Thursday, September 16, 2010

The, "but parents can just say no" argument.

An emailer to me hit it hard on the nail yesterday. They wrote,

"To change public attitudes about food for kids, the idea that feeding fast food to kids is "normal" has got to be changed."
I think it's the normalization of feeding fast and junk foods to kids that fuels the, "parents can just say no" argument regularly used to defend things like ice-cream sandwich days at elementary schools, McDonald's bus safety days for 4 year olds, school bake sales, pizza days, etc.

Basically anytime somebody suggests that giving junk foods to kids is a bad plan, there's an angry commenter out there who has to point out that parents don't have to give in.

There's really no beating around the bush about this one, it's an asinine argument.

It's asinine for a number of reasons.

Firstly it's asinine because there's a huge percentage of parents who either don't care about, don't think about, or don't have time to pay attention to the notion that what their children eat has an impact on their health, so while it may be something the angry commenter thinks should and could happen, the reality is that for a huge number of families it just ain't gonna.

Secondly it's asinine because it ignores the bigger picture. Children aren't only influenced by their parents. If their school makes take-out a pizza a weekly event, regardless of whether a child eats it or not, it normalizes the practice. Worse, because it's promoted by a source of trust and guidance, the practice may well be perceived as harmless or even healthy.

Thirdly it's asinine because even parents who care, aren't likely to always or potentially ever say "no". Why? Don't they care about their kids? Sure they do. Problem is that in the grand scheme of parental "no"s, not allowing their child to enjoy what every other kid in the class is enjoying isn't likely a battle that even health conscious parents are likely to regularly pick.

Lastly it's asinine because it ignores the real villains in these stories. The bad guys here aren't permissive parents, and believe it or not, the bad guys aren't the fast or junk food industries either. The real bad guys in these stories are the schools, and hospitals, and city officials who welcome this crap through their doors with open arms.

Yes, junk food is everywhere. Yes, our children are bound to be exposed. Yes, we as parents have to do our best to help arm our kids with defenses to see through advertising and to understand nutrition.

But what shouldn't we have to do?

We shouldn't have to wage these wars in our children's schools, or in our hospitals, or in our city arenas. We shouldn't have situations where foods that our teachers, our doctors and our public health officials recommend we avoid get sold in their own backyards.

Bad nutrition kills, and in a sense, with obesity as a consequence and with the impact of obesity on quality of life, it maims, and while I don't think junk food can or even should be legislated out of existence, I think becoming an apologist for the fast food industry and a defender of nutritionally indefensible publicly run junk food programs on the basis of the, "parents can just say no" argument, is a far more egregious avoidance of parental responsibility than letting your kids join their classmates for a slice of pizza or take a McDonald's colouring book home from Ottawa School Bus Safety Awareness day.

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  1. As much as I share in your passion to change public perceptions of what is acceptable or not acceptable for public policy, government regulations, etc, I took exception to this blog post.

    I am one of those who responded well to the, "Just Say No" argument, and still do. I'm simply someone who needs to be told, "No" sometimes. It helped me at many times to be told No, and I sometimes wish I was told No more often. Do I enjoy being told no? Of course not. I fight it too, just like anyone else. But sometimes I just need discipline, I almost always need to know why, and other times I need to just be told, "No, not today."

    So while I agree that there is not one singular answer, I disagree that the argument for parents saying no is asinine.

    Love the discussion, cheers to keeping it active!

  2. Re: "To change public attitudes about food for kids, the idea that feeding fast food to kids is "normal" has got to be changed."

    This observation is 100% correct. However, it's much more than fast food. As Dr. David Katz states: "We are like Polar Bears in the Sahara Desert."

    It's our entire environment. And, once you become an observer of this environment, it becomes easier to pull away from it. That's what happened to me.

    As Michael Pollan states: "You can leave the Western diet without leaving civilization." Fortunately, it is easy to do.

    Ken Leebow

  3. I completely agree with this post.

    We are a highly nutrition-conscious family and junk food is well-known to be a rare treat. As a fitness author I am both more aware and more motivated to have a family that eats healthy than the majority of Canadians. What’s more, my wife is a family physician and equally concerned about healthy eating.

    Nevertheless, these school-sponsored junk food days are essentially impossible to say “No” to. Kids have a hard enough time fitting in at school without being the only one who can’t have pizza or whatever. I am going to email this post to the principal of my kids’ school.

    Another person I wish I could do something about is the friggin’ ice cream man. If the weather is nice he’s hitting my cul-de-sac four or five times a week, and every kid on the block goes running out the door with cash in hand and drool in their mouths.

