections on our attitudes about children and food*

*That’s the title of a talk I have a few years ago at the Vermont Food Ethics Workshop.

Recently I started thinking again about children and diets, in light of the whole “summer Weight Watchers for free” thing. I blogged first about what’s awful about that idea and then about what we might do if not Weight Watchers.

But I’m also interested, as a philosopher who writes about children, in our cultural ideas about children and food. I’m interested in our romantic ideas of children as “natural eaters,” on the one hand, and as out of control eaters, wantons, on the other. Think Cookie Monster! We project a lot of our ideas about childhood onto child aged eaters.

(Jenn Epp and I wrote a paper on similar themes about children and sexuality. Again children are cast as either out of control, sexually depraved creatures who need to be watched and patrolled or they’re perfectly innocent and naive and in need of our protection. )

In the context of food and dieting, our fear of childhood obesity makes us want to control childhood eating because of this idea children have no willpower and at the same time there’s this popular parenting idea that if we left children alone to graze, they’d make nutritious choices and never eat too much. Both ideas, I argued, in the talk I gave at Vermont are mistaken.

As usual the truth is somewhere in between. As is often the case popular views about children aren’t really about children. They’re about adult preoccupations and fears that we project onto children. We either idealize them or make them int our worst fears. Nowhere are contemporary parenting debates more fraught than in arguments about what and when to feed children. My kids mostly missed the great juice box wars but I don’t envy today’s parents.

Children aren’t that different from adults. It’s not that we corrupt them and that they start out as natural intuitive eaters. Children prefer sugar, fat, salt when given healthy and unhealthy choices to choose from, and will not choose healthy foods automatically. Given healthy food choices they are pretty good at moderating amounts.

Many people swear by Ellyn Satler’s moderate advice to parents which involves a division of responsibility between parents and children. Parents are responsible for choosing what foods to offer and children choose how much and whether to eat.

On her view, the parents are responsible for providing regular (healthy) meals and snacks, cooking and preparing the food for young children, serving it to children, and making the family eating experience pleasant. Children are responsible for deciding WHAT they want to eat on their plates, HOW MUCH they eat, and WHETHER THEY EAT at all.

My worst time as a parent worrying about food was when I had one child who was significantly underweight and another who was significantly overweight. I actually had a family doctor suggest that I prepare the kids different meals. You know, skim milk for one kid and whole milk for the other. He even suggested that I send the overweight child to bed early and offer the underweight child cookies and ice cream while watching videos. I looked at him asked, do you even have children?

Instead, I continued (mostly) preparing family meals and letting the kids choose what they ate. In their teens one pursued ballet and modern dance, the other rugby and football. You can guess which one did which. Today, in their early twenties they are both of normal weight though at the opposite end of the range.  But even if one did end up “too thin” and one “too fat,” I hope I’d have the peace of mind and commonsense to recognize that bodies come in lots of different shapes and sizes. They’re my children after all.

I want to tell my friends with young children to relax. Children aren’t perfectly pure creatures that you need to worry about spoiling but neither are they monsters who you have to control.

Are you a parent of young children? What’s your approach to feeding children? Do you worry about their food choices? 


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