One of the most interesting findings of my ongoing “kid food” survey is how many of you mentioned “grandparents” as a leading source of junk food in your children’s lives. A lot of you are understandably annoyed by this dietary interference, yet it’s easy to see why grandparents can’t stop themselves from doling out treats. Who doesn’t love to see that delighted smile on a child’s face when we surprise them with a piece of candy or pull a tray of warm cookies out of the oven?
I was thinking about that dynamic this morning when I read a recent article in the Los Angeles Times by a Stanford University doctoral candidate in sociology. Based on interviews with 73 families, along with 100 hours spent observing their daily dietary habits, Priya Fielding-Singh found that while all parents are nagged by their kids for junk food, 96 percent of the affluent parents regularly deny these requests and only 13 percent of low-income families do the same.
It’s easy to conclude that low-income parents just lack the nutrition education of their higher income counterparts, but that’s not what’s going on, according to Fielding-Singh. Her interviews revealed that both sets of parents understand the importance of healthy eating and want their children to eat nutritious food. But in the case of low-income parents, junk food is one of the few indulgences they can afford to give their kids.
Here’s a quote from the article:
For parents raising their kids in poverty, having to say “no” was a part of daily life. Their financial circumstances forced them to deny their children’s requests — for a new pair of Nikes, say, or a trip to Disneyland — all the time. This wasn’t tough for the kids alone; it also left the poor parents feeling guilty and inadequate.
Next to all the things poor parents truly couldn’t afford, junk food was something they could often say “yes” to. Poor parents told me they could almost always scrounge up a dollar to buy their kids a can of soda or a bag of chips. So when poor parents could afford to oblige such requests, they did.
Honoring requests for junk food allowed poor parents to show their children that they loved them, heard them and could meet their needs. As one low-income single mother told me: “They want it, they’ll get it. One day they’ll know. They’ll know I love them, and that’s all that matters.”
There are a lot of factors to consider here, including the food industry’s stoking of children’s desire for unhealthy foods through billions spent in youth-directed advertising, marketing which often particularly targets kids of color. And if a low-income family is living in a so-called “food swamp,” the widespread availability of junk food only increases kids’ exposure to it.
But Fielding-Singh’s research adds an important new layer to this discussion. As she notes:
Junk food purchases not only brought smiles to kids’ faces, but also gave parents something equally vital: a sense of worth and competence as parents in an environment where those feelings were constantly jeopardized.
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