As I have mentioned before, I am on the FlyLady email list and generally either enjoy the messages or at least find them inoffensive. But FlyLady’s “meal guru” Leanne Ely is getting more and more hateful lately. Here’s a “Food for Thought” message she sent earlier this month.

Buddy Hackett once said, ‘My mother’s menu consisted of two choices. Take it or leave it.’

That’s what my mother’s menu consisted of, too. We had the choice of eating the dinner she prepared or leaving the table hungry. If we didn’t like what she prepared, we weren’t allowed to make ourselves a PB & J. If we snuck a banana or anything else for that matter, we were in big trouble. Why? Was my mother abusive and mean? Was my family dysfunctional because the children weren’t allowed to call the shots on what was for dinner? Am I in therapy now because I was made to eat my vegetables?

Nope. My family had issues like any other family, but it was pretty ‘normal’. I’ve noticed however, that what was fashionable in the childrearing of yesterday is now considered barbaric and obsolete. Today, we are told, that if we ‘make’ our children eat what’s in front of them will develop eating disorders. Not giving children ‘choices’ will harm their self esteem, so say the ‘professionals’.

The very words ‘eating disorder’ sends us into a tailspin. Consequently, after years of permissive parenting at the dinner table, we suddenly realize our children may have never eaten an honest portion of veggies in their entire young lives. In our perfectionism (and boy, parenting is the place where we wear our maternal stripes with pride!) we have been more concerned about our children’s psyches than teaching them an important life skill–eating nutritiously. Because we want to be better parents than our own parents, we want our children to have ‘perfect’ childhoods with no conflict whatsoever. We buy all of that, don’t we? And, to use a food analogy, the proof is the pudding–just take a look at the kids.

Childhood obesity is at epidemic proportions. According to the International Obesity Task Force, there are about 22 million children in the world, UNDER 5 that are overweight or obese! In another study, the Canadian Medical Association reported that obesity among young boys ages 7 to 13 years old, TRIPLED between 1981 and 1996 […]

Blah blah blah, so on and so forth. First of all, I really don’t appreciate the scare quotes around a large percentage of the words in this essay. Any person who would so blithely trivialize eating disorders (which, let’s remember, actually kill people, unlike obesity in and of itself)  is not someone I really care to know.

Second of all, I have an eating disorder (yikes, typing that out is scarier than I thought it would be, though I’ve said it before). And I am obese. I am not going to “blame” my parents for this, because I think it’s way more complicated than that, but let’s just say my mom followed every shred of conventional wisdom regarding how to raise kids not to be fat. We were served healthy meals with fruits and vegetables, pop as only an occasional special treat, and no junk food in the house. Surprise, I am fat anyway and have been fat ever since I was old enough to be cognizant of that fact.

Certainly, on the face of it, there isn’t much wrong with my parents’ philosophy. I’m all for vegetables and limiting pop. But I think the fact that I knew all along that it was a paralyzing fear of me getting fat (and NOT just for “health”–see, I can do scare quotes too–reasons… my mom was the fat kid in school, and seemed to consider it a fate worse than death in many ways) that was driving these choices certainly contributed to some of my current fucked-up relationship with food.

Let’s not even get into how “giving kids choices” equates to “suddenly [realizing] our children may have never eaten an honest portion of veggies in their entire young lives.” Can you tell me what, exactly, is wrong with that purloined banana? Or even a PB&J (since I’m assuming Ely’s home is stocked with 100% whole-grain bread, natural peanut butter, and local home-canned low-sugar jam)? I’d say this is all about control, and the assumption that if we “let ourselves go,” we will all weigh 400 pounds. Who’s to say your child won’t (like many of us) actually LIKE some or many vegetables? Certainly some kids will remain immune to the obesity panic that infuses this approach, and certainly some parents will be able to hide it well enough that the kids aren’t affected. I commend those parents as I do any parent who puts aside his or her own issues in the service of raising mentally and physically healthy kids. But if your actual practice of feeding your kids is anything like the snotty tone of this piece, I don’t think you are doing them as much of a favor as you think.

I don’t have kids, so I know my opinion is worth basically the paper it’s printed on. But I know from listening to my friends who are parents that helping kids eat is a situation that it is impossible to be 100% prescriptive about. Some kids eat only meat and cheese, others almost nothing at all, some are junk food fiends, and some will cheerfully eat whatever you put in front of them. These interactions can be really stressful for parents–my sister-in-law describes how traumatic it was for both her and her young son when she would finally have to force him to eat after days of refusing to consume anything, and you can still see him get anxious and push his plate away without eating a bite when he is in an unfamiliar situation or stressed out, so this was clearly not a fleeting or trivial aversion. Suffice it to say, I certainly think it is safe to say that kids’ eating issues (and the “childhood obesity epidemic”) cannot be solved with a glib blanket recommendation to force your children to choke down whatever you put on their plates, under threat of punishment.

Shame on Leanne Ely, both for being smug and comfortable enough to assume that she has all the answers for those stupid parents of fat kids, and for trivializing diseases that tear families apart, ruin lives, and even kill.

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