It's the unhappy battle over the McDonald’s Happy Meal, which Monet Parham, mother of two and a health educator, says she just can't win.
"I can tell them 'No' all day long, but then they see commercials that convince them you've really got to have this,"
I sympathise with parents who feel pressure, not only from their children, but also from the zeitgeist, and (most particularly) from their own demanding schedules and accompanying stress levels, to sometimes do what’s most expedient, even if it’s not the ideal choice. I’ve been there, time and time again. Sometimes you give in and hate yourself for it; sometimes you forcibly win the battle of wills (more guilt, you awful mom!); sometimes (wonder of wonders) reason prevails: Junior yields and ten minutes later forgets what he wanted.
All parents want to feed their children well. But some days, you’re exhausted; you don’t feel like making dinner. Swinging by the burger joint or grabbing a frozen pizza on the way home is so much easier, even though you know you’ve got a refrigerator full of whole grains and fresh vegetables at home.
As I said, I can sympathise, but only to a point.
Something about this lawsuit seems wrong to me. I would not presume to judge Ms Parham’s personal life, but if she, as a mature, intelligent, mother and “health educator” cannot say no to her child and follow through, isn’t it ultimately a parenting issue, rather than insidiousness on McDonald’s part?
Parham plans to join the Center for Science in the Public Interest in filing a lawsuit against the fast food giant to force them to either offer lower-calorie meals or get rid of the enticing trinkets.
There are two issues here: the nutritional content of the food, as well as McDonald’s advertising tactics; I would suggest they do not carry (pardon the usage) equal weight.
For one thing, McDonald’s already offers lower calorie choices on their menus. It’s not their fault if relatively few people order them. A news video declares (in a tone suggestive of conspiracy), that while lower calorie, healthier options are available, fast food restaurant workers, “rarely mention them to parents.”
Oh, please. Even parents who can’t read a menu surely know that an apple is healthier than French fries. And since when is it the job of lowly cashiers (usually high school students or immigrants) to question a customer’s order and suggest alternatives? If people don’t like the food choices at McDonald’s, they are free to eat elsewhere. As for the toys, you can request a Happy Meal without one, as my husband sometimes does. (Yes, really, and the kids don’t complain. They are happy enough to get a Happy Meal, which is a rare treat.)
The second issue is marketing, and Ms Parham is crying foul.
"I object to the fact that McDonald's is getting into my kids' heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat," she said in a CSPI statement announcing the lawsuit.
Ms. Parham lives in America, and she wants advertising to stop being so enticing to her children. I sincerely wish her good luck with that. Again, parental authority and teachable moments might come into play here. Sure, advertising is a force to be reckoned with, and naturally there must be standards. But who determines the standards, especially in a pluralistic society?
It’s arguable that companies have a responsibility to be good corporate citizens, and if they are doing something harmful, their activities, or aspects thereof, must be curtailed or stopped. This poses a further problem: given that all of society has an interest in protecting children, how do we reach consensus as to what is harmful to them and how to eradicate it?
Some maintain that market forces should prevail. Yet others cast their votes for nanny statism. Where do personal and parental responsibility end (if ever) and when and where should the state step in? It seems to depend partly on the current cause célèbre. Environmentalism and childhood obesity are bandwagon issues these days; the pro-chastity movement, not so much.
In short, we live in a society where kids are exposed to the worst violence on TV and in video games; vapid sitcoms that defy good taste and undermine parental authority; soft (and not-so-soft) porn on TV, billboards and magazine covers in the grocery checkout. Indeed, minors can obtain contraceptives and even abortions without parental knowledge (never mind consent). And yet there are folks out there crusading against toys in Happy Meals. I find this not just exasperating, but ludicrous.
Sorry for my cynicism, but it sounds as though Ms Parham is asking, not that her children be protected from McDonald’s advertising (she could manage that herself), but that she be protected from her children’s wheedling.
The only reasonable way to stop others from getting into our children’s heads without our permission is to instil the values that will stand guard against ideas that offend us.
I don’t agree with Ms. Parham’s lawsuit; I think it’s silly. But if it gets us talking about responsible parenthood, and how society can most effectively support and enhance family life, then much good can come of it.