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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Give Us A Kid Till She's 7 and We'll Have Her For Life

The kids are not alright.

The Power of Early Education

Some claim the maxim comes from St. Ignatius Loyola himself. Yet the idea later proclaimed by the Jesuits is very old — give us a child till he’s 7 and we’ll have him for life.

It works.

Many years ago, a young son of my ancestors was kidnapped during a Russian pogrom. His father and brother spent years searching — everywhere.

They eventually found him — living as a teenage seminarian in Constantinople. He knew nothing of his family. He had no wish to know. He just wanted to become a Russian Orthodox priest.

It’s not only religious organizations that know the power of early training and indoctrination. So do food companies.

The Future of American Obesity

Clara first saw Happy Soda on TV when she was 2 years old. Everyone looked so glad! The characters, with their funny costumes and big smiles, stood out against the other dozen food ads she watched every day — like any average American child.

And Clara loved that smooth, sugary pull at the back of her throat when she drank the magic liquid. Every time she took a sip she wanted another — though her parents would only allow her tiny. When she was allowed to use a tablet at the age of 4, Clara went looking for Happy Soda. And there it was! All those happy characters. And now they were willing to play just with her.

She played the new game with them — then several, harder games. Every time she won, she felt pleased, watching the characters applauding and laughing with her. She thought about them every time she saw an ad for Happy Soda.

Back to Piaget

Gun and food manufacturers are very big on “personal responsibility.” But what does a 4-year-old know about guns? What 4-year-old knows the health implications of sugared soda?

And their parents working two jobs in a half-dead economy don’t possess infinite time to watch every program they watch, to read with them every text and email.

As Piaget learned in his studies of children several decades ago, kids don’t understand the many differences between advertising and truth, dreams and reality, until perhaps reach age 7 or 8. And those early ideas often stick for a lifetime.

What the Jesuits knew long ago.

Food for Kids

Here are some facts about food and kids, courtesy of Jennifer Harris of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and Professor Thomas Robinson of Stanford, as told by pediatrician Perri Klass in the 2/12/13 New York Times. They include items like:

  1. Give 3- to 5-year-olds identical foods. They identify those in the McDonald’s wrappers as tasting better.
  2. The 12-14 TV food ads that kids and adolescents see every day emphasize fast foods, sugared drinks and cereals, and candy. Social media like Facebook are the new face of child food advertising.
  3. Just one 30 second TV ad can change adherence to a brand.
  4. Every 20-ounce soda contains 16 tablespoons of added sugar — about twice what adults are told is "safe" to take in each day.

And then there’s the case of Natasha Harris.

Natasha Harris

A New Zealander, Natasha Harris died three years ago age 30. She left 8 kids.

In his inquest reported by the BBC, the coroner identified Coca Cola as a major factor in her death.

Harris drank about 10 quarts a day of Coke. Her teeth decayed and needed to be pulled. At least one of her children was born without tooth enamel.

But Natasha kept on drinking Coke. Her family said she’d have the shakes, withdrawal symptoms, be angry, on edge, and snappy if she didn’t get her Coke. Arrhythmias followed. A heart attack killed her.

Popular energy drinks recently linked to deaths and arrhythmias also combine sugar and caffeine. Though their individual caffeine doses are usually higher, Coke was one of the original energy drinks.

Sugar promotes appetite. People can’t get enough of it. It easily addicts animals. So does caffeine.

Caffeine withdrawal can be very nasty. But as Coke correctly pointed out in the death of Ms. Harris, the coroner “could not be certain” of what caused Ms. Harris's heart attack.

Nor can anyone be completely certain.

Towards National Bankruptcy

Forget the debt crises, Medicare, and Social Security costs. Selling sugared foods to children so that sugar is required for anything to “taste good” contains the potential promise of widespread bankruptcy. It can bankrupt the health care system and the state that pays for much of it — while leaving employers scrambling to deal with tired, ill, obese, and diabetic employees who don’t work — or innovate — very well.

Four-year-olds don’t know what they’re doing. They don’t understand advertising and can’t understand its claims. Parents cannot and will not be everywhere.

Want to save trillions of dollars? Help save the US Treasury and the economy for decades? Ban food advertising directed to children.

What do we owe our youth? What sort of country do we want to have?

I think we’re going to find out.

About the Author

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.