A few weeks back, both of my girls had late-afternoon soccer practices and, since my wife was an excellent soccer player in her day, she welcomed the opportunity to go with both of them to their practices. Afterwards, their "girls-only" plans were to continue, including pursuits of some dinner, some ice cream and a little shopping. Of course.
Since Cole had his own soccer practice after school and was off from baseball for the night, this also afforded us the opportunity to have our own bonding time. After talking about it, I gave him the option of picking out a restaurant where he and I could grab a bite before going to a local golf driving range and hitting a bucket of balls.
"Should we go to Hoss's or Bob Evan's, Dad?" he asked, a big smile spreading across his face. In our family, it is a running joke about our kids always picking either Bob Evans or Hoss's to eat. Since I don't eat greasy breakfast food often, Bob Evans is my guaranteed ticket for getting an upset stomach. Worth it, though, since I can never say "no" to their big breakfast meal for dinner. Hoss's, on the other hand, is a buffet that is famous for its unlimited salad bar, which includes its choice of four soups (I'm a soup guy here) and, most importantly, a huge dessert line, complete with their own self-serving soft ice cream machine. Twists included. An obvious plus for any kid, probably.
Cole hmm'd and haa'd for a few minutes before deciding. "Hoss's it is, then," he said, adding, "unless you would rather have Bob Evans, Dad." Nope, I assured him, any decision he made would be a good one.
So off we went to Hoss's. Little did I know, though, that this visit would open up an opportunity to talk to Cole about a serious issue.
After driving the ten minutes, we arrived at Hoss's and parked our car in the lot. We hurried to the entrance, eager to dive into the salads, the soups, and the desserts.
We opened the outside double doors to enter the welcoming foyer of the restaurant, only to be greeted by three young kids creating havoc while arguing over the gumball machines. The youngest, about five or so, was on his knees trying to wedge his hand up into the exit slot of one machine. The middle child was at another machine, fumbling to put some coins in and turn the handle. The oldest child, a girl, probably around Cole's age of ten or eleven, stood in front of the second set of entrance doors, blocking our way. She was waiting to step up to the machine the middle child was at. There were no adults around.
Strikingly, and sadly, all three kids were very obese. Most remarkable, though, was the oldest child, the girl, who was around Cole's age. Easily, she must have weighed over two-hundred pounds. She had light brown hair, straight, cut in a bob, which seemed to accentuate her full cheeks and chin. She wore a fashionable short-sleeve t-shirt with a graphic logo on front. Unfortunately, though, it was several sizes too small, revealing her protruding belly from below. Her arms and legs seemed inflated and over-sized, poking out of her summer clothes. She wore thin flip-flops that did little to support her weight or fallen arches. As I took her in, she continued to block the doorway while trying to tug her middle brother away from the gumball machine so she could access it.
Cole looked up at me as if to ask what to do. I winked at him, willing to patiently wait out the arguing.
After thirty seconds or so, the other door that led to the welcoming foyer, an exit door from the inside cashier, opened up and a very obese woman in a flowing, floral-print dress walked out. She was accompanied by an equally obese elderly woman. I assumed it was the children's mother and grandmother.
The mother yelled at her kids. "Hey, you three," she said with a sharp, grating voice, "move and get out of the way. Can't you see you are blocking the door for these people." She lifted up her arm and waved her finger at her kids, who looked up to finally notice us waiting. "It's quite alright, maam," I assured her, "we are in no hurry." She gave me a brief smile. "I don't know where their manners are these days."
The girl my son's age moved to the right of our entrance door and we were able to continue on our way. I noticed my son smile at the girl as we passed. "Have a nice night," I added to the family.
After sitting down and grabbing our plates of food, I decided to question Cole about what we just saw. "Cole," I said, "what did you think of those kids at the gumball machines?"
"What do you mean, Dad?" he asked, pausing with his spoonful of chicken noodle soup in mid-air. "You mean how crazy they were trying to get the gumballs?"
"Yes," I said, "and..." He interrupted me. "And," he continued, "how big they were?" I winced a little, although I was glad he didn't use the other "f" word.
"Yes, that too." I paused to let him talk. "Well," he said, "I think they were acting crazy because their mother wasn't with them. They straightened right up, though, when she came out." He took his spoonful of soup to his mouth and swallowed it before continuing. "And they probably eat too much candy and soda or else don't exercise enough, I guess. Maybe they watch too much TV or play a lot of video games."
He was probably right. "But Cole, why do you think they eat too much candy? Because they are sad? Or bored? Or just like it?"
"Probably bored and they like it, Dad," he said, "but do people really eat because they are sad?" I assured him that they do, sometimes. "Cole, what if she (now focusing on the girl his age to make it personal) doesn't have a father in her life? Or maybe she has a father that yells at her all the time? Or what if the kids at school are mean to her? Maybe she eats candy to feel better about all of it."
"But where would she get all that candy, Dad, or the money to buy it? Do you think her mom buys it for her?" He was thinking hard now, placing his spoon on the table. Again, he hit on something big, as I thought back again to the mother and grandmother as they walked out of the exit door.
"I'm not sure," I told him, trying to lighten it up, "maybe, though, she saves all her Halloween candy through the year like you do!" We both laughed, thinking back to this past Halloween when Cole set a new house-record, bringing in over seven pounds of candy (yes, now the kids weigh it, not count it, it seems).
"Cole," I added, "do you have any classmates like this girl?" He nodded no, continuing to eat his soup. "But if you did," I continued, "you would be nice to her, right? Give her a smile? Say "hello" as you passed her in the hallway?"
"Of course, Dad," he said, not even pausing, as I remembered him smiling at this girl as we walked through the entrance way, "why wouldn't I?"
And that's where our conversation ended about this topic. My son smiling, and me looking at him with some major pride in my eyes. Although he had noticed the children, he didn't judge them or seem affected by them.
After this experience, I did a little research on childhood obesity. The most surprising thing I learned was that I overestimated the number of children who are obese, by definition, because of medical or genetic reasons. It seems that the majority of childhood obesity cases are due to social causes, a reflection of poor choices from the adult-figures in their lives. Poor exercise habits, poor dietary choices, poor discretion of computer and TV use, and the poor decision to use food as a reward or comfort can add up to some very serious issues for children. Even life-threatening. Sometimes, of course, there are some very worthwhile reasons, medical or otherwise, as to why a child is overweight.
It sure doesn't help, though, to live in a society where extreme thinness and waif-skinniness is embraced more than a healthy lifestyle is.
Which leads me to my point. Let's either start, or continue, to make our kids the number one priority in our lives. They are our legacy. They are our future. They are our treasures. Treat them as such. Eat together at meal time. Cook together. Shop together. Pursue fun physical activities as a family. Go for a walk, a hike, or play Frisbee in the yard. Play kickball. Turn off the computers and TVs and video games. Get involved in school and community functions. Read, especially before bedtime. Talk. Be fully aware of your child's life. Don't make excuses. Don't put them on your back burner. Love them.
And teach acceptance, not judgment. Especially when you don't know another's story.
Love. Peace. Harmony.
It was probably another typical evening in Cole's eyes, dinner and some fun afterwards. For me, though, it was a huge reminder of just how many times through a typical day my kids will be bombarded with "life" happenings.
I can only hope that someday our kids will walk confidently into this big, big world of ours. My bigger hope, though, is that every child out there has an adult in their life who also wishes the same for them.
As always, big thanks for reading. I see much of the above at work in the ER, but seeing it through my son's eyes gave me a new, fresh perspective. See you either Friday or Monday. Until then...