Nanny state

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.

15 thoughts on “Nanny state

  1. Misty

    My thought is exactly what you describe, no adult eats like a 2-year old. He’s going to see us eating a variety of stuff that he’ll eventually want to try.

    I do think I’ll be more willing to feed the next kid directly off of my plate. I gave Eli too few choices so what was once easy food is now 2-4 choices that we MUST HAVE ON HAND AT ALL TIMES for life to go smoothly.

    I do think he eats better than most toddlers. While he doesn’t eat any veggies to speak of (does hummus count?), he does eat just about any fruit I set before him. He eats all kinds of bread/grain products and a varitey of meats as well. He’s healthy and happy so I try not to sweat it.

    It does seem that we do have sort of a collective phobia about this, doesn’t it? Is it because it is so in the media right now? Because we are just coming to realize how many bad processed food choices are out there? I don’t know. Good post, Mamster.

  2. Liza

    That “tastes set for life” canard is so demonstrably false I have no idea what to say. I’d love to see the actual studies, not just that statement repeated in the popular press. Did they control for genetic preferences in food?

    My mom loves sweets and my dad loves wine. I was raised by my mom but I hate sweets and love wine. Even stronger than genetics, though, is plain old fashion — young urban adults (am I still one of those?) are expected to love sushi and Indian and Thai, and hardly any of us ate any of that before we were 18. By contrast, my pantry has never held a single can of cream of mushroom soup (I’d have to ask my mom what to do with it since my friends would have no clue).

  3. mamster Post author

    Liza, the fact that you don’t know what to do with cream of mushroom soup is emblematic of the contempt for tradition that is ruining society. Also, wine is just watered-down demon rum. Speaking of which, Liza just wrote a great article about sherry. Click here.

    Lore, Candyland is a harbinger of doom, because the loser always has a tantrum.

    Misty, Iris always ate off our plates, but she also has her go-to foods, including Veggie Booty. If there are adults (at least, those without young kids) who eat a daily ration of veggie booty, I’d just as soon not meet them.

  4. POPS(Richard)

    As parent of the blogger, I just want to say thay by teaching him writing at the age of 2, we fucked him up for life.

  5. Neil

    I mostly agree with your reaction to this article. however, I have to say that after being subjected to nasty canned and frozen peas and beans as a child, I still have an irrational revulsion to even perfectly prepared fresh versions of those vegetables. At least my Mom didn’t even try to feed us brussels sprouts, so now they are one of my favorites (fresh, sauteed with lots of bacon, of course).

    On the other hand, I can attest that Candyland will fuck you up for life. Or turn you into a pastry chef. Eh, same thing.

  6. neil d

    I’m still wondering what kind of nanny has been feeding pizza bagels to “generations” of children. Has the pizza bagel even been around for generations? I thought before about 1980, most Americans were taught that bagels were deadly poison, like tomatoes.

    I also wonder why this story even needs the nannies, except that presumably the Times thinks its readers are more interested in reading a story about “how to tactfully discipline your nanny” than one about what your kids should or shouldn’t be eating.

    Then there’s this: “Her current nanny has a degree in nutrition.”

    Note to self: Do not get a degree in nutrition as a career move.

  7. mamster Post author

    neil d, I’m pretty sure parenting in general was impossible before Costco, and Costco invented the pizza bagel. Hope that clears things up.

    Neil, I still maintain that frozen brussels sprouts are better than fresh 90% of the time.

  8. mamster Post author

    Frozen are cheaper, much easier to prep, and taste just as good–or better, if we’re talking about sprouts that have been kicking around the produce section for a week.

  9. Laurie

    When I got home from school today, Matthew and Iris were at Dick’s snacking on french fries and chocolate shakes.

    Apparently I need a new nanny.

  10. mamster Post author

    I said, “Iris, we could go to Dick’s Drive-In.” And she said, “It’s just called Dick’s.”

  11. Molly

    Article is clipped and in my files, so funny it was. Two notes to back up your points, both excellent: 1. Science actually HAS proven that kids outgrow early tastes, primarily because kids’ first food — milk — was not available once they were done nursing until basically this past century. So, would have been highly unadaptive to get hooked on a foodstuff that disappeared. See Paul Rozin, he of chocolate cake fame mentioned in Omnivore’s Dilemma. Also, a book called something like “Why We Eat What We Eat”. 2. Ruth Reichl wrote a hilarious intro years ago in Gourmet about how she had to carry an egg in her purse at all times, because her son would only eat four foods (all white) and NO vegetables until he was seven years old. Exposure isn’t all!

Comments are closed.