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People often ask how I handle other kids’ birthday parties. That’s changed over the years. When Tess was a toddler, I’d surreptitiously scrape off the frosting, give her water over juice, and call it a day. As she got older, we’d talk before the party about making good choices, listening to her body, eating something only if it tasted really (really) good. These days, it’s evolved to where most parties she attends are for kids with like-minded parents, so it’s not much of an issue. And, at age 9, she makes pretty good choices herself. But while the strategy has varied, one element has not: I have never said anything to the hosts. Ever.

Until now.

Imagine this filled with melted bubble gum

Heading to a party a couple weeks ago, I knew from the invitation that there’d be pizza and cupcakes, and I’d assumed juice, as well. Not great, any of it, but I could deal. Especially because Tess is a chocolate girl to the core, so most other sweets only get nibbled, if that.

But there I was, talking to other parents, waiting for our kids to come up to the party room from the play gym, when I noticed one of the workers pouring a drink from a pitcher into paper cups. It was the brightest pink liquid I’ve ever seen. Seriously. It is not an exaggeration to call this stuff neon. If I hadn’t left my phone in the car, I would have snapped a picture, but just imagine a pitcher of melted bubble gum. That’s your visual.

I started plotting how to handle it. I knew Tess might want to taste it (for the novelty), but wouldn’t actually drink it. And usually I encourage that kind of taste-testing to reinforce how good the real stuff is. But I was so bothered by its brightness — and I didn’t want the other kids drinking it, either (most of whom had been dropped off and didn’t have parents there) — that I did something I’d never done at someone else’s party: I spoke up.

I walked over to the worker, quietly, on the side, and asked whether there were other drinks available. He told me there was water (in a tone that said, “but why would any kid want that?!”).  I said OK, let’s give the kids water. “Which kids?” he asked. “All of them,” I answered. “Just put cups of water next to the other drinks.” He gave me an odd look, but did it.

While he was doing that, I walked back to the party hosts (school friends) and said, as lightly as I could muster, that I’d taken the liberty of asking the worker to pour water, too. “Oh,” the mom said, “what did they put out? Juice?”  No, not juice, I told her. “Neon pink stuff.” And that’s when I saw an opening. Knowing the hosts hadn’t selected or brought the pink stuff made it easier to take things up a notch. “If it were my party,” I told them, “I’d nix the pink stuff altogether. But it’s not, so I figure the kids can at least be offered water, too.”

This got a laugh and a response about how their family doesn’t make  anything “taboo” and how they allow everything in “moderation.” But I’m used to that. Soon enough, I’d get around to explaining what I always do: that moderation is meaningless in a world of ingredients that shouldn’t be consumed at all (including — and especially — petroleum-derived food dyes); that just because products are sold in stores and approved by the FDA doesn’t mean they’re safe or that we have to eat them; and that parents already do (and should) make plenty of things “taboo” (smoking? drugs? alcohol?).

For now, though, the kids were coming upstairs, marching by to wash their hands after an hour of running and tumbling (and getting thirsty). One by one, they sat at the table. Then something beautiful happened.

One of the little girls (not mine!) looked at the pink drink and asked the worker: “What is this?”

The guy answered: “What is it? Well, pink lemonade, of course!”

Little girl: “What’s in it?”

Guy: “Pink lemonade, of course!”

Little girl, looking skeptically at the guy, then back at the drink: “Is this poison?”

I kid you not. Then there were little echos around the table: “Is this poison?” The staff looked absolutely flummoxed by this until another mom (not me!) stepped in and said: “I think, because of the school these kids go to (which encourages good food choices), you’ll have a lot of water-drinkers today.”

Then most of the kids pushed aside the bright pink drink and reached for the water. A couple sipped the pink stuff. A couple drank a lot of it. But the vast majority didn’t touch it at all. Now, before I say anything else: “Poison” is not a word I recommend using when talking about food. I think that’s hyperbolic fuel for people eager to peg us as crazy controlling health nuts. But the point is that this little girl knew something wasn’t right about that drink. And because I’d asked the staff to pour water, too, the kids knew they had an alternative and, for the most part, chose it.

What’s the takeaway? Am I telling everyone to turn into crusading party guests? No. I really don’t recommend that. But here’s the thing: Once you plant a seed, put a bug in someone’s ear, nudge a step outside a comfort zone, there is no going back. It might not change anything right away. It might not change anything ever. But as someone once said (and I wish I knew who!): You can’t unlearn something. And that’s where it all begins.

So speak up (when it’s appropriate). Look out for all kids, but especially your own. And give kids some credit. The only reason kids eat synthetic crap or drink neon drinks is because at some (probably early) point in their lives, an adult offered it to them. And kept offering it. We’re responsible for starting it. We can be responsible for ending it.

Ever spoken up in a situation you normally wouldn’t? Been surprised, pleased, gratified by the response? (Or maybe not so much?) Would you do it again?


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