This line from Oliver! is sung by children who have had nothing but gruel for most of their lives. Malnourished since birth, they imagine the sumptuousness of sausage and mustard, jelly and custard. But ours are not those children, and we have epidemic obesity. Why?
For those living in a society where we have what we want whenever we want, consumption has become a habit. It is not uncommon to see a mother wheeling a cart down the supermarket aisles, with a child in tow eating a cookie. Nor is it unusual to see people on the street or in cars with drink in hand. Instant gratification is our expectation. Some may feel that there is nothing wrong with satisfying one’s urges at will, but we should think of the repercussions. Obesity is just one of them.
We develop internal discipline by having the opportunity to acquire, yet not acting on the impulse. Where do we learn self-control? In situations where we could do as we please yet discipline ourselves to refrain. And this brings me back to food. Parents often use food as a bribe to ensure good behavior, or as a reward for not causing a problem. This practice does nothing to foster a child’s sense of discipline, and it makes the child think that food is the reason for exhibiting the desired behavior.
A grocery store near me offers a check-out line free of candy and other treats. A parent’s initial reaction might be relief at not having to refrain children. But we should consider whether the better option is to help children understand that not all desires will be instantly gratified. Do we want to raise children who have no sense of working to earn something? And it is a bad habit to allow children to constantly nag a parent who has made a decision. If your child continues to pester you in public, you have work to do at home to enforce the behavior you expect.
There is no reason we should have large numbers of over-weight children. Allowing children to eat whatever and whenever they want lays the foundation for a lifetime of struggle. In Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne writes helpfully about weaning children from snacks and high stimulation foods. He helps parents use the power of less to raise happier children. His “simplicity” approach to other types of behavior is also sound, and I recommend his book.
Most adult Americans eat too much, thereby offering a poor model. I recently found a rule of thumb for determining the maximum quantity one should consume in a single meal. Cup your hands and put them together. You should eat no more than what you could heap in those hands. Try it, and see if that amount satisfies you. Of course, you must allow time for food to travel from mouth to stomach (say 10 minutes). We don’t need as much food as we think, and many of our eating habits are just that: habit.
Here are other ways to feel satisfied with less: eat slowly and chew your food thoroughly. Swallow one mouthful before scooping up the next. Use small plates. Few people need the amount of food required to fill a standard dinner plate. Hunger pangs are usually the desire to eat NOW, and bear little relationship to quantity of food. And don’t assume that children naturally crave sugar. We have habituated them to that, ignoring the wealth of literature on the detrimental effects of sugar.
If you act on these suggestions, you and your children will improve your eating habits, feel better, and you will spend less money on food. Your children will begin to understand that “I want, therefore I have” is not the way of the world. Is that not an attractive proposition?