Mama Colada: Keep it Together

Mama Colada: Keep it Together!

At our elementary school, the “TRES traits” or qualities are Respect, Responsibility, Integrity, and Caring. When it comes to integrity, kids, and parents, for that matter, have trouble defining it. We resort to that poster “Integrity means doing the right thing even when nobody is watching.” OK, but we still struggle to define it. And it might be the single most important, unique, and consequential trait in our list. It’s certainly important for raising healthy, fulfilled children.

I sometimes reflect that integrity means being loyal to a clear set of values, or remaining steadfast in the face of challenge to your morals. Integrity requires honesty, consistency, and reliability. In medicine, we talk about the integrity of skin, or even a whole organism. We use integrity to mean say ” the whole thing is all in one piece.”

Since integrity is central to my approach to parenting and medicine, I decided to find an official definition. Merriam-Webster’s definition is presented here:
1: firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
2: an unimpaired condition : soundness
3: the quality or state of being complete or undivided : completeness

The third definition, “ the quality…. of being complete or undivided” is a key to confident and satisfied parenting because one needs to know one’s values, and “keep it together” during the incessant onslaught of parenting challenges. Additionally, all caregivers must function as a moral unit. We must remain morally complete and unified when making decisions about everything from how we speak to the cashier at the grocery store ( kindly), or how we re-direct our three year old who is flinging fists at their brother (calmly), to discussing technology use with a fourteen year old (firmly).

Let’s take meals as an example. Daily, parents ask me how to feed their child. In my mind I answer like this “ Why are you asking me? Who made me the expert on toddler meals?” What I say out loud is “Most toddlers will give you a tough time about eating, since one of their main jobs at this age is to identify limits and assert their independence.” To be totally honest, medical school and postgraduate training don’t teach us much about nutrition. In our handbooks, we have guidance on the minimum daily required milligrams per kilogram per hour of potassium for tiny babies, or how to feed a child when their only nutrition comes through a tube in their jugular vein, but not much education on normal nutrition.

I had to search independently for this information, and I found it in sources as diverse as Michael Pollan’s books, e.g. The Omnivore’s Dilemma, to the American Academy of Pediatrics website. Other organizations, even Baltimore’s very own Under Armour company, offer websites and apps to identify and track your nutritional needs.

These are helpful and I support the use of data and technology to optimize health. But they don’t help you identify the values underlying your approach to nutrition. Why do families feel so anxious about everything from what babies should eat, to what type of sports and instruments to play. I think this anxiety results from a need for more integrity, in the sense of “remaining complete or undivided” in the face of stiff and perpetual challenge.

I don’t mean to assert that parents today are dishonest or lacking morals. Not at all. I worry though, that because of vast and rapid cultural transformation, our values are perpetually obscured and challenged. Do we really want to eat the fresh fruits and vegetables that are best for our physiology, or do we want to “Have it Our Way” at Burger King? It’s not easy to “keep it together” under the constant media and marketing assault, especially as it now resides in our palm, pocket, or our two year old’s tablet.

So instead of wondering if one tablespoon of carrots is better than two tablespoons of blueberries, or if the Blue Lizard sunscreen is that much better than the Coppertone brand, we should clearly identify our values, then apply those values when we wonder about food or sports choices. Keep it together, as parents, as families, and as communities.