Another report on hyperparenting. The New York Times reports the emergence of children with such strongly instilled food concerns they are afraid to eat. Doctors have coined the term orthorexia for the phenomenon.

Recently, I passed a mother and child of about 3 or 4 years old standing before a pretzel vendor. Here is the conversation I overheard:

Child: “Mommy, I want a pretzel! I want a pretzel!”

Mother: “Jennifer, a pretzel is 300 calories. Are you sure you want to spend 300 calories on a pretzel?”

Child: “I want a pretzel! I want a pretzel!”

Mother: “Jennifer, I want you to think about this. If you spend 300 calories on the pretzel, you won’t have those calories left for later.”

Child: “I want a pretzel! I want a pretzel”

I don’t know whether the child received the pretzel. But whatever happened to “No, you’ll spoil your appetite”?

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19 Responses

  1. A.W. says:

    At 3 to 4 she is having that much of a discusssion.

    I believe in parents explaining their decisions, too, but not at 3 or 4.

  2. A reader says:

    Man, it breaks my heart how little some parents worry about setting their daughters up for a lifetime of eating disorders. Probably because that’s what they’ve experienced themselves, so it seems like the status quo.

  3. AF says:

    Are you sure it was Jennifer and not Madison?

  4. What gets me is that the analogy with a bank totally breaks down, especially for little kids. Sure, have the extra 300 calories. Then run around the house a few dozen times. Problem solved.

  5. Vladimir says:

    I don’t know about this. I’m reminded of the Fool in King Lear, who gets whipped for speaking, gets whipped for keeping silent, and gets whipped for holding his peace. If you do what that parent did, you’re fomenting eating disorders. Bad. If you give your kid the pretzel, you’re serving junk food — and good nutrition starts early. Bad, bad. You just can’t win! Poor parents, criticized no matter what they do.

  6. A reader says:

    At least for my part, Vladimir, I wouldn’t care if the mother gave or didn’t give the kid the pretzel; it’s instilling that obsessive knowledge of and need to keep track of calories at such a young age I think is scary.

    You are, however, probably correct that someone would judge her no matter what she did. Such is life, I suppose.

  7. But pretzels are low-fat.

    Just split it with the kid, that makes 150 calories each. They should both be able to handle that.

  8. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 2/28/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  9. Bruce Boyden says:

    Whatever works. If counting calories works for this mother, I say more power to her.

  10. A reader says:

    Whatever works. If counting calories works for this mother, I say more power to her.

    What on Earth does “works” mean in this context? That she is thin? That the child is thin?

    For me, “working” means that the child is growing up to have a healthy relationship with food in which she doesn’t binge on junk food whenever she gets the opportunity, is not scared to eat healthful and nourishing food out of fear that she might get “fat,” and that her life is not controlled by an obsessive need to track, count and purge (through starvation, excessive exercise, vomiting) “unwanted” calories.

    My personal experience and observation have taught me that emphasis on calories from a young age is not, in fact, likely to “work” for that value of the term. But hey, at least she’s probably not a fatty.

  11. Bruce Boyden says:

    A reader: By “works” I’m referring to the fact that a frazzled parent may lose any control at all over what their kid chooses to eat.

    To paraphrase Judge Kozinski, I hereby advise critics of other people’s parenting techniques to chill.

  12. Donna B. says:

    Bruce Boyden — what’s being questioned is pushing of you can’t have it because it has calories. That’s in the long run more dangerous than either giving the kid the pretzel or simply saying no, you can’t one right now.

    Further, all the mother’s explaining just prolonged the argument and increases the chance that she will lose control over much more than what her child chooses to eat.

    So why shouldn’t we criticize? Especially those of us who are parents?

  13. Bruce Boyden says:

    Donna B. — because it’s not your kid, that’s why. Unless the kid is having serious health problems, why do you care?

  14. TRE says:

    Jennifer is going to be harmed no matter what. If the mother is chiding a 3 or 4 year old about some pretzels, what is the likelihood the kid is going to get a truly sufficient amount of nutritious food?

    [B]If[/B] she cooks, is the food likely going to be delicious and nutritious?

    Lastly she picked the overused name Jennifer and likely has bad judgment in other areas as well.

  15. Joe says:

    Bruce, it’s still unclear what you mean by “whatever works,” but I take it the gist of your argument is that we shouldn’t criticize people for their parenting decisions, unless of course those parenting decisions are bad enough that they cross some threshold level of wrongness. The concern of some commentators is that this type of parenting *is* likely to cause “serious health problems.” It seems we don’t actually know if this kid has or will develop health problems, but this of course means that we don’t know that the kid doesn’t have health problems — and the theory is that teaching a child obsessive behavior w/r/t food is in fact teaching a health problem.

  16. Contextualizer says:

    One key question: was this a really heavy kid? or a really light kid? If the kid was obese, it needs strict supervision and guidance.

  17. Bruce Boyden says:

    Joe, if the theory is that based on the anecdote in Jason’s post above it’s reasonable to suspect that that particular child is being taught obsessive behavior with respect to food, then I’m saying that’s a bad theory.

  18. tk says:

    Obese children and eating-disordered children are both depressing. Knowing nothing more than that the child’s mother apparently has the child counting calories to some extent, I’m not willing to criticize.

    The people who are criticizing are assuming a lot that they don’t know.

  19. Teri Geselle says:

    The smell of salt and grease is always luring someone. Good for the parent teaching her young children not to fall prey to the constant exposure we all try to resist. Teaching children to take “no” for an answer is also very important. Asking children to stop and think should start early, even if it’s about eating a pretzel. The calorie issue may be a bit much for small children to understand unless you explain the pro’s and con’s of caloric intake.