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Why Your Brat Is Fat
Children in France eat what they've given at the table -- or they go hungry. Children in America are often little tyrants, ruling their parents with their food longings.

Via aldaily, Theodore Dalrymple puts the blame for obesity on the right culprits -- not the soda companies, or the junk food packagers, or the ad agencies, or sly dealers peddling sugar on playgrounds instead of crack -- but on Mommy and Daddy. He was inspired to write the piece by articles in the New England Journal Of Medicine:

The articles in the NEJM discussed the responsibility of the government to forbid food companies from advertising, especially on television, directly to small children. Personally, I see nothing wrong with a proposal to censor such advertising. By definition, small children are not fully capable of making up their own minds about things, and it seems to me that advertisements directed at them to get them to do things which are likely to be permanently damaging to them, for the sake of making a profit, or rather an extra profit, are immoral.

He's wrong on censorship (again, it's the parents' job to censor the kids from TV-watching), but he asks the right question:

Of course, the question as to why so many parents have transferred authority from themselves to their children as young as three years old is a very interesting and important one, to which more than answer can be given, and at more than one level of analysis. This transfer of authority is a mass phenomenon, otherwise the epidemic would not have taken place. Parents no longer seem in control of how much television their children watch, what their children buy with their money or even what they eat at home.

The problem might be, for example, that people have come to believe that the satisfaction of choice, no matter how ill-informed, whimsical or deleterious, however childish or child-like, is the whole meaning of existence, at all the ages of man, from the very moment of birth onwards. Clearly, this has a connection with the notion of consumer choice: it is the wrongful extension of a principle that, in the right context, is obviously an excellent one. The epidemic of childhood obesity is a precise illustration of Edmund Burke’s famous dictum that men are qualified for liberty in exact proportion as they are (or have been in the past) prepared to place a limit on their own appetites.

We might ask what kind of society we have created in which so many parents do not control the diet of their own children, and what such a lack of control - surely not confined to diet - bodes for the future. Perhaps parents are just too busy nowadays to make the effort; or perhaps they subscribe to the sentimental (and lazy) idea that to give children what they want exactly when and how they want it is an expression of deep love.

But whatever the reason, the fact that two articles about the problem of childhood obesity in the NEJM could fail even to mention individual parental responsibility is indicative of what one can only call a totalitarian mindset. According to this mindset, it is for the government to solve every problem, either by prescribing behaviour, or forbidding it, or of course both. It is not that I think that the proposal that the government should ban the advertising of noxious products to small children is wrong; what bothers me is the failure to recognise that there is any other dimension to the problem, a dimension that is in fact much more serious.

No doubt the NEJM does not want to court unpopularity, or even notoriety, by suggesting that millions of American parents are, at least in this respect, failing their own children (I suspect that they are failing them in other respects too). It is always safer, from the point of view of gaining the esteem of the intelligentsia and of avoiding their censure, to blame those in authority or large corporations rather than ‘ordinary’ people, who are by definition blameless victims. But to absolve ordinary people of all blame for the obesity of their own children, by simply omitting to mention it altogether, is to deny them agency as full human beings. Far from being generous towards, or respectful of, ordinary people, it is extremely condescending towards them. Poor things, they are but putty in the hands of television companies and the food industry.

If the only publicly admissible or mentionable locus of responsibility for the diet of children is the government, we have accepted the premise of totalitarianism. The authors of the articles in the NEJM might answer in their own defence that their articles considered only those measures the government could take to affect the situation; nevertheless, the fact that they did not mention even in passing that parents had some active role to play in their children’s diet suggests to me that the thought did not even occur them. Here truly is the dog that did not bark in the night-time.

Posted by aalkon at July 15, 2006 9:47 AM

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"men are qualified for liberty in exact proportion as they are (or have been in the past) prepared to place a limit on their own appetites."

I really need to remember that one next time the desert cart rolls around. But couldn't it also be used to support a big gov't approach to obesity management? In other words: "Folks who can't control their eating should have their liberty reduced by gov't restrictions on food advertising, etc."

Posted by: Lena Cuisina at July 15, 2006 8:24 AM

Oops. "Dessert" has 2 s's. Oh, the shame.

Posted by: Lena at July 15, 2006 8:26 AM

That controls all of us. It's like prohibiting consumption of alcohol because some people are drunks.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 15, 2006 8:31 AM

Yeah, that's the downside of policy-making. It simplifies our decisions by ignoring exceptions to the rule. Unfortunately, lard asses have the majority.

Posted by: Lena at July 15, 2006 8:37 AM

More importantly, what the government thinks it knows about nutrition would prescribe a diet that isn't really all that healthy. People who take the time to read up on nutrition actually can do much better for themselves.

Posted by: Patrick at July 15, 2006 8:21 PM

It gladdens the heart to know you read Dalrymple. He can be very dark spirited, but then you realize that he's right.....

Posted by: Crid at July 15, 2006 11:50 PM

Dark-spiritedness doesn't bother me, as long as it's smart.

This Dalrymple may surprise some -- about his move to France:

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 16, 2006 9:13 AM

From (thanks for turning me on to that site Amy)

A St. Louis weight-loss instructor is suing the Coca-Cola Co. over its product loyalty campaign, claiming the program might encourage kids to drink so much of the sugary soft drink that they could die.
The campaign, "My Coke Rewards" gives customers points for buying Coca-Cola products. ...

Coca-Cola spokesman Scott Williamson said [Julia] Havey is "horribly misinformed" about the rewards program and the lawsuit is simply an attempt to drum up attention for weight-loss books she writes.
(Christopher Leonard, "Missouri woman sues Coca-Cola", AP/Springfield, Mo., News-Leader, Jul. 14).

Posted by: Rob at July 17, 2006 7:47 AM

I love Overlawyered!

