Tag Archives: toddlers

Things I’d ban #1: snacking

Of all the things that make me want to commit murder – and, believe me, there are many – snacking comes near the top of my list. When did adults develop this infantile need to cram Mini Cheddars down their gullets every five minutes? It’s an assault on the senses: the constant crinkling of sweet wrappers in the cinema; the noisy mastication in the train carriage; the synthetic stench of Cheesy Wotsits on the top deck of the bus. Assailed by the intimate sound of all that chomping, squishing, gobbling and gulping, I despair for humanity. Why can’t they all just sit quietly and look out of the window, or focus on the film? Why the constant need to gorge on Pringles and wipe their greasy fingers on the seats, or stuff Maltesers into their horrific, wet, gaping maws?

These days there’s even a supermarket aisle called ‘snacking’, as if it’s a thing that everyone does, like shitting, shagging or sleeping. A quick internet search reveals copious information about the latest market trends in the sweet and savoury snacks industry. And it’s not even real food – just refined sugar and E numbers in bright plastic packets. It’s a huge marketing ploy; a way of getting us to buy more pointless stuff. Am I alone in finding the sector’s carefully formulated marketing terminology repellent? To me, a ‘grab-bag’ sounds greedy and selfish, while the snacking brand Graze calls to mind a herd of lumbering ruminants wrapping slobbery chops around their cud.

Where small children are concerned, I’ll concede that snacks can be handy. An emergency packet of rice cakes isn’t a bad idea with a two-year-old in tow: I’ve experienced at first hand a toddler’s sudden drop in blood sugar and attendant grumpiness. And I’m not the sort of puritanical weirdo who never buys her kids an ice-cream as a treat. What baffles me is that many parents continue to regard snacks as a round-the-clock necessity, even when their offspring have long outgrown the toddler stage. On a recent outing, my friend brought along multiple bumper packs of Skittles and Haribo, and proceeded to distribute them to the children at fifteen-minute intervals throughout the day. Not wishing to come across as a censorious snob or provoke filial meltdown, I suppressed my irritation and allowed my sons to dip in. Perhaps she thought I was tight-fisted or disorganised when I failed to produce my own stash of sugary multi-coloured crap.

Of course, not all snacks are of the sugary or salty variety. Nutritionists tell us to eat lots of healthy nibbles throughout the day – satisfy your cravings by gnawing on a nut or a stick of celery, throw in the odd oatcake, and you won’t even need lunch! Just think of all the calories you’ll save! Well, sod that. Snacking all day long – whether on Oreos or olives – may be a way of occupying our jaws while we gawp at a screen, but it deprives us of the pleasant anticipation of coming to the table hungry. It’s a joyless approach to eating, and one that entirely disregards the social aspect of sitting down to dinner, pouring wine and engaging in conversation; of serving food made with passion and generosity; and enjoying ourselves with the people we love.

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When worlds collide

In her thought-provoking book ‘Life After Birth’, Kate Figes describes the gulf between the lifestyles of those with and without children, and the naïve assumptions about parenthood that fall away as soon as we reproduce. ‘We delude ourselves that we will be able to socialise as we have always done by organising babysitters or taking the children with us. Then when our children arrive we understand that there are two separate worlds, one with children and one without, which rotate in opposite directions and occasionally collide.’

The planets collided for Figes when she took her two-year-old daughter to lunch at the house of a childless aunt. When she arrived, the joint was only just being put in the oven and there was no snack sufficiently bland to tide over the hungry child. The adults became steadily drunker; the toddler increasingly distraught. As the food finally arrived on the table, the child demanded the toilet. Sitting her on the potty, Figes noticed through a fog of booze that her daughter had already deposited a trail of small turds across the floor. As she attempted to clean up, her child trampled in the shit, spreading it everywhere and ruining the aunt’s white shag-pile carpet.

To any parent of small children, this account will seem comically, horribly familiar. But what strikes me about Figes’s story is that she seems embarrassed rather than apologetic. Serves you right, is the subtle, underlying message. Accommodate my toddler or face the consequences. Figes was in a better position than anyone to anticipate her child’s needs and bring a snack along. The carpet had to be replaced, but there’s no mention of Figes offering to pay. And the next time the aunt invites the family over, she ‘bends over backwards to get a child-friendly lunch on the table by two o’clock’, the implication being that she has learned her lesson.

Last week, during the half-term holiday, I witnessed another small inter-planetary collision in the quiet carriage of an intercity train. I had dropped my sons off at holiday club and crossed over to join the ranks of the child-free for the day. I settled back in my seat, anticipating the opportunity to read the newspaper from cover to cover and doze off for a while. Then, at Bath Spa, a couple with pre-school twins boarded and claimed two unreserved seats across the aisle. Concentration, relaxation, sleep – all the things I craved – suddenly became impossible. The girls’ shrill voices were just as irritating as the incessant trilling of a mobile phone, yet the passengers in carriage A – normally militant to the point of aggression in defence of their right to silence – didn’t say a word.

Perhaps this unusual reticence was due to the fact that the toddlers, although strident, were inquisitive, engaging and (considering their age) well behaved. The middle-aged parents seemed attentive, replying patiently and uncondescendingly to the girls’ endless questions and proferring a small stash of books, crayons and healthy snacks. It would have been unreasonable to ask the children to pipe down – they were too small to comply – and yet it seemed equally unreasonable to inflict their clamour on the occupants of the quiet carriage.

I suppressed my irritation and smiled indulgently from time to time, complicitly signalling my own parenthood. I reminded myself that I knew nothing about the situation. Perhaps the family’s seat reservations had been mucked up, or they were travelling at short notice and there were no other spaces available. At the same time, uncharitable thoughts began to surface. Wasn’t there a hint of smugness in this self-conscious display of modern parenting? The presence of the small group seemed to throw out an implicit challenge to the rest of us: we’re a nice, bookish, middle-class family, so don’t you dare object.

My ambivalence was compounded by the fact that I’ve been in similar situations with my own children. Several years ago, on a long bus journey across rural Wales, my two-year-old son began to wail in frustration. The woman sitting a few seats in front of us flinched theatrically at each piercing squawk, casting disapproving glances over her shoulder, until I went over and politely – but in my best patrician accent – pointed out that I was doing all I could to placate him.

I’m sure I have inconvenienced others – even acted selfishly – in order to reclaim some semblance of a normal life. I recall the occasion when, in my desire to enjoy a civilised Sunday lunch with friends, I let my small sons run around inside a gastropub. They dodged between tables and giggled hysterically, sending their pencil crayons clattering across the wooden floor. Although nobody objected, I now wonder what everyone was thinking. But that’s different; I would never let them make a noise in the quiet carriage, says a small, self-righteous voice inside me. So where should we draw the line?

I don’t advocate a return to the world my grandparents used to inhabit, where women and children stayed at home, out of sight, while the men drank in the pub. Things have moved on; the world is more welcoming to families and undoubtedly a much better place for it. Still, I wonder if these occasional clashes of interests reveal something unpalatable about those of us who choose to reproduce.

Parents consider their small offspring endlessly fascinating, to the point of being unable to see that they impinge on other people’s lives. If we’re honest, it’s all about the nuclear family: most of us don’t care all that much about the children of our acquaintances, let alone those of strangers. So who is more selfish: the couple who remain childless in order to pursue other interests in peace, such as travelling, dining out or going to concerts? Or the couple who have babies because they want somebody to cherish, and then assert their right to frequent restaurants, galleries and quiet carriages with their young family in tow, expecting the rest of the world to put up with the noise and disruption?