Being smug is such a treat. Not only do you get the warm glow of being right but if you add a smidge of righteous into the mix it goes all scrumptious. What fun to sneer at people and tell them how wrong they are!
Smugness is shiveringly satisfying, but it’s also a cheap thrill, and I’d love to find less of it in the realm of children and parents.
In yesterday’s paper, Rosemary McLeod poured smug all over her manuscript, reaching out to jab parents of pretty much any child. Mothers who breastfeed in public, parents of messy children and parents in China (all of them).
And goodness me, I’d like to be smug back to her. I’d like to sneer and say oh, what a pity she is so ignorant! Since the facts are hardly on her side, and the article covers a bewildering array of people who are wrong, wrong, wrong about their parenting, I could just spend a whole post doing a close reading of how wrong she is in turn, and how foolish she was to put so much ignorance in print.
But now that I’ve got that smug paragraph off my chest I’d like to just talk about the damage her kind of opinion piece can do, based, as it is, on ignorance, anecdote, cliché and prejudice.
Ms McLeod is troubled at how parents are raising their kids:
Lactose-intolerant, wheat-averse, allergic to peanuts, crazed by sugar, gifted – was there ever a time when children were so readily labelled and so precious? Or is it that parents have become slightly mad?
I’ll add here the new right of every baby to be fed by a pair of full breasts on full view in public. This new development – we used to conceal the whole caboodle without traumatising our offspring – must put many people off their tucker in eating places, but you mustn’t say so. There’s a new belief, it seems, that exhibitionist feeding creates the best children.
Don’t worry, we’ll get to this ‘new right’ of children to eat.
As well as disapproving of parents who say their children have food allergies or want to feed babies in public places, she also takes aim at parents whose kids are messy in cafés, parents who assault sports officials at their kids’ games, parents who punch their kids’ school principals in the head, parents who live in China and adore their single child too much, and young men with body piercings who aren’t very good employees. All in one article.
I don’t think any of us are too worried about criticism of violent people. So it’s a bit cheeky to start there and then gather all those others into your cloud of smug. But it’s not merely dodgy rhetoric. It’s also dangerous, unkind and simply not going to make the world a better place for anyone – even Rosemary McLeod.
Parents don’t need to be told that they are all getting it wrong, all the time, which is pretty much the message of this piece. They certainly don’t need to be told that by someone who is not currently raising children.
As well as get-your-rant-on day, today (or yesterday, or some other time, depending on where and when you are) also World Down Syndrome Day and International Day of Happiness – isn’t that a lovely combination? Here’s what Kofi Annan said in relation to the latter:
The same is true of anything good we want in our society. If we want human beings to exhibit any particular characteristic, we have to encourage people raising little human beings towards it. Towards it, not just away from everything they’re doing wrong, wrong, wrong.
So tell us you value respect or quietness in children, Ms McLeod, and tell us why it will make the world better, and tell us that you know we’re doing the best we can in difficult circumstances – because those are the only circumstances there are, for most parents. Talk about how we can enjoy our kids’ sports games in a healthy way. Inspire young people to want to get on board with their employers’ demands.
But here’s where I find it hard to sustain a reasonable tone. Because two things Ms McLeod seems to want parents to do are harmful and stupid. There’s no positive, encouraging way to urge parents to stop trying to keep their children safe from food that will hurt them. There’s no reasonable argument for banishing mothers to the toilets to feed their babies.
She wants parents of children with food allergies to stop saying they have food allergies, and she wants mothers to stop feeding their children in public. This is just bizarre.
McLeod uses her platform to casually dismiss life-threatening health conditions as figments of parental imagination. This is what five minutes of googling told me about food allergy in New Zealand, according to people who actually know about it:
Are we going too far in hunting down ingredients allegedly held responsible for allergic reactions? Are we making claims where there’s no scientific proof to back them? Or is there a legitimate increase in the number of allergies?
Associate professor Rohan Ameratunga is an Auckland University adult and paediatric immunologist who specialises in food allergies. He says there’s a reasonable amount of indirect evidence to show that the number of people with food allergies has risen in the past two decades.
One study he co-wrote, published in the New Zealand Medical Journal in 2008, suggested one in 10 children has a possible food allergy; a community-based food allergy study conducted in Melbourne two years ago identified 10 per cent of all 1-year-olds have some sort of well-defined food allergy to eggs, milk or peanuts.
Those results could have similar application here.
Ameratunga further notes that the spectrum of allergies is increasing. In addition to the standard allergy-causing foods of milks, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat and soy, henowadds sesame seeds and lupin (used in European breads).
No one really knows, who, or what, is to blame, says Ameratunga. But current theories are:
» A change in food introduction patterns for babies being weaned (they are being exposed to a bigger variety of foods at an earlier age);
» Changes in culture and associated eating habits (Chinese children eating a Western diet, for example);
» Changes in saturated fat consumption.
Ms McLeod’s own newspaper chain carried this story a couple of years ago:
Allergies in New Zealand may have skyrocketed as much as 350 per cent in the past decade, but despite the sometimes fatal consequences of a reaction, there is little to no research finding out just how prevalent allergies are.
