“Whatcha eating dad?” My daughter has spotted the spoon on the counter – the only evidence of the mint chocolate chip ice cream I have just shoveled into my mouth.
”Just looking,” I fib, allowing the shared fiction to continue.
There’s a place in our kitchen where I eat my secret snacks. Between the refrigerator and the corner of our cabinets exists the perfect nook, just big enough for even a dad-sized person to stand unseen from the rest of the household, blocked by the bulk of the large appliance. The top of the refrigerator serves as the secret snack repository, its height obscuring the snack stash from view and standing as an unscalable tower that protects the stash from tiny humans. A tall enough person could hide in this corner and reach all the snacks they wanted, hidden from prying eyes.
It started innocently enough – sometimes a grown-up just wants to eat cookies without reminding his offspring that cookies exist. I enjoy my Oreo far more when I don’t have to explain to anyone why they don’t get to have one because they didn’t eat any of their dinner.
But tiny humans get taller. And tiny humans get wiser. And tiny humans learn to climb. It wasn’t long before my secret stash of snacks was being depleted much more quickly than would account for just my consumption. Four cookies would be in the package when I could’ve sworn there’d been six the day before. A mysterious spoon-shaped dent would appear in my newly opened pint of ice cream. Clearly I was no longer alone in my precious secret eating. The call was coming from inside the nook! My secret snacks probably hadn’t been secret for quite a while.
We’ve never talked about it, but now we all do it. Entering the kitchen, you might see one of my daughters leave the secret snack nook still chewing. Another daughter might brush off an errant crumb from a cookie no one is prepared to acknowledge she ate. If we don’t mention it, then none of us ever have to stop. My brain constructs an elaborate narrative around the lengths to which we each go to eat potato chips without anyone else knowing.
But it’s my narrative. In my head. Because eating junk food isn’t shameful. Just because I clearly have issues around my eating of junk food doesn’t mean that my kids do, too. They probably just want to eat the cookie, so they eat the cookie. The truth is, any habit of secret snacking they have was probably learned from me. After all, my wife and I set the standard for what’s normal in our house, and I’ve been unintentionally modeling shame.
So what to do? First, stop the cover-up. If I get caught with secret candy, just admit it, and own up to any hypocrisy. Second, move the snacking out of the nook and into the light. If there’s no shame in eating delicious Trader Joe’s brand nacho cheese-flavored corn chips, then by golly, eat those Trader Joe’s brand nacho cheese-flavored corn chips in a bowl, at the kitchen table for all to see.
I’m not sure why this has been so difficult for me when I was able to approach a nearly identical situation in a completely different way. When our daughters were smaller, my wife and I had a revelation that only one of us needed to stay with the children after bedtime. The other adult was free to take our car and return with all manner of fried food from Sonic: fries, tater tots, Ched ‘R’ Peppers, the occasional happy hour milkshake. Sometimes you just need a plate full of fried, and an 8-minute drive to Sonic was the perfect thought technology.
As my firstborn got older and stayed up later, there was no hiding it from her; I just bought more french fries. Instead of attaching any shame to it, she joined us in this occasional treat, sitting around the kitchen table, taking brownish food out of a greasy bag and dipping it into ketchup.
Recently, her little sister’s bedtime has been creeping later into the night, and I have to admit, I look forward to all four of us eating secretly together. I think the difference ended up being that, from the beginning, I had a co-conspirator in my wife. It’s hard to feel shame about something when one of the people you love most in the world is loving you back without condition.
Being a dad has taught me that your kids will shine a spotlight on things about yourself you might not have known were there. Do you remember the 1980 anti-drug PSAs? Decades later, I learned it from watching you! is permanently etched into my brain.
While my kids are absolutely their own people, I can see so much of myself reflected in them. My habits – good and bad – become part of their normal, whether I want them to or not. But the good thing about a spotlight is it forces you to look at what’s there. If it were just me, I’m pretty sure I’d calcify in my ways – taking all my meals in the nook – but I want to hold myself to my daughters’ standards of me. I want to be the best version of Sam I can be, for them.
I know I’m never going to be perfect, and I know that I’ll always have bad habits – I’m a flawed adult human. But as a dad, I’m going to do my best to make sure that my imperfect humanity isn’t hidden in a nook, blocked by a refrigerator, but out in the open sitting at a table – with my wife and kids, and dipping into ketchup whenever necessary.