Monday, June 3, 2013

Never Surrender

When my youngest was in kindergarten, his class was visited by a dietician.  That day, he burst out the school doors to tell me that no longer would he be able to have cookies as a snack or Mini-Wheats for breakfast.  He informed me that they had sugar and therefore were absolutely unhealthy; he was not, ever again, allowed to have them.

My first instinct was defensiveness.  I felt judged as a parent and indignant that some dietician who doesn't know me or the way I feed my family, could pass on such a message.  I was enraged, yet impotently: I knew I would never talk to the school about it.  I knew that my son could have interpreted the message in an extreme fashion, unintended by the school.  I also recognized that the school was simply addressing societal dietary concerns such as obesity and poor nutrition, and that I could, in my role as a parent, make my son understand that some sugar is okay when balanced with a healthy diet full of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fibre.  I could tell him that my homemade baking contains wholesome ingredients and that Mini-Wheats, while they do contain sugar, also contain heaps of fibre, protein, and vitamins.  I was, and still am, very confident in my abilities to feed my family healthful food and a balanced diet, a diet that also includes the occasional sugar fix, in moderation.

But still, I felt judged.

I was supervising a field trip last week and there was a child in my younger son's class who was out of control, behaviourally speaking.  He is coded with learning difficulties and extreme behavioural issues.  The children had been instructed to bring a good lunch and two snacks for this field trip, and his lunch, when he sat down in the lunchroom, was revealed to be a large piece of frosted cake and a plastic container of gummy bears.

One need not be a dietician to see possible correlations here.

If we are all villagers raising our children, at what point do we sound the alarm?  My first thought was that if this is what that child eats for lunch every day, should the lunchroom supervisors not contact the child's parents?  With everything we know about nutrition and health, wouldn't it be in the best interest of the child to educate that child and his parents about a proper lunch?  Certainly this diet would be detrimental to any child's ability to learn and behave properly, but especially in the case of a child with well documented learning and behavioural issues.  One might even conjecture that the learning and behavioural issues could be a direct result of such a diet.

And yet.  And yet imagine that parent, who I do not know anything about, imagine that parent and the shame that would be felt from such a phone call.  I don't know this boy except superficially, but I would guess that poverty and lack of education are a large part of his home situation.  It's easy to say - and a few people, privileged and educated people, all of them, did say - that the situation called for immediate intervention.  If a parent meeting could not be scheduled then the lunchroom supervisor should tell the child himself that such a lunch was inappropriate and unacceptable.

They are not wrong, not entirely.  The lunch is inappropriate and unacceptable.  But I cannot reconcile myself to this answer.  Where do we draw the line between autonomy and honest concern, as a villager?  Sure, it's easy to say that cake and gummy bears are unacceptable, but what about a lunch that contains a sugary juice box?  What about one that has a fun-sized bag of chips?  What about a chocolate covered granola bar?  At what point do we draw the line?

Not to mention our lack of understanding about this child's home situation.  Who is packing the lunch?  What foods are available?  Is it the difference between taking cake for lunch and taking nothing for lunch?  We don't know and until we have walked a mile in their shoes, we can't judge. 

I don't know the answer.  All I know is that when I volunteered in my son's class a few days after the field trip, I watched the little boy who couldn't sit still and who disrupted the class and I felt a sad understanding.  But not acceptance.  Never acceptance.


  1. I had a moment the other day when our neighbour was chowing down candy like nobody's business and informed me it was his reward for having two back teeth pulled out..he's 7.5...I really had to rein it in. Because i don't know the whole story (and he's a bit of a liar) so. I go floss my own teeth and get over myself.

    You've expressed yourself so eloquently, so respectfully. I am sad to read it, but also happy that people like you exist, who see both sides and explore the nuances of a situation. <3

  2. I agree that this is a completely unacceptable lunch. But, I also feel like I need to say what doesn't occur to a lot of people: children with certain issues (oral palate sensitivities, autism spectrum, etc...) have feeding problems. I'm sure many would judge me based on what my eldest takes to school. There are no vegetables. There are no fruits. There are no meats. Why? He refuses/cannot tolerate anything that is "wet" or "cold." So, there he is every day of his life at school eating a slim variety of crunchy carbohydrates and a crustless peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He also will drink one "purple" juice box. I give him the juice box and the foods he can tolerate in order to keep calories in his skinny body. I used to worry extensively about his diet and what he consumed, but now I worry more about his social and academic success. I may not be an expert, but I think that if he can manage on the foods that he will eat (10 or so items) without stunted growth or anemia, we're doing okay. Cake and gummi bears seem extreme, but I also wonder/worry about the mother who may have dealt with years of unbridled screaming and fits at home like I did. Maybe she doesn't have the resources to deal with it like I did. Maybe that's not even the problem---it could be just piss poor parenting, but someone should offer up this child a carton of milk and a piece of fruit. Nobody has to chastise him. Just offer him an alternative. *my .02

  3. I see this all the time, because I don't provide lunches in my dayhome - the kids bring their own. And yes, I've seen some depressing, nutrient-devoid, sugar-filled, teeth-rotting behaviour-wrecking garbage sent with kids as young as 12 months.

    It saddens me. And frustrates me, too.

    In one case, I know poverty is the issue, so I don't say a word, I just quietly supplement that child's food with fresh fruit or vegetables. We bake healthy snacks together. That's it. I can't help them have more food security and when times are better for them - because I've seen it - they make better choices.

    In another case, money is NOT the issue; poor nutrition is strictly as a result of the parents not caring to focus on doing better. That just makes me angry, because they could well afford to provide more balanced and healthful meals, and they just... don't.

    I definitely don't think that confronting the child is the way to go. How demeaning & upsetting for the child. I agree with nutrition education in schools, though - in some cases, that's the only way the kids will learn to make healthy choices when they are presented with the opportunity to do so.

    I don't know what the answer is. I wish I did.

  4. When G was a littler guy, he announced that he was packing his own lunch and that he would do a great job and I was like SURE! Okay! We talk about nutrition and stuff all the time, there were healthy accesible foods already packed up to go and this is why I got a phone call at lunchtime that G had a family-sized bag of chips and a containor of dip for lunch and was this what I meant to send him?

    Which is not to say that the cake+gummy bear lunch is okay, but I do feel that interfering in a child's home life is such a serious thing to do, and as you say, I cringe to think about that shaming phonecall home. I don't know what the answer is, either. - Beck

  5. Parents and others should never pass judgment on other parents. Some children have severe sensory and feeding issues (autism, spd, etc.) and you have no idea what the medical history or home life of this child is. It really bothers me that learning difficulties and behavioural problems are blamed on parenting skills. There are plenty of well-educated, high SES, loving parents who have kids with learning and behavioural problems -- just visit a special needs classroom and talk to the parents who are worrying and losing sleep and spending thousands of dollars on private Speech, OT, PT, behavioural therapy and wondering if their kids will ever be able to lead an independent life.