Parents, Products, and Protecting Kids with Food Allergies

I recently read several articles by sociologists who study consumer culture and its impact on children and parents. I want to share my thoughts on them here even though I’m still figuring out exactly what they mean for my data analysis. Please bear with me through a messier-than-normal post! 

One essay, “The Viacom Generation: The Consumer Child and the Corporate Parent” by Juliet Schor, part of an edited volume, stood out to me because it clarified some things I’ve been pondering with respect to food allergies. Schor writes about how children growing up in the 1990s are exposed to intensive marketing that shapes their desires, relationships, and hopes for the future. By now this is quite normal to people living in the United States. But she wants to call attention to how strange it actually is that corporations are now shaping so many aspects of children’s lives. She contends that it is as though they are taking over some of the duties of parents. It’s like they are “caring for” children.

In particular, this essay got me thinking about how and why parents try to provide a “normal” childhood to food allergic kids. A lot of parents (especially mothers) seem to equate “normal” childhood with having access to convenience foods – packaged foods, foods purchased from a restaurant, cake mixes and pre-made sauces – that are now normal but which are not necessarily the kinds of food our grandparents or great-grandparents would recognize as wholesome. However, these foods have become normal for many children, adults and families. Following Schor, I do think marketing and advertising plays a large role in making this seem normal. I think this is also due to the time pressures on homemaking activities like cooking from scratch that accompanies the modern dual-career household model.

(The time pressures of raising food allergic kids, however, is a topic for a future post!)

Regardless of the balance of these two potential causes, I’m struck by this idea of companies “parenting” kids – shaping their desires, values, and relationships. For kids with food allergies, a lot of companies may still influence these desires but then not be able to deliver. As food allergy families know too well, most food companies – including most large ones that advertise aggressively to children – just aren’t careful enough with their supply chains and manufacturing processes to ensure that their products could be safe for children with allergies.

However, as my conversations with food allergy parents suggest, kids certainly receive the message about what kinds of foods and food-based rituals they ought to expect. Some of this messaging – maybe more than Schor would acknowledge – comes from communities of mothers as well. The rituals surrounding birthday parties and holidays are examples of times when food allergic kids can be let down when they cannot participate in “traditional” food treats. Having the right kinds of foods in the right situations serve as markers of one’s place in a social hierarchy – what social theorist Pierre Bourdieu calls “distinction.”

Fitting In to Childhood Society

An essay in the same book – “Consumption as Care and Belonging: Economies of Dignity in Children’s Daily Lives” by Allison Pugh – gets to this point. She talks about how being able to consume the “right” products as a child contributes to feeling socially integrated. Having experience with certain products allows children to enter into conversations where such specialized knowledge is required to fit in. Displaying the right kind of knowledge about specific products means that kids get a spot in the hierarchy of childhood “society.” While she uses examples like sneakers and video games, I think the social significance placed on certain meals or types of food (like birthday cake or pizza) is similar enough to make a comparison.

When kids show their peers that they know about certain popular products, Pugh argues that they’re also displaying to others that they are well cared for. They’re showing everyone that they have a normal, healthy, happy family when they brag about their elaborate birthday parties. She also shows through interviews with parents that parents are very aware of the stakes of belonging for their kids, and the way that access to certain products makes belonging possible. The parents she interviews are very aware that their children’s social well-being is tied to having first-hand experience with certain items popular with their peers.

Bringing It Back to Food Allergy

One thing that is slightly different about feeding food allergic kids is that the issue seems to be giving kids access to the categories of foods “normal” kids can eat – chips, cookies, packaged crackers and beautiful cakes made from a mix – and giving them access to those foods in the settings where “normal” kids would eat them – classroom activities, birthday parties, and the like. It’s not necessarily about giving them the right brands in the food allergy world, but about providing them with the right experiences. 

I’m sure none of this comes as a surprise to any food allergy parents or health care professionals concerned with the psychosocial health of their allergy patients. What you eat – like what you buy – has social significance. It’s shaped by our contemporary social world, in which our tastes and habits are often squeezed between appeals to purchase consumer goods (including convenience foods) and the time pressure put on families who are just trying to make ends meet. At the meeting point of all these issues is deep concern with giving kids access to the right foods, the “normal” foods of childhood. It’s important for many food allergy families to make kids feel normal by providing them with foods similar to those of their peers before they even notice that, according to some people outside their families, they might not be exactly normal.

I think the general idea is intriguing and I’m exciting that these essays got me to think about the connection between parenting, childhood “society,” and the social pressure to consume certain products (foods, in the case of food allergy). But now that I think it through in writing, I wonder again if Bourdieu’s theory of distinction is more apt. Perhaps this is all a big detour leading me back to the classic materials of my field(s)!

Thanks for bearing with me on this bumpy ride of a blog post. Next time will be smoother, I promise!

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