Current Issue

I was walking up and down the aisles of my local grocery store the other day, on a mission for my wife and myself, when I came upon on a mom and dad who were hovering over a shopping cart, talking to some third person who I figured (correctly, it turns out) was a child.

“What do you think about this, Buddy? Eh? Look good? Eh?” Daddy was saying as he held up a bag of what looked like frozen chunks of breaded chicken.

After several seconds of silence, Mama chimed in with, “If we buy that for you, will you eat it?”

“Yeah, Buddy,” Dad said. “We won’t buy it unless you promise to eat it. How about it huh?”

I pretended to peruse the shelves for my wife’s favorite brand of baking soda as I strolled ever closer to this little family drama; and as I passed their shopping cart, I could see the child in question. He was sitting in the basket. (I suppose he refused to sit in the child seat.) He was eating something that looked, at a glance like candy. He appeared to be two and a half years old.

One parenting picture is worth a thousand words. These two people didn’t have a clue, but they were digging an ever-deepening hole for themselves. At this stage of the game they could, with minimal effort, climb out of it, but the longer they allow this “Hey Buddy,” and “Will you eat this?” silliness to go on, the harder climbing out will become. Please note: this child is not yet three years old, but he’s already the ringmaster of the family circus!

At some point, these parents are going to complain—if they haven’t already—about how strong-willed their child is, how he won’t accept No for an answer, and the like. But he won’t be the problem. His behavior at that point will be nothing more than an expression of the problem. Trying to correct him won’t be the answer. To correct this problem, the horse will have to be put out in front of the cart.

The problem will not only be his ever-worsening behavior. The best research has clearly shown that the happiest children are also the most obedient. So the paradox will be that, although this child will be getting his own way, he will not really be a happy camper. Eventually, he may even be miserable.

The further problem is that this tragicomedy is close to being the norm in America. At dinner tables all over the country, children are being served special meals that keep them happy today and increase their chances of being malcontents later on.

A week after my grocery store encounter, I read a mother’s online story of her three-year-old daughter who she said was a “food phobic.” The mother said she had to spend an inordinate amount of time and energy fixing foods that would not kick her daughter’s “phobia” into action. So now we even have the beginnings of a new diagnosis and a new mental health industry. Maybe even a new food industry: every item—steak, chicken, broccoli, mashed potatoes, you name it—will be processed and packaged to look and even taste like candy.

That’s not a joke. It’s a prediction. And it isn’t funny.

Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at or (817) 295-1751.

Living With Children: The Ringmaster

From the September 2011 Signs