I was refilling my glass of chardonnay when I spotted a lone little girl in the kitchen. She stood transfixed by a giant bowl of jelly beans. “Go ahead,” I whispered. “Try one.”
The other 6-year-olds were in the backyard devouring a palace-sized birthday cake. But Emma’s mother had ushered her inside; she wasn’t allowed to eat “junk food.” When the mother slipped into the bathroom, I found myself alone with Emma and her palace-sized craving. “The red ones are cinnamon,” I said. “The green are watermelon — my favorite.”
Emma heard her mother’s Danskos padding toward us and turned in a panic. “What are you doing?” Her mother, a spindly brunette in a shirtdress, glowered in the doorway. It wasn’t clear which of us, exactly, she was addressing, but Emma bolted. “We don’t believe in sugar,” the mother sniffed. It was useless engaging her; I knew her type all too well. As I walked past her with my glass of fermented grape sugar, I noticed she also held one and fought an urge to clink them together.
Forget Bravo’s reality show Extreme Guide to Parenting, which highlights the aggressive child-raising practices of a few couples. I live at the epicenter of extreme parenting: Berkeley, California. For many parents here, raising children is a competitive sport where points are scored for depriving kids of life’s simple pleasures. It’s all done with a sneer of moral and intellectual superiority: “I read a study linking sugar to childhood diabetes; therefore, Liam shall never eat candy again!” But it’s not just sugar. Television, movies, electronics, toys, books and music all figure onto the blacklists of these killjoys.
My husband and I, both Bay Area transplants, have a name for such parenting extremists: Deprivationists. And Berzerkeley is full of them. Some standouts:
—One couple I know who “don’t believe in sugar” gave their daughter a bagel instead of a cake for her 4th birthday. The next year, they topped that by sticking a candle in a cucumber. I kid you not.
—A neighborhood father tossed out all of his kids’ toys after reading that American kids were “overstimulated.” He then gave them a “toy” he’d seen kids play with in Africa — a plastic milk jug with a rock inside. Still worried about overstimulation, he gave away all their books but two.
—One mom recently bragged to me that her 8-year-old daughter had no idea who Katy Perry was because they didn’t allow her to listen to the radio. The glum little girl attended a pricey music school and her parents didn’t want to corrupt her with “lowbrow” sensibilities.
But here’s the thing about Deprivationists — they’re hypocrites. The father who refuses to let his kids watch TV — preferring they spend their free time in some edifying activity such as reading Beowulf or perhaps building a composting toilet — can’t tear himself away from his iPhone at a dinner party. The sugar denier hides a stash of vegan truffles in her sock drawer. The milk jug dad would raise holy hell if someone threw out his favorite toy: his new DSLR camera.
Being a child in Berkeley means suffering the shifting and misplaced ideals of the adults who control you. Their rabid moralizing reminds me, ironically, of the Christian fundamentalists I grew up with. My Calvinist parents did their best to shield me from pop culture, fearing it would corrode my soul. They angrily denounced Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny — but this only made me covet the neighbor girl’s enormous chocolate bunny that much more. She saved it for me in her closet, where I gnawed at it, bit by tiny bit, until the chocolate turned mottled gray and developed notes of garlic. As a teenager, I became downright subversive, locking my bedroom door before tuning into “American Top 40” and hiding Glamour under my mattress.
My behavior was driven by more than a craving for sugar; each nibble was a statement of defiance and independence. I was learning the potent allure of forbidden fruit. Later this taste would expand, for a time, to other illicit substances and activities, the thrill of evasion forever imprinted on my brain. I messed around on boyfriends. Developed a minor cocaine habit. Scoffed at every rule, even the implicit ones.
“Sugar makes me happy,” my daughter declared when she was 3. Such a simple, profound truth. I have no interest in robbing her of such a treat. Whatever happened to moderation? I want to ask the Deprivationists I meet on Bezerkeley’s birthday party circuit. If my kids finish their dinner, they get a scoop of ice cream. If they do well in school, they’re allowed to watch television on the weekend. If they fold laundry, they can listen to Katy Perry. Instead of learning to resent and to sneak, they’re learning the value of working toward a reward.
This might get me run out of town, but my motherhood motto? A jelly bean today = a well-balanced adult tomorrow.
Photos by Wendy Wahman