Why giving kids only what's good for them is a bad idea.
I recently had lunch with my friend Amanda, who informed me that her one-year-old daughter had just discovered that the cookies she sometimes receives – when she’s cranky, after dinner – do not materialize out of the ether each time they’re presented, but come instead from a sacred source above the fridge, the cookie jar. This is a perfectly normal development for a toddler: when they reach a certain point, they begin to understand that life is not as a series of discrete events enacted upon them, but rather a interconnected web of objects, actions and decisions in which they are (in varying degrees) a functionary. The scientific term for this is “connecting the dots,” and once kids discover it, they begin to act on it. “Now, whenever we’re in the kitchen – or sometimes when we’re not,” Amanda said, “she’ll point toward the cabinet and make that little I-want-it grunt.”
I was psyched for this conversation. I’m not sure if it’s because of my fascination with how kids work, my drive to rectify the self-inflicted disempowerment felt by contemporary parents, or simply because I thrive on conflict, but there’s nothing I love discussing more than the intersection of children’s desire and parental efforts at control. But at the time of our lunch, I was consulting for some cookie-making conglomerate – I advise companies that make stuff for kids – and whenever I work on these projects I become (briefly) engrossed in consumer behavior within what we call “the category”: the product set being studied. So I sidetracked things to ask what kind of cookies Amanda was buying. “Some sort of Annie’s Organic,” she said. I must have pulled a face. “I know,” she said, “that I’m a stereotype of this kind of mom, but I just don’t want her to ingest preservatives or anything artificial. Ever.”
Suddenly, in this one conversation, we’d touched on every element that informs parental attempts to manage children’s intake of fun and compelling product – what I call “junk.” Be it sweets, salty snacks, videos or TV, it comes down to a few core issues:
1) Kids love junk.
2) Parents want to control the kinds of junk to which their kids have access.
3) Parents want their kids to learn to make healthy choices.
Now, we all personally know just how alluring junk can be, and how good reasonable indulgences feel. Why is this? Because life is a soul-crushing mission designed to destroy you, and moments of wanton happiness are our deserved refuge. If you think kids are immune to this feeling, you’re wrong. Being a kid is extremely hard work. In fact, it’s much like starting a new job every day: they’re exposed to an onslaught of fresh information that needs to be integrated and acted on immediately; rules are often unstated or unclear, and then suddenly and righteously enforced; and their direct supervisors are often inexperienced, overworked, and incapable of delegation. Imagine yourself in that position. During your lunch break, or after each brutal day, don’t you think you’d feel entitled to a quick burst of numbing relief? Well, kids do too. Which is why I offer the following thesis: Kids Deserve Junk.
The issue isn’t whether or not kids are going to get junk. Junk is compelling, ubiquitous and readily accessible. So you can probably give up on the idea that you – like my friend Amanda – are going to be able to fundamentally prohibit its entry into your child’s mind or body. More importantly, such a prohibition might actually work against you. Consider abstinence-only education, a teenage version of the same struggle. The scientific studies consistently show that attempting to place universal restrictions on a fun, pleasurable, and available action, without providing functional alternatives, is not only ineffectual, it’s actually counterproductive. Kids who are exposed solely to this kind of advice actually have higher rates of pregnancy and STDs than those who are given more practical skills.
Sadly, far too many parents end up locked in just this type of defeatist paradigm when they’re trying to deal with junk – attempting to deny their child’s yearning, and place absolute restrictions on their access, without comprehensible justifications or lessons. This often ends up backfiring for a few reasons:
1) Kids love a fight, as it provides them an opportunity and template for engagement.
2) Unqualified limitations create a countervailing, and often stronger, desire for transgression.
3) Enforcing limits without providing tactics for confronting the underlying desires hampers kids’ ability to make intelligent, informed decisions.
Your goal, therefore – as with most things with young children – should not be to attempt to completely quash this profound inclination, but to teach your kids how to deal with it in a way that fosters a healthy, lifelong relationship.
This is not to say that you shouldn’t have rules. You should. You can even have ones that place off-limits specific categories of, or locations for consuming, junk: only buying foods whose colors exist in nature; only eating bacon at Grandma’s; only watching Caillou when Mom is out of the room. They should just be proactive, logical, proscribed and realistic.
Rules should just be proactive, logical, proscribed and realistic. The goal here is, instead of creating unconditional and unachievable rules, to form functional ones based on kids’ innate desire for structure, consistency, and independence. I therefore suggest what I call the Co-Option Option (COO)? The COO works like this: instead of engaging in immature, futile, and degrading head-to-head battles with your young child about things you can’t wholly control, and aren’t, objectively, all that important – splashing in the bathtub, playing with food while consuming it, watching the occasional episode of Boohbah – you take the fight out of the situation by redefining it so that you are in charge, while also offering your child the sense that they’re getting what they want.