I've seen Coke ads all my life. Perhaps they inspire me to drink coke. Yet, because I have a brain, I drink ONE Coke a day. In high school, I bought ONE ice cream bar a day.

Saturday night, I bought a pint of Ben & Jerry's. I had a scoop on Saturday night, and a scoop on Sunday night. Yum! More than half the container is still left. In other words, sugar and fat and soda don't automatically make you fat. Could it have something to do with...lack of self-restraint?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 17, 2006 7:50 AM

I blame sissified parenting. When I ate at restaurants with my parents, they didn't order me starch and fat-laden french fried and chicken tenders...I got a little plate with portions from whatever they ordered. If I didn't like it, I didn't have to eat it, but I didn't get anything else. Mom decided what we'd have for dinner, not us children.

Posted by: amh18057 at July 19, 2006 11:28 AM

I was a somewhat picky child back in the dark ages of the 1970s - did not and still do not like onions, peppers, olives and certain other foods. I was never forced to eat anything I had already tried and knew that I hated. On the other hand, after reading the umpteenth piece about a toddler who suddenly only wanted green foods, or peanut butter, or whatever, I finally asked my mother if she'd have indulged me in that. Blank look. "Nooooo." My weight-height balance is perfect today - not that I have a Barbie-perfect body, but I am exactly where I should be, using those strict old 1970s numbers.

I actually think the parents forcing their kids to eat foods they hate Joan Crawford-style and those wringing their hands over their poor little babies having to eat green veggies are flip sides of the same coin. Namely, they're locked into this mindset that food, and their children's eating habits, have some huge *psychological* importance, and this is a battle that they must WIN! Sometimes that victory takes the form of forcing the kid to eat something that they truly loathe (as opposed to just eating something they're not in the mood for - which is what I suspect is going on when French children turn food away), sometimes it takes the form of catering to their precious little snookums with French fries instead of broccoli. Either way, I think it's yet another sign of the dysfunctionality of the American relationship with food, something that stretches way back before the current obesity crisis. Whatever issues I had with my parents, meals never took on this huge, outsize importance with them.

Of course, it's posslble that I was just smarter about foods than the average kid. I had a deal with my mother - I ate my vegetables voraciously, without complaint, and in return I didn't have to eat things I hated. And then there was the morning that I suddenly declared that I no longer liked eggs. "How about cereal?" "Sure." Presto - my breakfast preparation time was slashed to almost zero for my overworked mother. I mention this not to bore you all with my mundane life, but to go back to the "importance of not spoiling your child" thing. Even at a young age, I understood that I couldn't just demand something outlandish and have my whims catered to. And I wish more parents would do this...because, damnit, I like McDonald's french fries and Ben & Jerry's ice cream (OCCASIONALLY) and I live in fear that the things I love will slowly fade away because no one else can control themselves.

Posted by: marion at July 19, 2006 9:56 PM

But, from what I see and understand, French kids aren't indulged so they aren't picky. They eat what's given them or they don't eat. By the way, one of the dumbest ideas (I don't know if other countries have this) is the "clean plate club." After I became an adult, I realized that there was nothing smart or particularly good about eating everything on your plate. Now I eat what I'm hungry for and throw out or save the rest. Yesterday, I had a Baja Fresh burrito. Half for lunch, half for dinner. If more people ate that way, there'd be far fewer huge asses in this country. Well, I'm not talking political ones, of course.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 20, 2006 6:21 AM

Amy, my time in Europe has been spent in other countries, so I'm only guessing here, but I'm assuming that 1) French parents don't freak out if occasionally their children avoid one of the multiple dishes that make up most meals; 2) French parents don't freak out if children eat only certain ingredients in a given dish; and 3) French parents are relaxed about children trying a new thing and choosing not to eat all of it? Because I see what you're saying about French children not being indulged - I'm just saying that kids with a bit of common sense who aren't forced to join the "clean plate club" (which I also loathe) can minimize the amount of foods they eat that they truly hate (i.e. the ones they'd rather go hungry than eat). Obviously, parents need to ensure that kids get a certain amount of vegetables and other healthy foods, but in my experience, if you prepare a reasonably healthy diet for your family that's reasonably well-made and don't cater to whims, your kids will end up eating what they need to eat without you having to measure out every last dollop.

American parents, in my opinion, mix up food with love, validation, etc. etc. where their kids are concerned. Hence the "clean plate club." The European parents I know don't. I think the American mindset from a few generations ago of "If my kid doesn't eat every single ingredient I serve him, then he doesn't love me!" has morphed into "If my kid isn't ecstactically thrilled with everything he has to eat, then he doesn't love me!" The European parents I know (like my mother) seem to have the attitude of, "It's food. That's all. If the kid doesn't like it, he can go hungry or eat a larger portion of some other dish on the table. No skin off of my nose."

I do wonder, though, just how many children are even getting to the point of being offered a balanced diet that they can turn down. We live in a culture with a vast amount of easy-to-prepare food that's full of fat, sugar, salt, what have you. It's much easier to throw Lunchables into a bag for a child or give him lunch money for a fried foods-serving cafeteria than it is to prepare a "real" lunch with the major food groups. It's easier to nuke tator tot-type meals than it is to prepare mashed potatoes. Etc. The children I know who are healthy eaters in the U.S. are pretty much the ones whose parents have a decent amount of time to spend with them, either because their careers include some flexibility or they have one parent working part-time or staying home. I don't think it's just parents indulging the whims of their kids, though that's done - I think it's also the kids getting used to eating McDonald's before they can tie their shoelaces, because it's fast and easy. God knows I sympathize with overworked parents, but I think we're getting a lot of kids set up to be unhealthy eaters because they've never known anything else, really.

Posted by: Marion at July 20, 2006 6:50 AM

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