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The red herring of bad parenting

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, December 8, 2010 1:03 EDT
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This is a little late, but I was catching up on my podcast listening, and so I only now just got around to the latest episode of the Postbourgie Podcast. The second half of the podcast is about various attempts to regulate people’s food purchases for health reasons. It’s a good discussion, but I want to address one point that was brought up on the narrow issue of whether or not it’s a good idea for cities to ban fast food places from putting toys in their meals as a marketing device, at least until those meals are brought up to a certain nutritional standard. The idea was floated that this ban is a bad idea because the responsibility for telling children “no” is solely the parent’s, and this kind of measure somehow detracts from parental responsibility.

My first thought was that people often underestimate what little shits children can be when they want something a parent doesn’t want to give them. Just the other day, I was walking down the street and this girl around 4 was letting loose with the most ear-splitting screams. You would have thought someone was beating her, but in fact, what she was screaming was, “Give meeeeeee the cheeeeeeeese!!!!! It’s goooood fooooooor meeeeeeeee!” Her father was patiently denying her the cheese, but if he caved just to shut her up, I wouldn’t have blamed him. I don’t think faltering in these fights on occasion makes you a bad parent. Add in the other factors that put a thumb on the scale towards fast food—the speed, the cheapness—and it’s no wonder parents give in so much. Advertisers know this, which is why they pitch their products to maximize the whining and crying factor.

But you know what? Even if it does make you a bad parent to give in to whining children, that still doesn’t mean that these marketing bans are a good idea. Bad parenting is a red herring.

Because if you make it all about parenting skills, you’re basically arguing that children who have the misfortune of having bad parents deserve to suffer. And I disagree. I don’t think a child deserves to have an unhealthy diet because she has a weak-willed parent. And since the rest of us have to shoulder the burden of sharing expenses for heart disease and diabetes, we have a right to minimize fast food marketing to children, even if it somehow puts less responsibility on parents. It’s debatable that taking the toys out of fast food toys is somehow making parents more weak-willed, anyway. As a society, we should treat all children as valuable, regardless of the skill levels of their parents.

If you take the “children should pay for the sins of their parents” thing to its logical conclusion, you get pure evil like this video of Kate O’Beirne saying we should kill school programs to feed poor children on the grounds that parents who can’t feed their own kids are bad parents. Obviously, she’s an asshole on many levels—most parents who can’t afford to feed their children well aren’t poor on purpose, and would very much like to have well-paid employment. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that some parents who are poor are just bad parents who don’t work hard enough to feed their kids. Maybe they’re drug addicts or too lazy to work. I’m sure that’s true in a small minority of cases.

I don’t believe a child should be starved because her parents are layabouts. I believe a child is innocent and should not have to pay for any sins of her parents, real or imagined. I’m shocked that this is controversial.

I also believe that it’s just a bad idea to starve children, beyond the moral arguments against it. Malnourished children are more likely to suffer from developmental problems, which means they are more likely to suffer in school, suffer in employment, and make poor decisions that could affect everyone. Feeding children, regardless of why their parents can’t feed them, is just smart. Same story with stopping fast food places from marketing to children. We all benefit to a degree that questions of parental responsibility are minor in comparison.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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