The End of Civilization—No Really, I Mean it This Time

My good friend Lenore Skenazy over at Free Range Kids tipped me off to a story in the New York Times about an alarming new product—food pouches for kids. The basic idea seems to be that when the young ‘uns are hungry, you just strap on the feedbag. Or in this case, hand them an expensive pouch with some processed foodstuff that lets the little tikes suck out a meal, rather than eating. The inventor says this helps busy parents keep their kids fed without the fuss of having to prepare a meal. He also confuses Lenore’s concept of being “free range”—learning to be responsible for one’s life without a parent hovering over every second—with being so over-schedued that there’s never time to eat.

Can’t you see the interaction? “I’m hungry.” “Well, suck on this.” Forgive me, but there is something inherently barbaric about that. It seems just this side of mama penguin throwing up fish bits into the chicks’ mouths—or putting a bowl of kibble on the floor for the family dog.

Now, why is this the end of civilization? There is nothing civil about cramming one’s food into one’s maw whenever a pang strikes. The idea that we are too busy to have structured meals so we subsist on a deluxe MRE is abhorrent to me. Perhaps on a camping trip, in space or on the side of K-2, but not when there other options are available—and certainly not as a common practice.

The family meal is an important and necessary event. Especially now that it’s summer, finding time to do that is critical to the ways in which we can educate our children to develop their manners, their conversational and listening skills. Far more than getting sufficient calories to keep body and soul together, meal times provide a basis of interaction among the family, and that’s going to be critical in later life.

I once interviewed the head of human resources for a major corporation, and he told me that he never hires a senior executive without having a meal with him or her first. He wants to gauge their conversational skills, and their table manners before making the final hiring decision. Yes, your mother was right: knowing which fork to pick up can be important. At least in many parts of our culture, the rituals of eating are as important as getting the groceries in the pie hole. They are among the things that separate us from the lesser animals.

Now I’m not against the occasional meal on the fly, but I wonder if we risk shortchanging kids of important skills. Our family sat down to dinner every night, and in addition to being educated about the proper use of silverware and manners, we were expected to bring information from the news or our schoolwork to the table to talk about and be able to participate in conversations with the grown-ups. After all, the goal was that we would become civilized grown-ups. How do kids learn that if it’s not modeled for them, or practiced?

As a marketer quoted in the article says, “As children become more independent and want to self-feed, pouches are the way to go.” No, teaching them how to use a knife and fork is the way to go.

And, I’ve yet to find a food toy that simulates pouch feeding. Instead, most food toys engage kids in the rituals of cooking and eating, like the marvelous Fisher-Price Grow With Me Kitchen.

These are the things kids play to feel like their grown-ups. And skills they’ll need as grown ups. You don’t expect them to say, “Oh, remember that pouch we sucked on at our wedding reception? Wasn’t that great?”

Okay, perhaps this is an overreaction, but the serious point is this: In a civilized culture, structure is important. And in our culture there are defined structures around meals and eating that can instantly brand people Your attitudes and practices around food will shape part of your children’s lives, and may very well be more important than an extra ballet or karate class.

When my brothers and I were very very young and first learning table manners, my mother would recite the following rhyme, “Mabel, Mable, if you’re able, take your elbows off the table. This is not a horse’s stable.” My fear is that when we give our kids feedbags, however organic and trendy, the distinction between the dining room and the stable is blurred. And something civilized is definitely lost.

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