There was a hilarious article in yesterday’s New York Times about parents agonizing over what the nanny feeds their kids.
Many parents, meanwhile, now ask sitters to document their children’s every bite in feeding logs, and fumble over how to tell an otherwise beloved nanny that the pizza bagels and chicken nuggets she has been serving to several generations of children–including her own–are unacceptable.
One of the threads running through the article, along with a soup of race and class issues, is the idea that children have to be protected from junk food because it will set them up for a lifetime of fast-food bingeing.
To up the emotional ante, the current nutritional wisdom says that what children eat may set their tastes in place permanently. In this view, a hot dog is never just a single tube of meat, because it will lead to thousands of salty, processed, who-knows-what-filled lunches to come.
Jennifer Tabet Shea, a mother on Cape Cod who once found a baby sitter giving French fries to her son, then 8 months old, said, “Since he is only a toddler, and we are 100 percent responsible for his food choices, why on earth would we choose food that is terrible for him and will set him up for a preference for ultrasweet, ultrafatty tastes for life?”
This is, of course, just a variation on the age-old theme: Oh no, I fucked up my kid for life. I want to know how long this mom can keep French fries away from her son. Maybe long enough so that when he gets his next taste of the forbidden potato, he’ll be able to say, “Mom, you knew these existed and kept them from me? I hate you.”
I’d like the attack the “tastes set for life” idea from two admittedly unscientific angles.
First, the evolutionary psychology angle. Humans in the old days (the hunter-gatherer days, that is) ate a more varied diet than industrial humans do today. A human who imprinted on the foods of his infancy would be at a severe disadvantage when his clan migrated to an area with different flora and fauna. “I want some of the berries we used to eat back at the old house,” would earn you laughs and pity. Overall, I think we don’t give people enough credit for being able to adjust to their context. Kids are more likely to try new foods at friends’ houses than at home. They look around and say, okay, these are the rules here (we get to stay up late! awesome!), this is what we eat here, and if I try to bring my own rules from home, it’s going to cause trouble.
Second, the anecdotal angle. Think about the adults you know. How many of them are as picky as the average two-year-old? One of the most pernicious ideas about feeding kids is that children become picky eaters because you are doing something wrong. (Oh no, I fucked up my kid for life!) I assume people who say this have just blacked out the whole birth-to-three period. Eight month olds will eat anything. They will eat spinach (well, maybe not any more). They will eat dirt off the floor. (Iris used to cry when we would pull pieces of lint out of her mouth. “Why? Why do you deprive me of this delicious morsel?” she seemed to be asking.) Then they start forming their own preferences. I would wager that there exists no two-year-old whose tastes are as wide-ranging as the average eight-month-old.
Yesterday, Iris and I were early for our bus after a whirlwind trip to the Children’s Museum and Science Center. (“Oh, I love those dinos,” she said upon spotting the animatronic parasaurolophus.) So we stopped off at Larry’s Market for one of our favorite treats: chocolate covered malt balls from the bulk section. When Iris says “malt balls,” it sounds exactly like “mothballs,” which makes me laugh every time. We stood around at the bus stop sharing malt balls and talking about dinos. Little did I know that this makes me a bad nanny.
What bothered Ms. Dracksdorf more than the sugar and fat was the revelation that her trusted sitter saw nothing wrong with feeding a 2-year-old chocolate and never thought to clear it with her.
I hope the sitter could throw the term “polyphenols” around.