This is an excerpt from my book coming out Jan. 1 (available only at classes on my lecture tour, TBA soon), regarding How to Eat Right In the Real World. And raising healthy eaters without being condescending or superior while the S.A.D. is served all around us.
Several parents in our recent contest, submitting their ideas about how to raise healthy eaters, wrote about the need to avoid being “judgmental.” That is for sure a tricky proposition, in a world where we “health nut” parents disagree with the vast majority of what is taught academically about nutrition, and what is served in schools, at parties, and in our friends’ and families’ homes.
We have strong convictions that lead us to swim against the current. To raise healthy eaters, we have to buck cultural norms, often our own friends and family, plus our children’s inevitably being influenced by pop culture’s seduction.
I have raised my children for over 20 years in Utah. There is essentially no smoking in the most heavily LDS (Mormon) culture anywhere in the world. (The vast majority of Utah County residents are LDS. There’s plenty of fast food and sugar to compensate for the fact that we have almost no smoking or drinking!)
(I sometimes wonder if the dominant culture may subconsciously feel, “I don’t drink or smoke, and Utah has some of the best health in the nation, so this junk food won’t hurt me!”) You can go weeks, in my hometown, without seeing a smoker or a can of beer.
When my second child, Emma, was just three years old, we were out running errands, and she was in the car seat. “Mom!” she exclaimed. “There’s a bad man next to us!” She sounded terrified. I looked over, in alarm, into the car next to us. The man driving the car was smoking a cigarette.
Of course that was an opportunity to educate Emma that the man himself was not a bad person. (She had mixed up my explaining that smoking is a poor choice, with the character of the person making that choice!)
I told her, “Oh, honey, he isn’t a bad man just because he is smoking.” I explained that he was probably a very lovely man just like her own grandfathers and daddy. He probably wished he could stop smoking, but the first time he tried it, he didn’t know that he would want to smoke every day of his life after that. Now it is making his lungs black, and it makes him cough at night, and he has trouble breathing. He has a very high chance of getting lung cancer, which could kill him.
But he is not a bad man. He just made a bad choice long ago, and now that choice controls him. We don’t want to ever smoke a cigarette, because it makes our hair and clothes smell bad, and it makes our skin look old, and it turns our insides black and rotten.
When we talk to our children, we have to be precise, well-intentioned, and thoughtful, in order to make the discussion about choices, rather than judgment and being “holier than thou.” Make it about consequences and empowerment, through education, rather than judgment and superiority.
Infuse your conversations with authentic compassion for those who don’t know what you are teaching your child. (Most don’t.) Talk about how we don’t criticize others’ choices. We just make good choices, consistently, and if they are interested, others will ask us as they see good choices modeled for them.
If we aren’t careful in our messaging, too, our children are likely to blurt out something unintentionally hurtful, judging a family member or friend you care about very much.