“This?” I asked, holding up a bar of pure milk chocolate filled to bursting with creamy caramel. “You wouldn’t like this. It’s medicine.”
“Ew,” my son said. “I don’t like medicine.”
“This one’s really bad,” I told him. “It tastes like dog drool. You’d really hate it.”
It wasn’t my finest moment. Ten years ago, if I’d seen a parent lying to their child in the brazen openness of a supermarket, I’d have tsked and quietly told myself, I’ll be a better parent than that.
Today, though, I am a parent, and I am not better than that. My wife and I lie to our son about food often enough that it’s almost a family policy. It’s not something we’re proud of, and it’s not something we’d recommend to other parents – but it is something we’re doing.
And it’s working.
We have our reasons.
My son loves McDonalds. When we pass by the golden arches, his eyes light up, he leans forward, and he shrieks in delight. To him, the thin, processed pieces of meat they shove between two stale pieces of bread are the greatest delight any culinary mind has conceived of.
We found out why one day, after insisting on Subway as a healthier option. Admittedly, eating at Subway to stay healthy is like twiddling your thumbs for the exercise, but we took the compromise we thought we could win.
Our son wasn’t thrilled.
“Does Subway have a toy?” he cried. “No! No toy! Who’s going to give you a toy at Subway? Nobody, that’s who!” It was a freak-out at a third grade level. A part of me couldn’t help being a little proud. Still, we weren’t going to let him win.
It was my wife who had that flash of brilliance. She grabbed a toy from the nearest dollar store and snuck it into the hand of a Subway Sandwich Artist. When it came into my son’s hands, she beamed a proud smile and said, “See? They do have toys after all.”
It’s almost become a tradition now. When we eat, we’ll sneak off to the waitress and make her into a co-conspirator. It’s dark and dirty parenting, and isn’t going to work forever – but right now, we get to eat wherever we please.
Another breakthrough came when we got our son to take his first bite of spinach. As the soggy, bitter taste touched his tongue, his face scrunched up into a look of total revulsion – until lying saved the day.
My wife suddenly put down her fork. “Wait a minute, did you see that?” she said, the words slipping out of her breathlessly. She placed a hand at the top of his head and stretched her other down to his foot and stared at him with a look of total amazement.
“He just grew an inch taller!”
I nearly leaped out of my chair. “He did!” I said. “It must be the spinach! Try another bite! Let’s see if it happens again!”
By the time dinner was done, our son had eaten an entire bowlful of spinach and was still begging for more. When he sees us cooking, he’ll ask for it. Spinach is now his favorite food.
Granted, at this point my son believes he is 9’10” – but at least he eats his vegetables.
Our son believes he can spontaneously grow a foot by eating a leaf of spinach – but at least the lies he believes about food are good lies.
“Cheese is healthy,” one friend assured us as she dumped a pound of it into a melting pot. “And I mean, I think this is real cheese, too, so it’s definitely good for you.” Picking up the package, she added admiringly, “Yep, it’s even local. See, it says right here they’re American Slices.”
“Y’know, I read somewhere that chocolate is good for you,” another told us as she slipped open a jar full of Hershey’s. “It has oxidants or vitamins or fights cancer or something. Anyway, you can eat as many Hershey’s Kisses as you want.”
Newspapers across this country are full of studies about how chocolate and red wine are the key ingredients to any healthy diet. We’ve been tricked into believing some insane things by companies who want us to buy bad food – so is that wrong to trick someone into eating good food?
There was a time when our son’s diet wasn’t as strong. Before he turned two we were just happy to get something in his body – and, nine times out ten, that would have to be chicken nuggets.
I would spend hours sitting with my son, holding a carrot in front of his face and trying anything imaginable to get it in his mouth. “I will buy you a bicycle,” I would say. “I will literally run to the store right now and buy you a brand new bicycle if you just take one bite of this carrot.”
My son would watch my eyes to see if I was wavering, look at the carrot and consider for a long while. Then he’d stare me dead in the eyes and say, “Big bike. I want big bike.”
He’s forgotten what nuggets taste like now, but if he ever finds out it might all be over.
It’s a constant risk we live with. Just the other day, I let him try a cheesy nacho fajita bowl and he was unable to stop. “This is good,” was all he could say as he trusted spoonful after spoonful of thick, stringy cheese into his mouth. “This really good. Wow. Oh wow. You got good food, Dada.”
It was a like he was having a spiritual experience. It didn’t take long before the mound of food I didn’t think I’d be able to finish on my own had slid over to my son’s side of the table, and he passed me his plate of rice and broccoli with a, “You can eat this.”
Lying to your children is not an approach I’d recommend. It is not a sustainable system. We are going to regret it. We are creating deep-rooted, long-term trust issues that will scar him psychologically later in life.
But we’re doing it. And for now, at least, we can make it through the checkout aisle full of chocolate bars he thinks are medicine without fighting through a tantrum.
And I can cough, grab a Snickers bar, and tell him, “Dada has a cold.”