I’ve been working on this one for a while, ever since Obama’s comment to a crowd of mainly African-American families to “shape up, turn off the TV, help their kids with their homework and stop letting them grow fat eating Popeye’s chicken for breakfast.”
Of course, I’ve been musing on this for so long it’s way past its expiration date, but it’s still a personal issue for me, so I’d like to get it out there.
Obama’s comment immediately made me think of a situation I witnessed when I mentored a girl through the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. I mentored this girl, J, for four years, beginning when she was seven years old.
She lived in a single-parent home, with her mother and her two sisters. Her oldest sister was in middle school when I started mentoring J; from what I understand, her mother had not worked since the oldest was born, since it wasn’t economically feasible for her to put the kids kids in any kind of decent childcare while she was at work. The family got support from the state, but the mother obviously had some serious issues with authority (I’ll post sometime about J’s problems at school), so as a family they didn’t get as much as they probably could have had the mother been a more effective advocate.
Now, the mother in this situation was absolutely devoted to her daughters. Their apartment had two bedrooms: the oldest girl got her own room, the youngest two shared, and the mom slept on the couch. Every single night.
The one thing that was a little frightening to me was the lack of organization and follow-through in that house. I’m not talking about Clean House-style organization, but things like… actual meals. I would frequently pick up J for our time together at 2 o’clock in the afternoon or later, and the mom would tell me on my way out the door that she didn’t think J had eaten anything.
It’s likely that this was in part because the family was hurting for cash (obviously), and I was a resource the mom could use to feed one of her kids. And, you know, that was fine by me – I never felt taken advantage of, and providing a small child a couple of meals a week didn’t hurt my budget in any way that mattered.
The other part of it was, I’m pretty sure those meals were the only real meals J ever got. The mother and older sisters would just feed themselves when they were hungry, but it drove me absolutely up the wall that J’s mother never seemed to realize that you had to make a conscious effort to FEED your 7-year-old, not just assume she’ll take care of herself. J exhibited a lot of signs of early malnutrition: she was tiny for her age, much smaller than her peers, had huge circles under eyes, was frequently spacey, and didn’t seem to be able to concentrate very well at school.
Now, the point of this very long post is not that Obama is RIGHT in chastising families for feeding their kids fast food when it may be the only food available. It’s just a jumping-off point for this story; the issue for J was so wide and so deep that I don’t know where anyone would even start with fixing it, other than providing the mother with some serious education and financial resources, neither of which I’d be confident she would accept willingly. It’s just a nasty situation all the way around.
Sometimes I think people with easy answers need to understand just how UN-easy the real-life situations really are.