I must, in the interest of full disclosure, begin this column with a confession: I am a voyeur; more specifically, a parenting voyeur. In the words of Chauncey Gardner, I like to watch; more specifically, I like to watch people interact with their kids. I do my voyeur thing in restaurants, stores, shopping centers, parking lots, and so on. I try to do it without staring, of course. The trick is to be casual about it, to go unnoticed.
So, I am walking up and down the aisles of my local grocery store the other day (I also like to shop), on a mission for my wife and myself, and I turn from one aisle into the next and begin walking up on a Mom and Dad who are hovering over a shopping cart, talking to some third person whom I cannot see at first. Using my amazing powers of deductive reasoning, I correctly (it turns out) figure they are talking to a child.
“What do you think about this, buddy? Eh? Look good? Eh?” Dad is saying. He’s holding up a bag of what looks like frozen chunks of breaded chicken.
After several seconds of silence, Mom chimes in with “If we buy that for you, will you eat it?”
“Yeah, buddy,” Dad says. “We won’t buy it unless you promise to eat it. How about it. Huh?”
During this exchange, as I stroll ever closer to this little family drama, I have been pretending to peruse the shelves for my favorite brand of baking soda. As I pass their cart, I am able to see the child in question. He is sitting in the basket. I suppose he refuses to sit in the child seat. He’s eating something that looks, at a glance, like candy. He looks to be two-and-one-half.
One parenting picture is worth a thousand words. These two people don’t have a clue, but they are digging an ever-deepening hole for themselves. At this stage of the game, they can, with minimal effort, climb out of it, but the longer they allow this “hey buddy” and “will you eat this?” silliness go on, the more difficult climbing out is going to be. This child is not yet three, and he is ringmaster of the family circus.
At some point, these parents are going to complain (if they have not already) to others about how “strong-willed” he is, how he won’t accept “no” for an answer, and the like. But he is not the problem. His behavior is nothing more than an expression of the problem. Trying to correct him is not and will not be the answer. To correct this problem, the horse will have to be put out in front of the cart.
The problem will not only be his ever-worsening behavior. The best research has clearly shown that the happiest children are also the most obedient. So the paradox will be that although this child will be getting his own way, he will not really be a happy camper. Eventually, he may even be miserable.
The further problem is that this tragic-comedy is close to being the norm in America. At dinner tables all over the country, children are being served special meals that keep them happy today and increase their chances of being malcontents later on.
A week after my grocery store voyeurism, I read a mother’s online story of her 3-year-old daughter who is “food phobic.” The mother spends an inordinate amount of time and energy fixing this foods that do not kick her “phobia” into action. So now we even have the beginnings of a new diagnosis and a new mental health industry. Maybe even a new food industry: Every item—steak, chicken, broccoli, mashed potatoes, you name it—is processed and packaged to look and even taste like candy.
That’s not a joke; it’s a prediction. And it's not funny anyway.