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.