This weekend we spent in Chicago celebrating the 105th birthday of Tilly, my husband's grandmother. It's unbelievable that she is lucid, funny, has a smile that lights up the sky, and is still able to walk and live independently in an assisted living home using a walker. Seeing her tightly embrace nephews and relatives, and her 12 great grandchildren, is truly inspirational.
After 15 years of knowing her, and having her live with us 1 month at a time, 2-3 times per year from 2003-2017 in both Kansas and Florida (until 2 years ago, she just couldn’t travel any more), I observed the following about her: she never smoked, never drank soda, drinks coffee, doesn’t eat late, and enjoys dark chocolate and the rare sip of Bailey’s Irish Cream. She doesn’t over eat, and she stops as soon as she is full. As of last year she still went to the gym at the assisted living facility and used the machines! She remains faithful and spiritual, goes to Mass every week, always smiles at others, and has a good word and positive energy for all those at her facility. Anytime you ask her for her secret (as I have for past 15 years), she will always say first: don’t hold any grudges or anger.
As we were on our flight back to Orlando, FL a few days ago, I forced Claire to engage in a conversation about a recent issue we were challenged with. Claire started 7th grade in a new private school this year. I was delighted that she has access to a microwave, so most school days I pack her lunch with leftovers from dinner the night before or whatever else I made. She has her water bottle, main dish, and usually another small Tupperware with cut up fresh fruit. Each week, she will eat a school lunch at least 1 or 2 days of her choosing. This usually involves a Thursday because they serve “Chinese” food and specifically “potstickers” which is her favorite.
She had shared at the beginning of the school year, and even asked for permission early on, to go to the cafeteria to buy snacks when she is “hungry.” Apparently, many students do so between classes, during breaks, or after school. What I did not know, until recently, was that she had been going to buy junk food with increasing frequency, until almost daily for the first 2 weeks of March. Right before spring break, my husband Dave discovered something. On his phone, he can view the “account” for which we replenish funds in order for her to pay for those school lunches. We had not been checking the account to see what she has been purchasing. When he decided to check to make sure there were adequate funds for school lunch, that’s when he showed me what I didn’t want to believe but grateful for discovering it.
What I saw in receipts for the month of March was the daily purchase of a candy bar for $1.75, occasional fruit smoothies for $5.00, and almost the daily purchase of waffle fries for $1.75! I sat in disbelief. This is my child, the one who has grown up fully aware of my books, my blogs, my stories of countless patients whose poor diet of excessive sugar and dairy made them ill. More than that, was my disbelief that she would make decisions she knew we wouldn’t approve of on junk food, especially spending money excessively. I also didn’t understand and asked her “why,” when our pantry actually had wafers, some Milano cookies, even Godiva Chocolates. She had access to sugar in our very own home, and we had sugary items we could have packed in her lunch. Most importantly, this was simply not how I “raised” my daughter.
Instead of being “mad” I asked her questions. If you ask a child “why” it's usually met with “I don’t know.” So instead, I asked many questions while we were sitting next to each other on the flight home (she couldn't retreat easily to her own room). Below, I have listed my questions for Claire, and every “answer” statement is the answer from my 13 year-old.
Question: “Are you usually going to the cafeteria to buy snacks alone or with a friend?”
Answer: “With a friend.”
Question: “Are you hungry when you go and buy the candy bar and/or waffle fries?”
Answer: “Not usually.”
Question: “Were you aware we have chocolates at home?”
“Does mommy allow you to eat chocolates and sugar at home?”
“How do you think we feel about you buying candy bar every day at school?”
Question: “What are the negative effects of frequent eating of fried foods and candy bars?”
Answer: "Get fat, have pimples, get sick."
At this point she is somewhat short, irritated, and I can see some eye rolling. After all, I can’t blame her. She has heard me discuss this topic ad nauseam.
I pushed some more.
Question: “Tell me, do you think the school should do anything about this?”
Answer: “I don’t know.”
Question: “If you have a friend that buys candy every day, and perhaps is getting overweight, would you say anything to the friend?”
Answer: “No, it’s not my place to say anything. Each person/teenager has a choice, and each person has to decide for himself/herself.”
Question: “Why do you think one child can make a better choice and another may not be able to?”
Question: “How did the child who has willpower get that willpower?”
Answer: “It’s how they are raised mom.”
Question: “So who do you feel is responsible for children and teenager’s lack of will power or habit of choosing more sugar than they should?”
Answer: “Their parents, the adults. They are the ones raising the child and teaching the child what is good and bad.”
The night we found out she has started her less than ideal routine of purchasing sugar at the school cafeteria was the night we discussed and agreed on her limits: waffle fries no more than once a week, smoothies no more than once every 2 weeks as a treat, and candy bars almost never. She can tell me what she would like and we can make some purchases for home that she can bring to school, like a piece of chocolate with her lunch.
The next few days I spoke to several patient families with grade school aged and even junior high aged children. Several mothers shared that they too found out their child was buying ice cream almost daily (if not daily) at school, as well as other junk food.
It is beyond the scope of my blog to dissect whether the driving forces are revenues for the school from kickbacks, like the vending machines and soda machines, or simply “pleasing” the children. I am sharing my own real-life, real-time experience as a mother so that hopefully, you will check the receipts of what your child is buying at school and talk to your children about less than healthy choices if you see a pattern. Claire is at an age that I know peer-pressure could influence her to make bad choices, and if we don’t start with eating habits, and help her stay true to her core values as we have raised her, then the stakes will simply get higher. Drugs, vaping, precocious activity with the opposite sex, attention seeking behavior that is unhealthy for young girls, and despite the ability to use good judgment, chooses against it because it’s always easier to indulge in instant gratification.
I am committed more than ever, to continue instilling in her by modeling as parents, our choosing water over anything else, choosing fresh fruit and amazing nutrition over junk, with a moderation of sweets, the occasional donut, or smoothie should she choose. It will never get easier for her for the rest of her life, which starts today. I remind her and us as a family, the reason to choose well is because we have so much to LIVE for: each other, our blessed life, and the love that remains to be experienced amongst ourselves and others. We will not get sick, we will minimize the chance of needing a doctor, and we will stay active, healthy and strong as long as humanly possible. It’s a choice.