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Fran Hawthorne: When Molly Ate Her First Chicken

Fran Hawthorne is the author of The Overloaded Liberal: Shopping, Investing, Parenting, and Other Daily Dilemmas in an Age of Political Activism. Hawthorne has been a writer or editor at FortuneBusinessWeekInstitutional Investor, and other publications. She is the author of three books on health care and investing, including Inside the FDA and the award-winning Pension Dumping.

For me, it happened when my four-year-old daughter returned from a weekend visitation with her father and announced, "At Daddy's house I get chocolate cereal."

For Louise Heit-Radwell, a vegetarian mom in New York City, it happened gradually after her daughter, Molly, entered first grade. Molly would say things like, "Oh, at school, those chicken fingers smelled so good…."

For all parents, it's only a matter of time. We try to feed our children healthful, nutritious foods without antibiotics, pesticides, and unpronounceable chemicals. (Some of us, in fact, begin buying organic only after we have kids, because it seems more important to protect their newly-forming bodies than our already-wrecked ones.) We include foods in our religious rituals. We plant gardens with our preschoolers. We take them apple-picking. All the while, we explain why we're doing this, why we don't want to poison the earth or eat animals.

And then, they drift out of our 24-7 orbit.

The Overloaded Liberal book cover

By the time her son, Jacob, started school, a dozen years ago, "I realized that I'd lost control over what was going into him," says Jean Leung, another New York mom. "He ate at other people's houses. And they weren't going to give him organic at summer camp." Ironically, Jean and her husband, Peter, didn't become seriously organic until after Jacob was born.

School is usually a big turning point. Divorce, as in my case, is another. (If I don't give my daughter chocolate cereal, will she love Daddy more?)

Extended families and their attendant holidays can also make it tough to maintain your child-rearing values, surrounded by grandmas, grandpas, aunts, and uncles who all raised their own kids with junk food and did quite well, thank you. Are you going to tell your own mother that she can't give her granddaughter a cookie? Molly Radwell got her first taste of turkey at a big Thanksgiving dinner at age two.

So what do we parents do? Are we supposed to sacrifice our principles –- and our kids' health –- in order to avoid tension? Yet if we keep saying "no," won't we just be feeding a future rebellion that could be a lot worse than one Oreo or chicken nugget today?

"I don't want to make my kids total nuts," frets Heit-Radwell. "I work with my kids a lot about their eating, and sometimes I think it's too much of a focus. I'm always working on, how much sugar? How often do I make white rice? If I let them eat chicken at a friend's house, do I let them eat nonkosher chicken?"

The only solution is to juggle.

Sometimes you can manipulate your kids, at least temporarily -- especially while they're little or if you live in a community with values similar to yours. Sometimes you make bargains with them. And sometimes, yes, you give in.

Heit-Radwell has told Molly, who is now 12, that she can have chicken at a friend's house if she wants and is even contemplating learning to cook chicken herself –- to make sure that at least it's organic and free-range. ("I'm 45 years old, and I've never cooked a chicken," Heit-Radwell marvels.) Molly has made her own decision to refuse red meat.Chicken nuggets by jumbledpile via Flickr  

I thought I'd figured out a brilliant solution with my daughter: I took her to the health-food coop we belonged to, stood her in the middle of the cereal aisle, and grandly declared, "Pick any cereal you want!" That worked until she started sleeping over at the homes of friends who didn't belong to the food coop.

Of course, clashes can arise over any kind of issues, not just food. Kimberly Danek Pinkson is the founder of an environmental group in the San Francisco Bay Area called the EcoMom Alliance, which tries to encourage parents to use things like natural cleansers and CFL light bulbs. With her own son, however, she hit the red line when it came to his collection of made-in-China plastic action figures called Rescue Heroes. Yes, they're made of nonrecyclable plastic, and you don't even want to contemplate the carbon footprint of digging up the petroleum, shipping it to China, and then shipping the finished product halfway back across the globe. Pinkson compromises by buying the toys used, not new. "If I completely turn him away from the culture we live in, he's going to revolt and turn the other way," she figures.

But cheer up. Like diapers and Terrible Twos, your kids will someday outgrow this problem. You will be able to have serious discussions with them about health, fitness, and the environment. Eventually, in fact, they may become so self-righteous and rigid that they will complain that your food isn't organic enough.

Chicken nuggets photo by jumbledpile via Flickr: / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0