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Fast food, TV doing harm to indulged kids

As it appeared in The Atlanta Constitution, 3 January, 2003


Robert Nebel is a freelance writer living in Norcross

While dining at a neighborhood Chinese restaurant, my dining companions, including my wife, father-in-law and 4-year-old daughter, sensed something unfamiliar in the eatery. It was the smell of fast food. We hypothesized that perhaps the nearby Burger King was operating in overdrive, churning out Whoppers by the truckload. After all, there are days at my daughter's school when the smell of greasy burgers permeates the air and she guessed the culprit correctly.

Our findings were dismissed when we heard the ruffle of fast-food paper bags at the next table. We followed the sound and witnessed two children, approximately 8 or 9 years old, dining on Whoppers, fries and soft drinks as the parents studied the menu.

While it all seemed perfectly normal to this family, we were appalled. Never mind that the children are eating fattening burgers and artery-clogging fries and downing sugary drinks. Never mind that the scene is utterly hideous and embarrassing to the patrons and the restaurant owners.

The point is that the parents are complete pushovers by letting their children run the show. Instead of disciplining them to join the family meal, these parents chose the path of least resistance by satisfying their children's instant desires.

The parents are buying into the myth that it is psychologically damaging to "force" their children to eat what is on the menu at the restaurant they are patronizing. Perhaps they fear that their children will retaliate in ways unimaginable in a few years, all because they were not allowed to eat their highly processed meals in nice restaurants. It is even more disappointing to see that the children are not being introduced to international cuisine, thus perpetuating their egocentric, gluttonous view of the world.

Speaking of gluttony, I was driving behind a minivan one day and noticed a television monitor above the windshield between the driver's and front passenger's seats.

"Could it be one of those global positioning system devices that help you find your way?" I asked my mother-in-law. I was ready to marvel at another technological wonder. Upon further inspection, we discovered that instead of a street map, it was Bugs Bunny playing on the "car theater."

"Oh, those TVs are great," said my mother-in-law. "Our friend has one for her daughter; it really keeps her kids occupied. No more 'Are we there yets?' "

Sounding older than she, I asked whatever happened to teaching children patience and how to enjoy the scenery and music on the radio, not to mention the conversation in the automobile. My rant continued as I asked, "Do children need more television?"

"Oh, relax. You are too uptight about exposing your daughter to television and fast food. It's all quite innocent," my mother-in-law said.

Yes, children should enjoy themselves, but what is defined as "enjoyment"? Is it a Playstation 3-DVD-CD Player-Microwave-Your-Quick-Burger-In-A-Box toy? Or is it using your imagination by playing dress-up or building a Lego house?

I know that I enjoyed the latter in my childhood, and believe it or not, I am not traumatized by the experience. Oh yes, my mother "found herself" in the '70s and reduced her time in the kitchen by taking us to McDonald's on many occasions, and no, I am not traumatized by digesting that junk food over the years.

Nevertheless, I was exposed to something that is foreign to children today -- play. My best friend and I created Super 8 mm films, made haunted houses in his basement and built go-carts. This all wasn't so long ago.

Now, suburbia is scared. Children rarely go outside for fear of being abducted or having their lungs collapse from the foul air created by the fleets of SUVs in the metropolitan area. On any given spring or summer day, suburbia is a ghost town. Children are inside their luxury oversized, air-conditioned homes dining on Happy Meals while gazing at "Porky Pig" reruns.

As a community and nation, we can reject this lifestyle by encouraging physical activity through publicly funded playgrounds, bike paths, strong libraries and community centers. No, the playground at McDonald's does not solve this problem. As parents, we should act in a concerted effort not to run our households in a democratic fashion where the children tote their fast-food meals and televisions into every crevice of their lives.

Perhaps I am becoming the food Nazi/television police that my family says that I am, but it does concern me that we are raising a nation of obese zombies. More and more children are becoming type 2 diabetics, have high cholesterol and will most likely become obese adults with a host of health problems that will plague our already damaged health care system.

As reports prove the link between children's television viewing habits and overeating, I become ever more convinced that bringing junk food and television into all places is harmful to children and our future as a nation.

(C)Cox Communications, 2003.