January 7, 2011
By Ekta R. Garg
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I was driving Four to school one day when she asked me, “Mom, why is Santa Claus fat?”
I couldn’t help smiling because a fat Santa Claus is one of those iconic figures most of us accept without ever stopping to wonder about it. But Four had seen pictures of Santa and Santa on TV and had thought to ask. So I had to think about the answer.
“Well,” I replied, “maybe Santa has had too many treats to eat during the holidays. Maybe he’s been having too much candy and other things.”
“But why is he fat?” she asked, and I understood this to be an extension of my answer, not necessarily a repetition of her original question. As in, “Why would candy and treats make him fat?”
So I thought carefully about my second answer. My husband is particular about the food we eat, stressing the importance of a healthy diet. We don’t eat white breads, pastas, or rice, and the milk we drink is 2 percent (for the kids) or 1 percent (for the adults.) I make my soups and baked goods from scratch—I haven’t opened a can of soup to eat as soup in about nine years—and I’ve gotten really good at reading nutrition labels.
Despite the significance of eating healthy, we try to keep a balance. So, yes, we do go out for ice cream occasionally, and when I bake I use all the sugar required in the recipe—no substitutes. On Fridays the kids get special non-healthy treats in their lunches (I love the 100-calorie packs of cookies for this,) and when we go on vacation we relax the food rules.
I had to keep all this in mind as I came up with an answer for Four on the spot—most of the time, kids don’t wait very long for the answers to their questions. And Four is old enough and smart enough to know when I’m just making something up and when I’m giving her a fair, honest answer.
I always try to be fair and honest.
“Well,” I said, “it’s okay to eat treats once in awhile, but if you eat too many of them and have them every day, and if you don’t exercise then you get fat. And getting fat isn’t good because then it could make you get sick.”
Four may be smart, but she’s not quite old enough to know the terms “obesity” or “heart disease” or “diabetes.” I definitely want her to know, though, that eating too much food and a lack of activity could spell trouble in the future.
“You mean like how you and Papa exercise?” she asked.
“Right,” I said, adding that the extracurricular activities she participated in also meant exercise, even if it wasn’t “working out.”
“Right, that’s a different kind of exercise,” she repeated in her way to confirm that she understood what I’d told her.
“You got it,” I said. “If we don’t exercise, then we get fat like Santa Claus and it would be hard for us to move around and we wouldn’t be healthy.”
Silence; she didn’t say anything to that comment for a few minutes, and I didn’t say anything else to her because I thought she’d gotten everything she wanted from me, information-wise.
“You mean,” she said after a little while, “like that guy in…um…”
I wondered what she would come up with and, really, what she was trying to make connections to.
“That guy in WALL-E?” she asked finally.
I took a minute to orient myself to her thought process; sometimes it takes me a few extra minutes to do this. I’ve gotten pretty good at thinking on my feet with the kids, but occasionally they’ll surprise me.
As Four had done this time around, because suddenly I remembered what she’d remembered: the ship’s captain in the Disney Pixar movie WALL-E was fat and couldn’t move around because lack of activity and (presumably) eating too much. And I felt a surge of pride at Four being able to make the connections between a cultural icon, our real-life experience, and something she’d seen and experienced on her level (a kid’s movie.)
“You’re absolutely right,” I told Four. “You’re so observant! That guy in WALL-E didn’t do any exercise and he was eating too much and that’s why he got fat.”
“Yeah, and that’s not good,” she said in her four-year-old way of confirming everything one last time.
“That’s not good,” I repeated.
I’ve long felt that kids have the capability to understand almost anything if we just put it in kid terms, and now I had confirmation of that belief.
And once again Four had reminded me not to underestimate her.