By Stelios

Congratulations to Michelle Obama for another success in her campaign to browbeat private business into complying with her vision of what our children should eat.  These stories always make me cringe on a number of levels, including: (1) As a believer in limited government and as-unlimited-as-possible liberty and freedom of choice, I hate the idea of the federal government dictating what private businesses can offer and what consumers can choose to consume.  The market (read: parents), not the First Lady, should determine whether fries or fruit should be the “default side order” in a kid’s meal; (2) As a believer in personal responsibility, I loathe the idea that it’s the fast food, chain restaurant and grocery stores’ fault that children are obese in America.  It’s not.  It’s the fault of the parents and the children; and (3) As a proponent of exercise, outdoor activity and risk-taking, I despise the culture of gadgetry, sloth and “vulgar pleasures” (to quote Tocqueville) that has consumed our kids and turned them into out of shape, intolerable brats.

I don’t have any evidence except for a lot of anecdotes from my family and my friends who grew up in the same era, but ask yourself this: do you really believe that kids today eat more junk food and fast food than kids who grew up in the 1970s and 80s?  I submit that they do not.  Assuming a similar socioeconomic level, do the children of today’s 30-50 year-olds eat fast food more frequently than their parents did as children?  Again, I don’t think so.  Taking my childhood as an admittedly random but possibly representative example, I ate far more junk than my children do!  My mother’s house was constantly stocked with dessert foods like Twinkies and Yodels.  We were intimately familiar with every kind of cookie, from Oreos to their red-headed stepbrother Hydrox, from the various and delightful Pepperidge Farm varieties (I was partial to Gingerbread Men; others preferred the delicious Milanos or Chesapeakes).  We ate every kind of Girl Scout cookie, back when they had politically incorrect names like Samoas and Tagalongs.  My mother would stock up on Tastycakes, the Philadelphia equivalent of Hostess, who made decadent individual pies and lots of Twinkie-like treats with names like Butterscotch Krimpets and Candy Cakes.  We went to the convenience store on the way home from the bus stop, played pinball and drank Orange Crush and Mister Pibb.  We ate wax bottle candy full of pure sugary syrup, Pixie Stix, Sweet Tarts, and chocolate bars.  

Worse, our parents cooked us dinners with massive calorie counts.  The only meals I remember my mother making were spaghetti and meat sauce, lasagna, veal parmesan, pork chops with Shake-n-Bake coating, and steak.  We ate a lot of baked potatoes with butter.  Before school, we ate horrible cereals like Sugar Smacks and Alpha Bits and Crunchberries.  My favorite lunch sandwich was cream cheese and grape jelly, and I usually ate Cheetos or Fritos.  On weekends, we had bacon or sausage and pancakes, French toast or waffles.  There was plenty of fruit around if you wanted it, and I am sure someone ate some vegetables, but I didn’t.  I know my mother wanted me to eat more vegetables, but I never ate a salad until I went to college.  No one ever told me I couldn’t have dessert, or a snack (Twinkie, cookies, etc.) when I got home from school — after I ate some candy on the way home.  And when my family went out to eat, it was often to Kentucky Fried Chicken or McDonald’s or Red Lobster.  Even when we went to a nicer restaurant, I would order something like “chopped beef steak” – an enormous hamburger on a skillet and covered with melted cheese.  While I am not sure my childhood was typical, I know for certain it was no outlier because my friends had similar experiences.  How is it possible, then, that my friends and I were rail thin throughout childhood and adolescence (even late in high school, when we were drinking tons of beer every weekend)?  

The answer, without the slightest whiff of doubt, is that we spent a lot of time outside.  Any male who grew up in suburban America during the Carter and Reagan years spent his time playing games like cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, “war”, “kill the carrier”, etc.  Little kids went to the playground, and playgrounds had fun (and somewhat dangerous!) stuff like merry-go-rounds, swings, seesaws and monkey bars.  Older kids built bike jumps or skateboard ramps; every kid had a bike or skateboard and most of us rode ours for hours every week (and NO ONE wore a helmet).  We explored our neighborhoods and surrounding wooded areas or parks.  We built forts and climbed trees.  We explored half-built houses and skateboarded empty pools.  Warm weather was for non-stop swimming and water sports.  Colder days meant football games in the field at the end of the street.  Kids had basketball hoops in their driveways, and they used them!   Kids got hurt, they broke bones, they learned about danger and risk, they overcame fears, they developed confidence and strength.  But most of all, they burned off lots and lots of calories, every single day.

Today’s children have so much going against them: all of the best developments for entertainment and enjoyment are indoor pursuits (video game consoles, smartphones, the internet, cable and satellite TV, social media, etc. etc.).  Meanwhile, parents – terrified of highly publicized but still extremely rare attacks by predatory adults – want their children in their sight at all times when they are home from school.  At the same time, plaintiffs’ lawyers and pusillanimous, broke local governments and schools have made playgrounds incredibly boring, and have banned risky but fun activities like sledding, diving, and even games like tag or running during recess, in some cases.    No wonder kids stay inside: there are tons of cool things to do in the house, and either mom or the nannystate doesn’t want them doing anything “unsafe”, like exploring, contact sports, or playing on a spinning piece of playground equipment or a pool slide.  

In Democracy in America, Tocqueville paused in his fervent admiration of America and its people to issue a warning that if Americans failed to remain vigilant and allowed a creeping, paternalistic federal government to intrude on America’s traditions of vigorous self-reliance, meritocracy and liberty, we would face a new form of tyranny.  This new, well-meaning despotism of the nannystate would eventually crush the human spirit, and create an America of “an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.”

My blood curdles a little each time I read that phrase and think of our children and teenagers, obsessed with talentless celebrities (the Kardashians, Kei$ha), Twitter and Facebook, Xbox and Playstation, hundreds of digital quality TV channels, games on phones, ipods on phones, video cameras on phones, and so on and so on.  As adults, they may graduate to free internet porn on demand and fantasy football, but their lives may still revolve around indoor amusements and gadgetry.  If these pursuits aren’t “vulgar pleasures”, I don’t know what are.  The slow death of outdoor play and actual human interaction has implications for the human spirit, as Tocqueville warned, but it clearly has more immediate and obvious implications for the human body. 

Our parents’ mothers screamed from apartment windows for their kids to come inside for dinner.  Our parents told us to get out of the house but be back before dark.  Our children spend hours staring at screens of various sizes, barely moving.  Take away the TV and the gadgets for a few hours every day, push the kids out the back door for some outdoor play, and we can all stop talking about whether the government should force McDonald’s to stop giving kids toys in Happy Meals.  The only part Tocqueville got wrong was the unfortunate phrase “without repose” – it’s all repose now!   The comfort of indoors calls like a siren; many of today’s kids have no appetite or stamina for vigorous physical activity.  It’s up to the parents to right this wrong, and we need to stop blaming the people who market to our children the same crap they marketed and sold to us when we were children.  Kids should play, explore, run, fall, wrestle, get dirty, and play games.  And celebrate with the occasional Yodel and a cool glass of milk.