    Maybe next summer each times he’s selling his toxic wares I’ll sneak around the other side and let all the air out of his tires. Eventually he’ll get the message.

    Best regards,

    James S. Fell

  4. Anonymous10:29 am

    Well said and I agree with just about everything you said, except for the part about the food industry not being one of the bad guys. They most certainly should be included in this list as they are highly involved in peddling, pushing, and misleading the public that their products are desirable and more often than they should even a good choice! They deserve a big piece of this blame pie!


  5. Canadianisms that need reviving:

    "No. It'll spoil your supper."

  6. Anonymous1:52 pm

    I like the very frequent usage of the word "asinine".

  7. While some kids respond to the "just say no" message from their parents, it doesn't mean that a large majority of kids would.

    As a matter of policy, placing much of the burden on developing healthy eating habits largely on a parent-child teaching relationship, has problems if other factors are ignored. I'd say it has been tried and not shown to have much success.

    It is very clear that large numbers of children respond to junk food ads by wanting to consume junk food. They also are encouraged to learn that junk food is "not bad" (even good) when it is served or advertised by teachers and authorities in schools.

    So maybe the strategy of "just say no" by parents isn't assinine by itself, it is suspect thinking that it will work when their school is telling kids to say "yes, yes yes!" to junk food.

  8. Thank you! I agree with you 100%, when I was growing up junk food was always a special treat NEVER a meal and I now I'm healthy and happy (but can still enjoy my junk food from time to from)

  9. Anonymous11:44 am

    I think your view that saying no is asinine is a bit harsh. I think I'm understanding your point to be that no can't always do the trick when schools put you in a position where you can't so no (pizza day) because you're right it is hard enough on kids, let alone to be the only one brown bagging it when everyone else gets pizza. Kids shouldn't be put in that position, thus putting parents in that position... so as one who has written that we need to say no, I see your point and yes it is true some parents just won't say no, which isn't right either nor fair to the kid, but none the less it's a reality.

    These situations though aren't something I've had to worry about - my only option is to say no and be strong in the face of ads etc aimed at my kids. We live in the country so we don't have pizza day etc.. the kids always have to bring their lunch and don't get exposure to crappy cafeteria choices until grade 10, we don't have special school bus safety programs sponsored by McD's, we teach the kids ourselves and they go over it in class.

    So some of us still have to resort to full responsibility and say No is all we have. My biggest challenge is why Jonny's mother lets him bring a chocolate bar every day and funny - that was my mother's challenge too only I was a kid in the city and when the other kids had chocolate bars everyday and I had an apple - but I survived as will my kids.

    My only frustration in the life isn't fair game is my skinny friends had candy everyday and I didn't and don't but because I have PCOS and struggle with my weight people look at me and ASSume I eat a lot of crap and I don't.

    Life isn't always fair, kids might as well learn it now instead of finding out the shocking truth at 18 - 'cause society and employers will have no trouble saying NO

  10. Anonymous8:04 pm

    My husband and I are struggling with this very issue. Our twins just started kindergarten and I feel they are eating snacks at every turn. One in their morning program, one at kindergarten, and another when they go to their afterschool program. If its not something we send in, its not something healthy. Their school had, just this week, an ice cream social and a USA day, complete with apple pie and hot dogs. They even get a snack in an hour long Sunday school class, and a snack after the soccer game. I was thrilled when there was no snack at Girl Scouts. We don't do a lot of snacks ourselves with the kids, but this idea that every activity needs a snack it just crazy. And short of sending in a note saying, "Dont feed my kid a snack," or being the "complaining parent," (which we already tried, to little avail), what are they options? As a culture, we have to stop associating every single activity with food. And we wonder why so many kids are obese.

  11. Anonymous: I couldn't agree with you more when you wrote, "As a culture, we have to stop associating every single activity with food. And we wonder why so many kids are obese."

    I have been fighting this most of my adult life. It's what I like to call my "snack conditioning". Do I need a snack after a vigorous activity? Sure, maybe. But do I need a snack to read a book or watch a movie? Heck no. But it's something that is so engrained in our culture of consumption, it's hard to retrain yourself out of it. Notice I said hard - not impossible! But for someone like me, it's a daily, conscious decision I have to make. Some days are easier than others.

  12. Unfortunately it's not just the special event days at school that expose kids to unhealthy foods. As one of the anonymous posters mentioned, the everyday cafeteria choices are often just as poor. Heavily processed foods, packaged snacks and lollies are on the menu at my local primary school. The canteen is outsourced and run like a small business. I'm not sure that the school even has a say in the menu any more.