My family recently attended a party where we knew several guests in attendance, but not well. At one point a well-meaning acquaintance came over to say hello and decided to give our toddler a plate of cookies. It was really nice of her—no question. But it annoyed me, because rather than ask if she could offer my son something to eat, or what that something should be, she decided to just hand over a bunch of cookies to him directly.
This has happened to us before. In fact, I’ve kvetched about people giving my son candy at temple and gotten some feedback along the lines of, “You need to chill out.” But my philosophy is this: At a certain age—and frankly, I’m not sure exactly what it is—I think it’s OK to offer a child food directly. But if that child is 3.5 like my son, or younger, it’s not OK, and here’s why:
1. You never know if a child has allergies. Thankfully my son doesn’t have food allergies, but there are plenty of kids out there who do. Food allergies can run the gamut from hives to rashes to all-out anaphylactic shock. If you don’t know me well enough for me to know your last name, please don’t offer my child food without checking beforehand. You could very well have the best of intentions, but if you see a child eyeing the cookie plate and hand him something he’s allergic to before his parents have a chance to slap it out of his hands, that child and his parents could wind up with a serious health issue on their hands.
2. Different people have different food philosophies that ought to be respected. You never know whether a family enforces a strictly vegetarian or vegan diet. There’s also the issue of keeping kosher to consider. Some people have stricter standards than others, and those standards often translate to their children. Friends of mine, for example, let their children eat fruits and raw vegetables no matter the circumstances, but all other products have to be marked kosher. I know it would upset them if their 3-year-old were to eat something non-kosher as a result of a well-intentioned but uninformed stranger offering it up.
3. In some families, certain foods are regarded as rewards. I don’t believe in denying my toddler sweets, but there’s a time and a place for them. My son only gets junk food after he’s eaten what I consider to be a reasonably healthy meal. Furthermore, in my little parenting world, snacks often function as a reward for good behavior. On the day of that party we recently attended, my son misbehaved on the car ride over and was told that if he didn’t start behaving nicely, he wouldn’t get any treats. It just so happened that he’d turned his behavior around by the time he was offered those snacks, but had that not been the case, that plate of cookies would’ve clearly undermined the lesson I was trying to teach.
Now in some of the above examples, the relationship is such that the person offering up the food doesn’t know the family well. I suppose close friends and family members—those who’d know whether allergies are an issue or whether a given family keeps kosher—get a little more leeway. But generally speaking, I know I prefer to be given a say as to what my child eats, especially if I’m somewhere in the same building or room and there’s ample opportunity to run it by me.
So to the person who handed my son his stash, thank you for doing a nice thing for my child. I mean that sincerely. You could’ve kept those cookies for yourself (which, actually, was probably your intention when you first put the plate together), but you instead chose to make a child happy, and I recognize that.
At the same time, I figure it doesn’t hurt to put a reminder out there that when it comes to feeding other people’s children, the best of intentions can sometimes backfire. And for the record, if you’re looking to give my son something to eat, there’s a very good chance I’ll thank you and say yes. All I ask is that you please ask me first.