My oldest daughter just came home from her first week of sleepaway camp. She's nine. Prior to her departure, we received an email from the camp asking us to send along a "snack" for her first night's "cabin party." Unsure of what that meant, my wife called the camp office and was told we should send candy, chocolate or chips for her to share with her new bunkmates. And I get it, the kids will be scared, homesick and strangers to one another, and the junk food's there to serve as their sugary icebreaker.
Sure, it may unconsciously teach children that uncomfortable emotions like fear and loneliness can or should be treated with candy, and yes, the camp could have instead organized actual ice-breakers – those non-food, sometimes embarrassing games we once played together as new campers – but one thing's for certain: Kids do love candy and so, no doubt, the night was a success.
[Read: Kid-Pleasing Sleepover Party Recipes.]
During a recent radio interview that I did regarding my daughter's experiences, I was asked what we sent along with her to that cabin party, and I answered truthfully – we sent along a bag of potato chips. Apparently this upset a few listeners as they felt that we should have instead set an example and sent along something healthful, or told her to just say "No."
One listener instructed me via Twitter to "BE DIFFERENT! That 9-yr-old kid is known as 'Kid Who Brought Chips.' Next. Imagine if she brought ... Maca & Dates Balls! :*)". Sadly, I can imagine what she'd be known as if she brought "Maca & Dates Balls," which is precisely why, even had we known what maca and date balls were, we wouldn't have sent them. This is my fight (and hopefully yours), not my 9-year-old daughter's – her on the front line of the fight against junk food is neither fair nor wise.
[Read: Seeking a More Perfect Food Supply.]
About midway through the interview, I was asked by the show's host, "If you, as a parent, teach your kid – that's too much sugar, do you think that kids can make the right choices? Do you think that they can resist?" It was an important question as I think the question itself is reflective of the scope of this problem. Not that the interviewer was doing anything wrong by asking. Rather, the fact that the notion that 9-year-old children should or could be taught to defend themselves against a constant onslaught of junk food offerings didn't strike the interviewer as defeatist shows just how far society has to go to fix this.
Whether or not 9-year-old children can defend themselves isn't addressing the problem. Instead of wondering whether or not elementary school-age children can be taught to defend themselves against junk food's inappropriate and constant provision, what we should be questioning is why junk food has become society's constant child-minding crutch, and what means we might employ to change our awful new normal.
[Read: Diet Alone, or Live It Together?]
Take Sesame Street. It recently put out a Cookie Monster music video along with the hashtag #CONTROLMESELF. The stated aim for the video was to teach – presumably preschoolers – the executive skill of "self-regulation."
"Me get this feeling when me see a cookie on a plate.
Me want to grab it but to eat it, oh me no can wait.
But now me know that self-control is something me must learn.
Me want to grab it but to it, but me wait.
Me want it.
But me wait.""
Of course the only reason the video's required watching for preschoolers is because the world we have created for them offers them sugar at virtually every turn.
Maybe instead of teaching preschoolers about self-regulation, or encouraging 9-year-olds to take a stand and fight back against cabin parties with maca balls or saying "no," we should instead get to work on changing the world we've built our children – the world where treats are the answer to anything and everything child-related.
Take my daughter's camp, for instance. If food must be used as a new campers' icebreaker, how about, instead of candy, encouraging all first-time campers to bring their favorite fruit for a first-night bonding over a cabin-made fruit salad? No doubt, that will be one of the questions I put to the camp director when I speak with him after camp ends, because this is my fight, not my daughter's. And until we start fighting to change our kids' world, I'm not sure we're going to get very far. Counting on the willpower of 9-year-olds to fight this battle isn't the answer.
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Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute—dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter @YoniFreedhoff. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.