For the tub, the COO would work like this. Instead of constantly trying to preclude your child’s desire to splash (in a room which is, by design, fully waterproof) you tell them they are allowed to wallow to their heart’s content for the first and last two minutes of their bath, but need to cooperate during the middle portion when you’re helping them get clean. You provide clear indications of when their water-play period begins and ends, complete with markers (One more minute.) And you have repercussions – connected to the situation, and laid-out clearly and in advance – if they don’t conform (removal of a favorite bath toy).
For junk, it’s pretty much the same drill. Make clear protocols about when and in what amounts treats like candy, snacks, and television can be consumed; provide indications of clear and actionable repercussions if these protocols are not followed; and then simply stick to what you say. If kids know that dessert comes only on weekends, that they can watch fifteen minutes of Dora as soon as they get home from preschool, or that they can eat their fill of Cheetos when they visit their Gay Uncle – and that these are the only times that such things are generally allowed – they’ll be much more likely to understand that these are controlled substances/”treats,” and much less likely to ask for them on occasions when these requirements aren’t met, and much more likely to learn the balance and abstemiousness that will help prevent them from becoming obese couch potato diabetics later in life.
The question then becomes, what kinds of junk are okay? As someone who’s worked for the past ten years helping people design media, toys, and foodstuffs for young kids, I have a pretty good sense of what’s out there. I’ve had the pleasure of helping folks make some truly junky stuff more wholesome – giving a show about talking fire engines a “social/emotional curriculum,” lending cheesy snack crackers a sense of “optimism,” or suggesting that assembling discs of meat and cheese onto crackers is “self-empowering.” I’ve worked on stuff that’s truly good for kids – electronic literacy toys, whole-wheat breakfast cereal, and some of the best-respected educational TV shows. And I’ve helped develop the burgeoning Better For You (BFY) market, trying to make things like watered-down juice, baked crackers, or a singing toothbrush feel healthful without being branded good for you (which alienates kids.)
Your goal is to teach kids that they’re in charge of junk, not the other way around. So what does this mean for what you should let your kids have during their regulated, co-opted, scheduled junk time? Well, I’m of the mind that pretty much anything is acceptable as a treat, as the very category implies that it is something that is a) consumed only occasionally b) consumed in moderation and with supervision and c) intended to feel a bit indulgent. The important thing is not to confuse the issue. An Oreo is quite overtly a treat. A handful of Newman’s Own Chocolate Alphabet Cookies contain extremely similar ingredients, but because the brand holds what we call a “health halo” – the perception of being BFY – people make the mistake of treating the product differently, allowing kids to have them more regularly, an action which can actually muck things up. Kids make sense of the world through categorization, so imagine your three year old trying to sort out how some chocolate cookies are a treat, and some are okay for every day. No matter how organic the ingredients may be, I promise you that consuming a bag of Newman’s each week will never be healthier for your child than eating four Oreos.
The other important thing to be aware of is what I like to call your Junk Practice: what you use Junk for, and how it’s implemented. Junk can be a reward, and its withholding part of a punishment. But dessert as a prize for finishing your dinner – eat more to get more? – feels counterproductive, and the wavering negotiation that often surrounds it (“Three more bites of broccoli and you can have cake. Fine, one more.”) only deepens the confusion.
Life works best with young kids when they’re made aware of your expectations, parameters, and repercussions in advance – and these things are linked directly to the situation at hand. Sadly, junk often ends up getting used in just the opposite way: ad hoc and as a sudden bribe or penalty. Abruptly precluding your kid from watching Handy Manny because they’ve dropped their toast on the floor jelly-side down at breakfast is neither concrete nor grounded. Whereas if you have a standing plan to allow Handy Manny viewing each morning, so long as your child get dressed and eats something, your response to transgressions of these rules can be direct, comprehensible, and transparent.
Remember, your child is not born with an innate understanding of how junk operates. Your rules, provisions, and actions give them the tools – ones they’ll use for the rest of their life. Your goal should thus be to teach them that they’re in charge of junk, not the other way around, and in order to do this, you have to know how to be in charge of it first. To get you started, I’ll give you the same advice I gave Amanda: Stop worrying so much about what kind of cookies you buy, and worry more about when, where and to what end you’re distributing them. As with most things with young kids, what it is is far less important than how you handle it.