Allergies are becoming more common and more complicated, but researchers are at a loss to explain why.
An Australian study has found that more than 10 per cent of one-year-olds have a proven food allergy and in the past 10 years, anaphylaxis had increased more than 350 per cent.
Anaphylaxis is the most severe form of allergic reaction. It often affects several parts of the body, including the respiratory system and cardiovascular system and can only be treated with adrenaline.
Allergy NZ says it’s likely New Zealand’s rate of increase is in line with Australia’s.
Food allergy can be objectively measured in a number of different ways and diagnosed by health professionals. Ms McLeod doesn’t offer any evidence for her slur that her perception of a rise in food allergies is due to parents busily inventing health problems for their kids.
And this is where her blithe pronouncement tips over from being merely insulting to being a public health problem. Perception and information are key aspects of keeping people with food allergies safe.
If you have a food allergy, you can only keep yourself out of hospital if everyone who handles your food is up front about what’s in it. By far the most common reason for anaphylaxis in my family is being told (by food service staff or an ingredient list) that something is free from an allergen when it turns out not to be.
We all have a role in helping each other stay well. We prevent the spread of colds by not coughing on each other. We prevent death by food allergy by being aware of what’s in food we give each other, and how dangerous some ingredients can be to some people. That’s why this kind of casual dismissal not just of the seriousness but the existence of food allergy is so dangerous.
It’s wearying to have to explain to someone like Rosemary McLeod why it is both mean and irresponsible to discourage women from feeding their children in public places. Shall we just do a quick recap?
- Breastfeeding, for those who are willing and able to undertake it, is a public and private good. Breastfed babies have fewer visits to the doctor, their families have more money to spend on other things. The World Health Organisation and our own Ministry of Health are very clear that it is A Good Thing.
- Breasts are for feeding children. Truly.
- Babies need to feed frequently, sometimes almost constantly. Breastfeeding on demand is an important part of growing healthy babies.
- For these and other reasons, it is illegal in New Zealand to stop a woman breastfeeding in public places.
- To discourage public breastfeeding is bad for babies, and also for their mothers. The effect is to banish mothers from public life, locking them in their houses. This is a terrible thing to be proposing.
- Babies are people too, you know, with fully-fledged human rights, recognised by national and international law.
Our society doesn’t need to have ‘adult’ as its default.
There is no sensible reason why the preferences of an adult should trump the nutritional needs of a child.
- Breastfeeding in public is not new. See this brilliant collection of historical photographs and paintings showing how normal it clearly was to feed babies wherever you were when they were hungry. At a bus-stop, at a bank appointment, on the beach, sitting for a royal portrait…
Being able to sneer at breastfeeding is a modern luxury. Earlier societies didn’t have a choice.
I’m sorry that I have slipped into my own sneering and smuggery. Partly I’m so disappointed that I don’t get to say anymore (smugly) to friends in the United Kingdom and North America, that we tolerant, relaxed Kiwis can’t relate to their public storms over breastfeeding mothers being shamed on Facebook and evicted from shops. (Though even here, a breastfeeding woman was shamed by a judge into leaving a courtroom recently.)
Sex discrimination and #everydaysexism are alive and well in 2014 and we’re only ever a short step away from the erosion of freedoms that allow all people to flourish.
So now that I’ve stopped fuming and have taken some deep breaths, let’s finish with some positive tips for making a better world than the one Rosemary McLeod says she wants. Here are four things you could do today or this week that would make the world a better place for children and their parents:
- Next time you hear of a child with a food allergy, say something to their parents like ‘That must be hard to live with. You’re clearly doing a great job – she looks like she’s thriving!’
- Next time you see someone breastfeeding, anywhere, say something encouraging, ranging from a discreet, ‘Well done, Mama’ as you walk past (this is usually appropriate even for male strangers) to ‘Great work on looking after that lovely baby!’ I know it might sound weird, but for mums who are a bit worried about feeding in public, I know this is often enormously encouraging, and serves to normalise a normal behaviour.
- If you are a breastfeeder at the moment, breastfeed in public, please!
- Next time you see a child being loud, rude, messy or hard work, smile at the parent. If the parent is doing a bad job, a scowl will make things worse, not better, don’t you think? And most parents are doing a great job. Kids are loud and messy, sometimes. It’s normal, and it often makes parents feel terrible when it happens in public. A smile from a stranger can change the course of the day for a family.
If you want to live in a society and community where women hide at home, getting cranky at their kids, then applaud Rosemary McLeod and scowl at every woman you see breastfeeding and every parent you come across who has a loud child with them.
If you want to endanger the health and lives of the maybe ten per cent of kids who have food allergies, chip in at your next dinner party with anecdotes about parents overreacting, so that the people serving food to these children are casual about their safety.
Or if you want to build a world where we benefit from the full participation of every person, enjoy our diversity and celebrate those doing the hard work of parenting little humans, then perhaps we can move on from seeing smug criticism of parents as an acceptable subject of public conversation.
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