Friday, February 12, 2010

Our National Nanny

Apparently Michelle Obama decided that low-controversy issues (like literacy: I can't imagine anyone being opposed to literacy. Well, unless they were a Taliban guy and it was literacy for women) are not for her.

She's going to attack childhood obesity. By pushing healthier food and more exercise in schools.

I have a general opposition to government pushing that far into people's private lives. One of my biggest concerns in re: government-paid-for healthcare, is that arguably, the taxpayers (who are really the ones paying) would then have the right to dictate what is and is not acceptable behavior: maybe skydiving as a hobby is too risky? Maybe chubby people should be forcibly made to diet, or at least banned from buying fast food? (You laugh, but they talked about trying something similar in Mississippi.)

The issue of childhood health and diet is such a charged one. And what I seem to see are three cases of how people raise their children.

1. Case the first: the parents strive to get healthful food into their kids, but don't make a big fat hairy deal about it. There are set meal-times. Dessert and pop may be possibilities but it is made clear that they are treats, an add-on to an otherwise healthful diet. Fast food and things like pizza are consumed, but again, they are treats, not the usual. There's also allowances made for exercise: the kids are encouraged to go out and play, and if they express interest in a sport, the parents find a team for them to play on. In other words: parents trying to do what's best for their kids. From what I have observed, this is the vast majority of parents.

2. Case the second: Parents want to be their kids' "friend." Or they're really not that well equipped to parent for various reasons. Or they don't know much about nutrition. Or whatever. And they let their kids eat whatever the kids want to eat. I admit to being kind of shocked by the amount of pop some parents let their kids have - more in a day than I as an adult would drink, and far more than what I was allowed as a kid. (And I admit, my main concern is not so much the calories, but the fact that a lot of this is caffeinated pop...I carried out an unsuccessful campaign to not have caffeine-containing pop at Youth Group because there were a couple kids that it severely messed with the attention spans of, but those kids didn't have sufficient self-control yet to say, "No, I shouldn't have that kind.").

These are the parents I think the anti-obesity crusaders are targeting. And yeah, some parents make poor choices. But the problem is, forcing more activity in school or requiring more healthful meals isn't going to really change things that much.

The kids from these families will grow up, and either continue in pattern, or, maybe, they'll realize, "Hey, what I'm eating isn't that great for me, maybe I better change my diet." But it's their choice; it should be there choice. I cringe at anyone who suggests removing kids from a non-abusive home (and say what you will, letting your kid eat Chicken McNuggets isn't abuse) because they're fat - as has been suggested in Britain - is a troubling over-reach of government. Also, nannying at people doesn't work...I'm pretty conscious of health and nutrition and I cover my ears and go "shut up, shut up" when some talking head on the TV goes into a rant about how Americans eat too much salt or too much sugar or whatever. And this is because of...

3. Case the third. These are the parents who are the "alpha" parents. They want to be the best. They want their kids to be perfect. If their kid gets sick, they consider it a personal failing. These are the parents who push their children to exercise an hour a day. And who withhold all sugar, and who also won't let their kids go to birthday parties, or partake in parties at school. These are the parents for whom purity of diet is close to a religion. And they're gonna hear the anti-childhood-obesity message and either feel very smug ("We're better than all the rest of the stupid Americans. Maybe we should even move to Europe") or they're going to get scared and redouble their efforts. ("What? Too much salad can make you gain weight? Better cut the portions and stop serving dressing.")

And yes, that's an extreme, and I'm exaggerating, but I've seen kids who were afraid to eat. Or parents who wouldn't let their kids go out and do the normal kid-socializing thing, because white sugar or white flour or artificial color or food with fat in it or something was being served. And people like this can become crusaders for their cause...and they can get very tiresome.

And their kids grow up with problems. Worse problems, I'd content, than a lot of the fat little kids. The kids don't know how to choose food - they've always had their diet so structured and so accounted-for that when they're faced with a dormitory cafeteria, or a stop at a fast-food restaurant out of necessity on a church mission trip, either they don't eat (because there is no food that is "safe" for them), or they go the opposite direction, and gorge on what was, in the past, "forbidden fruit." And they turn into adults who either rebel against parental strictures and do not make attempts to eat healthfully, or they become like their parents - paranoid, scared about food and safety, and imposing the same restrictive rules on their children. (And as always: I exempt allergies from this. It can be a challenge to raise a kid with peanut allergies (say), and I'd hope that parents inviting that child to birthdays and things would be completely sure to serve food that would not cause a reaction.)

I once saw a commentator on some news show talking about how bake sales in schools should be banned, and treats at parties be replaced with raw veggies. And I've heard it said that any cafeteria worker who's overweight should be made to lose weight or fired.

And these kind of people make me very tired. Again, it's the "this size fits me so it should fit everyone" solution to things.

I acknowledge we have a problem in our culture - we have gone from times of fasting and times of feasting to a time where a lot of us are feasting all the time. And that's arguably not good for our health. But I don't think the other extreme, where all pleasures are banned, where people are made to feel guilty if they don't fit the athletic body type, is a good solution.

I would also suspect that the intervention into the schools will have relatively little impact. I know, there are some who'd like to remove kids from the home influence as much as possible and raise them in Brave New World-like school systems under the "control" of some entity, but that's a really bad and wrong idea. Kids are going to learn attitudes from their parents - right or wrong.

How about, instead of declaring all parents irresponsible and therefore unfit, deciding that parents - at least most people planning on being parents - DO care, DO want to make an effort, DO want to do their best (even if it's not perfect) for raising their kids? And accept the fact that there will be some imperfection, that we don't want an army of state-raised robots who believe the same thing, eat the same thing, do the same work...And yes, continue to remove kids from the home when there is real and true abuse and neglect, but generally let parents do the raising?

(Incidentally, there have been a few cases in the news of "apparent neglect" - where the kids were thin and seemingly undernourished - where the parents were health fiends who were paranoid about their kids getting fat. So they underfed them and did things like restricting fat for kids under 2. Which you should NEVER do (except in some rare metabolic-disorder cases), it screws up normal brain development.)

I really don't like all the "but this is for your own good that we're telling you what to do" attitude in the world today.

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