We went to Wal-Mart yesterday. It was a mistake.
Don’t get me wrong: I understand why people shop at Wal-Mart. I live in a rural community that is mostly poor or working class. I see hundreds of people ride the bus to Wal-Mart daily because the store is one of the few places they can afford to shop. The dollar they save on a package of diapers is a dollar they genuinely need for heat, or for rent.
I get it, I do. I just don’t like the place.
Mostly, it depresses me. When I walk in and see all the plastic goods, all the sweatshop-made clothes, the fake flowers, the phthalate-filled toys, and the packaging-inside-of-packaging-inside-of-packaging, I quickly fall into a kind of despair. That’s no exaggeration; after five minutes in Wal-Mart, I genuinely start to lose hope for the planet, for humanity, for the world.
Yesterday, however, I took Merrie, my seven-year-old, to Wal-Mart. We went in search of wire frames from which we could make wreaths with backyard greens. We didn’t find them. Apparently, Wal-Mart has pared down its craft section to make way for ever more plasticware and cheap electronics. Truthfully, we didn't see anything I wanted to buy. We did, however, see a big-ol’ Dunkin’ Donuts counter.
And there the trouble began.
Merrie's eyes lit up. “Please?” she asked. “Can we please get some Dunkin’ Donuts while we’re here?”
I said, “No, not today. We’re in a hurry, and I’d like to leave."
“Mom, please! I’m hungry!”
"We have apples and nuts in the car, remember? You just ate some."
"I don't want those. And I'm hungry."
“If you’re truly hungry, apples and nuts…"
“But I don’t want apples! I don’t want nuts! You always make me eat that stuff!”
I tried explaining again. There are the "sometimes" foods and the "anytime" foods. Donuts are "sometimes" foods. They are treats. It’s fine to have them once in a while, but they shouldn’t be something we buy on impulse just because they’re in front of us.
“Unhealthy food will always be in front of us,” I tried to reason. “If we bought treats every time we saw them, we would all be really, really unhealthy.”
And of course, we mostly are: 86% of the population is expected to be overweight within 20 years, childhood Type 2 diabetes has reached epidemic status, and children younger than Merrie now routinely get kidney stones. Those are the statistics, a few of them, though truthfully, there was plenty of evidence around us at Wal-Mart; people riding in carts because they were too unhealthy to walk; the rows of diet pills; the stacks of blood glucose monitoring kits by the pharmacy; small children already swollen like balloons with extra weight, dragging a 20-oz bottle of soda as they walked.
“You always say no,” she said, sadly. Her eyes welled with tears.
I don’t always say no. In fact, I say yes far more than I ever expected I would. Yes to cookies in the lunchbox. Yes to buttered popcorn at the movies. I say yes to snacks, yes to desserts, yes to hot cocoa in the winter, yes to ice cream in the summer. I say yes not once in a while, but often.
I say yes because I have read too much research about the consequences of saying no. To my great frustration, the research is pretty clear: when a parent restricts a food, it only makes the child want that food more. I do my best to strip the junk of its importance, make it no big deal.
But this is where the research utterly fails me. This is what makes a trip to Wal-Mart like entering a minefield. Because that stuff I’m not supposed to restrict? It’s everywhere there. Absolutely everywhere. And so far, the research has failed to teach me how to keep my kid healthy in a world where you cannot turn around without bumping into a rack of Cheetos and a plate of Krispy Kremes.
"Everything in moderation," people say, which sounds so wise. But there is no moderation, not here, not in America at the dawn of the 21st century. So we parents are damned if we do, damned if we don’t. By restricting junk foods, I will make her want them more. But if I say yes every time she wants junk foods, I could be killing her, literally.
So I try to set boundaries. Soda at birthday parties? OK. Soda at dinner? Nope. Cookies in your lunchbox, sure, but not so many that you fill up on them. Dunkin’ Donuts? OK, maybe, as a treat sometimes. But not just because you happen to see a Dunkin’ Donuts counter when we go to Wal-Mart.
Along the way, I do my best to explain where I’m coming from, and I try to discuss the implications of our choices: where the money goes at the grocery store vs. at the farmers market, the environmental impact of single-serve packages vs. home-cooked.
But here we were in the late afternoon, standing under the bright lights, holding an empty cart, and my daughter was starting to cry. Right now, she couldn’t remember all the times I said yes. She couldn't remember those rational conversations about the consequences of our choices. All she knew was that donuts were in front of her, and she really, really wanted one.
As I stood there, I remembered another reason why I find Wal-Mart so depressing: because it invariably creates yet another wedge between me and my kids — the wedge where I become the bad guy for saying, once again, no.
Remember this, I said to myself. Remember how little there is here that you want, and how much there is to fight about.
“I’m not going to get you a donut right now,” I said calmly. “But I will take you to Dunkin’ Donuts sometime. I will.”
“When will you take me? When?” she pleaded.
I sighed. The truth is, parenting is filled with moments just like these — small, unglorious moments where the right response is no longer obvious — where maybe, perhaps, there is no right answer, just the option that seems a little less bad than an alternative. Mostly, I just desperately wanted to be out of that store. “Sunday,” I answered, wearily. “Let’s go to Dunkin’ Donuts on Sunday. It will be a special treat, and you will appreciate it even more because of that.”
“Sure.” Whatever, just get me out of this hellhole. “Sunday.”
She sniffled. “OK, Mom. Thanks.”
We left Wal-Mart, then, our cart still empty. I cast a glance back as I walked, and I silently cursed the big box store. This Sunday morning, I will go to Dunkin’ Donuts with my daughter. I will order gooey sugar-filled treats made with ingredients from around the world. Chances are good that it will be some variety of jelly donut, which I know from reading too much will contain sodium benzoate, TBHQ, a likely carcinogen that’s one of the ingredients in varnish and lacquer, and Red 40, which researchers link with ADHD and behavioral problems.
But I won't think about these things as I order it at the counter. I'll block them out, place my order, and hand over my money.
Merrie will eat it delightedly. “Jelly” will run down her chin, and she will probably declare that this is one of her best mornings, ever. I will smile at her, tell her I’m glad that she’s enjoyed herself. And I will silently curse Wal-Mart under my breath, vowing that next time, I will stick with Goodwill.