04/26/2012 01:07 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Kids Make Us Look Bad: My McDonald's Moment

My latest (by no means the first, and certainly not the last) embarrassing parenthood moment happened two weeks ago.

It was the evening of the district-wide art show. This is a semi-big deal in our town; the art teachers pick their favorite projects from the school year, from all the grades, and put them on display for everyone to see. There is an opening reception when all the families and friends come to look at all the wonderful art, eat hors d'oeuvres and do all the appropriate oohing and aahing.

Both of my younger children, Natasha (11) and Liam (6), had pieces in the show, but we didn't know what or where they were. We hunted around, and as we turned a corner Liam said, "There it is! There's mine!"


My son had drawn a picture of McDonald's food -- of the French fries, really. They had Exalted Lines around them to show just how special they were.

Great. Of all the things my son could have drawn, he draws McDonald's French fries. The food I tell him -- and his siblings and all my patients -- is bad for him. He didn't just draw them, he drew an ad for them. McDonald's should pay him.

Immediately, the I-screwed-up stuff started in my head. I should have been more strict, I told myself. I should have taught him that McDonald's food is poison. We should never have gone there. Not that we go all that often... but here and there we do, when we need some quick food and happy kids. (Those golden arches were a sight for sore eyes in March after being stuck for hours in traffic on a family vacation.) Liam goes to McDonald's maybe eight times a year (we go less than that, but my mother-in-law sneaks in some trips). That's not much. But then again...

Maybe I'm too strict. Maybe that's it. Maybe it's the whole Forbidden Fruit thing. Maybe if we didn't make a big deal about limiting his access to McDonald's it wouldn't seem so wonderful to him.

But...maybe I just didn't make the healthy foods appealing enough. Maybe if I'd done a better job of making kiwi or zucchini or tofu seem like the very bestest food around, if I'd found the fun recipes and been really creative, he would have drawn an elegant kiwi-zucchini-tofu still life instead.'s those darn Happy Meal toys. I've never really bought into the controversy on this one; to be honest, I like the Happy Meal concept. The portions are small, and the toy sometimes distracts them from finishing the food. But suddenly I felt bamboozled. McDonald's had won: my son wants the food even more because of the toys.

We wandered around the art show. Natasha showed me her really great self-portrait. Liam showed me his other piece, which involved a volcano, a pig and something that looked like a flying orange manatee. We ate cookies, found the artwork of friends, chatted with all sorts of people we hadn't seen in a while, and I found myself thinking...

Why do I care?

It's not that I really think that Liam is obsessed with McDonald's French fries. He loves them (he says that they have the perfect amount of salt and grease), but he manages very well without them 357 days out of the year. He may not have the ideal diet, but he is offered lots of very healthy food on a regular basis. I don't really think I screwed up.

Here's what it was: I was embarrassed. I mean, I'm a pediatrician! I'm supposed to be a proponent of healthy foods, which McDonald's is not. I felt like the picture made me look bad. And maybe it did. Maybe the people who saw it (like the woman from church who said, "that's your son's drawing?" with a funny look on her face) think I don't know anything about healthy nutrition, or that I feed my kids fast food all the time. But as much as we might like them to, it's not the job of our kids to make us look good.

Wouldn't it be nice if our children were always perfectly behaved, got straight A's, never tried a cigarette or a beer, never got in a fight or said a bad word -- and ate kiwi, zucchini and tofu and never even wanted McDonald's? How amazing would that be? Everyone would think we were perfect parents.

But our kids are human, just like we are. And you know what? It's better that way. Perfect isn't all it's cracked up to be -- and those French fries do taste good.

"It's a great drawing," I told Liam. Who knows -- maybe he has a future in marketing.