what she said, revisited

A few days ago, I linked to this post from another blogger.

It’s a recounting of the blogger’s experience in a coffee shop, where she overhears a very stylish looking woman chastise her 4-year old daughter, who is asking for a cookie. The woman’s response is that the girl doesn’t need a cookie, because she “needs to lose weight.”

The blogger is so upset by this that she finds a way to treat the woman and her daughter each to a cup of hot chocolate. She seems to handle it with grace and aplomb, and the woman seems to be grateful, and maybe a little chastened, by the experience.

A commenter wrote: “At the risk of being contrarian, I have a different take on this story. The woman buying the hot chocolate did a very nice thing and she handled it well. But. She really has no business judging and interfering with the mother. Child obesity is a huge problem and so is impulse control. The woman has no idea what sort of issues the mother is dealing with. She doesn’t say if the kid was fat or skinny. Maybe she has diabetes or something. A little kid not getting his or her way isn’t an act of abuse or failed parenting and telling a kid she has to lose weight might be the truth and what is called for in this case. The woman seems to have jumped to the conclusion that the mother is trying to give the kid an eating disorder. But maybe the kid already has one. Just saying.”

While I don’t disagree at all with the possibilities the commenter proposes, my gut reaction says no.

First of all, the woman didn’t tell her daughter that she had already had some sweets that day, or that she knew she couldn’t have a cookie because she had diabetes, or that they were going out for a big dinner shortly, or anything like that. I also believe that the blogger would have mentioned if the girl had been overweight. While I am a firm believer in feeding children in a healthful way, I also believe that life is to be lived, and a cookie or cup of hot chocolate or slice of cake now and then is part of living life richly.

That blog post, and the comment to my re-posting, have had me thinking for the past couple of days, about several things — namely:

1. What my children have learned from me that I kind of wish they hadn’t.

2. What my children haven’t learned/are still learning that I really wish they would.

3. What the world tells us about ourselves and whether we should or shouldn’t listen.

4. When the “world” needs us to step in and do something, and when we shouldn’t.


1. What my children have learned from me that I kind of wish they hadn’t.

My need for external validation, a tendency toward defensiveness and sarcasm (acceptable when it’s funny, but the line between funny and disrespectful when it’s coming from children can be awfully hard to see), the feeling that most people don’t really understand me, a recurring dissatisfaction with my physical appearance (just my daughter, the “boys” are pretty confident of their general attractive- and badass- ness), a fear of the unknown/uncontrollable which leads to over-cautiousness rather than adventurousness — even though my greatest leaps of courage have led me to the most happiness, I still fear.

2. What my children haven’t learned/are still learning that I really wish they would.

To put things away when they’re done with them, to look around and see when people might need a little help, that politeness and decency and other people’s feelings sometimes trump honesty or self-interest, that sometimes I do actually know what I’m talking about and that my offering of advice doesn’t come from a lack of belief in them but out of concern and love, that the easiest road to the easiest money isn’t necessarily the best road to choose, the basics of consideration: help with dinner/the dishes/laundry, always put the toilet seat down, hold doors for people with packages or strollers or just because, that belching at the table is only funny if the other people at the table think so (and I really, really don’t).

There have been so many things I’ve tried to teach my children that I wonder if they would have learned more successfully if they had been hearing it from someone besides me. Don’t interrupt. Take turns. Use inside voices. Say please and thank you. Stop talking and listen.

3. What the world tells us about ourselves and whether we should or shouldn’t listen.

When should someone’s criticism be taken to heart, as an opportunity for self-reflection and self-improvement, and when should they be mentally told to take a flying @#$ in a rolling doughnut? If someone’s bothered by my ambition, should I tone it down or look for a different outlet? If someone’s bothered by my wealth of opinions and willingness to share them, should I consider it to be a result of their lack of curiosity and/or intellectual rigor, or should I just keep my mouth shut?

I would like to believe that the problems the world might have with me are the world’s problems, but what if they aren’t?

4. When the “world” needs us to step in and do something, and when we shouldn’t.

This is really the question that presents itself by the commenter to my re-posting. Should the blogger have just minded her own business? A casual observer can’t know the history of the day/week/month with that particular issue with that particular child. But, for the sake of argument, let’s take this a little bit further. When we see someone striking a child in a grocery store, do we just consider it not to be our business, turn our heads and walk away? Is someone telling a child, who by all appearances (again, I’m assuming this) is of a perfectly normal size, that she “needs to lose weight” a form of emotional abuse? Do we still turn our heads and walk away? What if the validation provided by the person who says, no, really, you’re beautiful the way you are is exactly what that child most needs?

When the urge to “interfere” strikes, how do we know if we should or if we shouldn’t?

I think this is particularly striking to me because it’s about women and their issues with weight and body image. The women we see in magazines are basically freaks of nature; the pressures put on us by these images can be debilitating. How much worse are these pressures if they’re reinforced, perhaps unfairly, if, as I believe, this girl was of a perfectly normal weight and size, by the person who should be building us up rather than tearing us down? I look at my beautiful daughter and watch her curse at a practically-invisible pimple or worry that she has fat calves or thighs (she’s in the 45th percentile height, 10th percentile weight; she doesn’t have fat anything) or hear her wish she had my (unruly, just-curly-enough-to-be-annoying) hair rather than her thick, lustrous locks. Who is doing this to her? How can she look in the mirror and not see how beautiful she is? She’s a gymnast, and wants to be a model, with a milk allergy and shades of hypochondria; will she end up with an eating disorder? Will her awareness of my unhappiness with my weight contribute? How do I model a balance of healthful eating, regular exercise, and awareness of treating my body as something I want to live from rather than merely in without encouraging an unhealthy obsession with something that is, at least partially, genetic and uncontrollable? Is this even possible?

The blogger might be right, the commenter might be right, who can really know? At least the blogger handled it with tact and care — the mother could feel free to handle it however she choose, and was not confronted directly with an accusation of emotional/verbal abuse, and therefore did not have to react defensively.

I also think that sometimes we are teaching our children things we don’t necessarily want them to learn, and someone else making a kind/friendly offer is just enough to shake us out of it.

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