Monday, April 8, 2013

Rant: Parents, Stop Spoiling Your Children!

"Recent immigrants aside, Americans spoil and cater to their children more than do other countries. We buy them more toys, read more books about how to bring them up, and give them larger allowances to spend."
--An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies by Tyler Cowen 

Tyler Cowen is an American economist, academic, and writer. He occupies the Holbert C. Harris Chair of economics as a professor at George Mason University. I have been reading his newest book, which was released last year, and it is a fascinating look at the world of food. He possesses strong opinions, and though I don't agree with all of them, there is validity in much he has to say.

Spoiled children! Even if you won't admit it, I am sure you know plenty of parents who spoil their children too much. You might even be one of those parents yourself, though you probably deny it. There are numerous negatives attached to spoiling children but I am only going to deal with a single aspect here: Food.

Food? How does that fit into being spoiled? Let us start at the beginning. "Food habits start in the family. That is where we learn what to eat, how to eat, and how to value food. While a palate can be retrained, most people keep the food tastes of their childhood." (Cowen) This is an essential foundation and applicable to many varied food issues. If we truly want to change the negative aspects of our food system, much of our efforts should be directed at changing the eating habits of children.

"We also spoil our children by catering to their food preferences, but this damages dining quality for everyone. American parents produce, buy, cook, and present food that is blander, simpler, and sweeter, and in part that is because the kiddies are in charge." (Cowen) Sugar coated cereals, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, chicken fingers, McDonald's and more. Go to most restaurants, and that is what usually can be found on their childrens' menus. This often bland and predictable food can negatively impact a child's future consumption patterns.

However, the negative impact also adheres to the parents and that may not be as readily visible, but it needs to be considered due to its significance. "A lot of American food is, quite simply, food for children in a literal sense. It’s just that we all happen to eat it." (Cowen) Parents fall into the trap of eating similar food to their children and there are multiple reasons for this. "Since it is easier to cook for the whole family, American food followed this simpler, blander path." (Cowen) Rather than cook two meals, one for the children and one for the parents, many choose to cook a single meal, which caters more to the blander, simpler tastes of the children. When children eat out, many want to go to fast food chains, from McDonald's to Burger King, and they take their parents with them, who then also eat there. "Many fast food outlets target their marketing at children, hoping that parents will be dragged in as well." (Cowen)

When children are on their own, with their own money, their eating habits don't get any better. "...(C)hildren spend a lot of their allowance money on candy, fast food, and snacks. This shapes their tastes and gives them some food autonomy, relative to their peers in other countries, who are typically more dependent on the food chosen by their parents. The result is a lot of bad food and a lot of sweet, bland food. For instance, children have been the driving force behind the prominence of doughnut chains in the United States." (Cowen) You can't expect most children to seek out healthy food when they are out on their own, with their own allowance money.

Other countries often lack their issues. For example, "In France, in contrast, the wishes of children, whether for food or otherwise, are more frequently ignored. The kids are simply expected to eat what the adults feed them." (Cowen) Children are far less spoiled and they learn to eat much better cuisine. Interestingly, at AKA Bistro in Lincoln, which has a French bistro section, their childrens' menu includes items like snails, replicating more of the French experience.

In the end, parents need to seize control and stop spoiling and catering to their children. They need to feed their children better food, more interesting and healthy foods. They need to stop taking them so much to cheap fast food chains and stop them from guzzling gallons of sugary drinks. The children are not going to stop on their own. Parents bear the ultimate responsibility and it is time for them to step up to the plate. Don't look to the government to solve problems such as children's obesity. Parents, look at yourselves and make the necessary changes.


Mazarkis Williams said...

OK ... I agree that we should all be eating better, including children. But I want to know where this guy gets his data. Here's my anecdotal evidence. When I was a kid, true, I spent all my allowance on potato chips but I was thin as a bean. My kids spent all their money on music ... also thin as beans. That aside I don't know how you would get hard data on how kids spend their cash.

Anyway, food should not be sweet. Completely agreed. But as far as bland goes, kids have better taste buds than we do. They don't get into the spicy stuff until they're older. It's just too overwhelming for them. I was despairing and then my kids got to their teen years and began to eat what I eat! Hurray!

Finally, there is so much more wrong with the food system than kids. For example the grocery store offers cheap food packed with corn syrup and expensive food that isn't. I have a lot of money to spend and the time to cook from scratch, but I'm well aware others don't have the choices I have. Bread, beans, barbecue sauce, spaghetti sauce, salad dressing, etc. etc. have to dump the corn syrup. It's becoming a public health crisis.

Richard Auffrey said...

Thanks Maz for the comments.

The book does not specify most of the sources of his data, though he is an economist & academic and seems a more reliable source than many others.

Obviously, his conclusions are not absolute so there will be exceptions, such as your own anecdotal experiences. Based on my own anecdotal experiences, I tend to accept his conclusions as general truths.

As for spicy foods, children who grow up on cultures with strong spicy food traditions, often eat and enjoy spicy food as children. Now, children can change their eating habits, and I have done so myself, but our early consumption patterns can be hard to overcome.

Agreed, that the food system has numerous problems, unrelated to children. Though maybe all the corn syrup in our foods is due to children desiring sweet foods, and adults having grown up with that desire.

I think the key in this Rant is that many parents need to take more responsibility for what their children eat.

Mazarkis Williams said...

Nobody besides the parents could possibly be responsible. So all of that is kind of a "duh" and it strikes me as a little weird. :)

As far as kids in cultures with spicy foods go, I do not think ALL of their foods are spicy! When my daughter was quite young I introduced her to vindaloo. She broke out in hives all over her body. Another time she stole a fresh jalapeno off my hot dog (yes it was me eating the hot dog, not her). Yikes.

A lot of the books written about economics are "pop" economics (don't know about this one, I'm just saying). Since I live with someone who studied economics, I am always suspicious of these things.

Richard Auffrey said...

I know plenty of parents who deny their own responsibility in such matters. Always easier to blame society. :)

It is good to be cynical about such matters, and I certainly don't agree with everything Tyler Cowen has written. But he does have a good resume and is well respected as an economist.

Here is his resume: