05 September 2019
A scary story.
By Lynda Goetz
All over the country this week there will be worried parents and teenagers. Oven chips and processed ham might come off the shopping list; Pringles might be left out of the shopping basket and some apples included in their place. Possibly. The widely reported case of the teenage boy from Bristol who has an eating disorder known as ARFID (avoidant-restrictive food intake disorder), and who has suffered sight and hearing loss as a result, might just act as a wake-up call to families where healthy eating is regarded as a middle-class fad, a luxury they can’t afford or simply something that they are not interested in.
The young man in question had apparently lived on a diet of crisps, chips, white bread, ham and sausages for nearly 10 years because he ‘didn’t like’ the texture of fruit, vegetables and other foods. As a result he was severely lacking in various vitamins, including crucially vitamin B12 and vitamin D. Vitamin injections prescribed at 14 when his mother took him to the doctor complaining of ‘tiredness’ were too late to save his sight or his hearing and bone loss.
This is a shocking story which should be widely known amongst youngsters who refuse to eat ‘proper’ meals. These days it is not uncommon for families not to sit down to meals and for children to decide what they are and are not prepared to eat. Short of forcing the food down their throats, how should parents proceed? Ideally, of course, good eating habits should start early and children grow up from a young age eating most things with a few allowances for things they really do find ‘repulsive’. But if like the boy in the news they turn around at the age of 9 or 10 and refuse most food apart from ‘junk’ food, it is rather too easy in our child-centric times to go along with such ‘fussy eating’.
I remember my son, at the age of about 15 months, deciding he would eat only bananas, marmite sandwiches and yoghurts (actually a reasonably balanced diet). My father pointed out that I had largely brought about this scenario by asking my son what he would like. “Would you like fromage frais or yoghurt?” I remember Dad repeating after me mockingly. “Just give the boy something to eat. If he’s hungry he’ll eat it. Children rarely starve themselves to death”. My father of course was ’old school’. He had been brought up during the First World War and fought in the Second. They had endured rationing. When I was growing up there was still not a great deal of choice and children were generally expected to eat most of what was put on their plates. Much merriment was had, I remember, over a child who came to stay and declined to eat anything except peas and gravy. Picky or fussy eaters were not encouraged in those days. They certainly didn’t have fancy names given to their faddy eating habits.
Perhaps part of the problem is that we have increasingly discovered different types of human personality, intelligence and ways of thinking. These have all been labelled and those who are so labelled are given to believe that they are in some way ‘different’ or ‘special’. We are all different and hopefully special to at least one other human being, but encouraging this solipsistic way of thinking has resulted in what the old-schoolers would probably have called ‘molly-coddling’. Instead of recognising the differences but explaining that nevertheless we all have to find a way to get on and establish our place in the world, children are in many cases wrapped in cotton wool instead of being given coping mechanisms. Instead of creating a framework and instilling discipline, our society has instead favoured an excess of choice and allowed individuals, whether they be children or adults, to ‘plough their own furrow’, often at the expense of those around them and society in general.
The recent brilliant GCSE results from Katherine Birbalsingh’s Michaela School in Wembley show what a return to some old-fashioned discipline can do for disadvantaged kids. Perhaps this approach should also be applied to discipline in the home, with parents returning to ensuring that whilst their children are in their care they are not free to lounge around without exercise or sport, live in a virtual world rather than the real one or to live on junk food detrimental to both short and long-term health. Obviously easier said than done when peer pressure has never been stronger owing to social media, but this scary story should definitely go viral.