Warning: the newsletter this week contains material that may be triggering to some, offensive to others. This essay contains references to eating disorders which, as someone for whom weight issues are professional rather than personal, may be seen as insensitive. No offense is intended. Feel free to delete if this topic is not to your liking.
My best friends growing up were Roger, a year older, and Peter, a year younger. We swapped science fiction books, tossed a ball, read comics, talked about the Apollo missions, snuck into swimming pools when neighbors were at work. Coconut Grove may not have been idyllic in the late 1960s, but for white privileged kids, life was simple enough. Issues of race, a nation at war in Indochina and with itself, and a generation exponentiating its relationship with deadly substances were not yet of concern. We wouldn’t start junior high (“middle school” today) for another couple of years. We didn’t have egregious homework; we didn’t have a lot to do and we didn’t do it. After school and summer belongs to us. We could do what we wanted.
Our worst issue was Robert and Paul’s mother. She had what we felt was an odd relationship with food. She insisted that we eat everything we were served. Indeed, we were not allowed to leave the table until our plates were clean. Gooey, runny, cold sunny-side-up eggs sat immobile on our plates. Our only hope was out lasting Robert and Paul’s mom. When she—finally—found something else to do, Robert and Paul’s dog was our deliverer. Fortunately, Snoopy didn’t find the eggs to be as disgusting and inedible as we did. Or we might somehow still be at that table all these years later.
One memory stays with me over the past half a century. I was having dinner at Robert and Paul’s house. I didn’t eat my Brussels sprouts. I’m not proud of my ten-year-old self, but there you are. I just couldn’t. I was able to choke down the liver, but the Brussels sprouts were a bridge too far. As a result, I was banned from the home of my best friends. No sleep overs. No after-school visits. No bike rides on the weekends. No contact. For six months.
Parenting expert that I am, this punishment seems pretty intense–even by the standards of two generations ago. “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” I suppose, but six months? Because I couldn’t force down a mushy, unappetizing food?
Where did Robert and Paul’s mother develop this vehement opinion? Why did she feel so strongly that children should eat what was put before them? Why did she forbid me from entering her home for half a year because I didn’t eat those vegetables?
Because she had suffered unspeakable food insecurity as a child. In Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, she was always hungry. As an adult, the idea of throwing food away was anathema. That her children and her children’s best friend didn’t want to finish their meals stirred up vehement emotions.
In short, she passed along her trauma. Direct from her childhood to ours.
Again, I have only come to these inferences as an adult. I have not walked a mile in Robert and Paul’s mom’s shoes. And I could be completely wrong about her and her relationship with food and her relationship with her children.
You know how silly technology looks a decade or two down the road? Flip phones and VCRs seem ancient and worthless in 2021. Image trying to text on one of those keypads from 20 years ago with all those tiny letters on one button. Did anyone ever get their Betamax to record a network TV program properly? The instruction manuals were as thick as they were unhelpful. And cars from the 1970s seem to have more in common with horse drawn carts than they do with the sleek hybrids of today. I wonder what our current understanding of best practices of parenting will look like a generation hence. Will we view our insights as being the pinnacle of some pyramid we were foreordained to reach? Or will be look back on this snapshot of time as being unenlightened?
I would argue that we need not pass along our own trauma to our children. If we critically examine why we insist our children “clean their plates”, if we consider where we are coming from, if we think about our own childhoods, it seems like we cannot help but do better than Robert and Paul’s mom.