What’s the harm in saying “there are starving kids in Africa” to get your child to eat his veggies?

by Tamara Brennan on December 16, 2015

Share Button

Free Images com - milka huangYou know this saying since it’s pretty much a parenting cliché used to cajole children to eat their vegetables: “There are starving children in Africa. You should be grateful that you have this food to eat.”

I have never understood the logic that leads people to believe that mentioning such tragic information could motivate anyone to eat, let alone to develop a sudden appreciation for asparagus or rhubarb. If there are hungry children, then there is a serious situation that should be fixed, right? How could begrudgingly eating the last bites alleviate trouble of that magnitude?

The statement is meant to imply that the kids who are refusing the last bit of zucchini casserole are supposed to feel lucky. But — aside the frustration of the dinner table — if we are trying to raise compassionate human beings, it is not the best tactic to suggest to them that they be relieved that misfortune happens to other people.

Do we want their awareness to stop at feeling happy that they got skipped over when calamity was being dished out? Are we suggesting that the suffering of those other children is not important? Or is it possible that they might interpret it that we want them to be afraid that if they forget to eat, they will starve like the African children who can’t eat? It is a confusing piece of information at the best.

Let me share my own experience at 3 years old when I first heard about the frightening situation faced by those hungry kids:

It was a dinner guest who broke the news about their situation and told me that they lived in Africa. And though I searched the faces of my parents, no further details were offered. I froze in my chair, feet dangling above the floor. My mind raced to imagine children, maybe as many as 10, who were without food in a place that was probably so far away that it was beyond the city where my grandma lived!

How did it happen that they had no food in their house? Where were their parents? Were they going to die? It was very upsetting to consider their plight, the circumstances of which were beyond my ability to imagine.

I did not feel like eating.

I can still remember the sense of urgency I felt the next morning as I stood in my pajamas at our cupboard, searching for relief supplies. I took the bag of my favorite cookies over to my mom who was cooking breakfast. “We have to take these to them, the children.”

What my mother did next was inspired by pure mothering genius, and I will always be grateful to her for her insight. She looked at me, understood and said, “Okay, good idea.”

We got into the family station wagon, the humanitarian aid cookies on my lap, and drove to our church. We found Father John who was wearing his priest-collar, so I knew he was still on the job even though it was not Sunday.

My mom explained to him on my behalf that we needed his help to get the cookies to the children who were starving in Africa. I searched his face to see if I could trust him with this urgent mission. Without missing a beat, he said that he would do that right away.

“Please, it’s very important,” I told him. I handed the bag of cookies up to him. We got in the car as he pointed to the cookies and waved goodbye.

We drove back to our house in silence, passing through neighborhoods of children on bikes who seemed to my searching eyes to be well-enough fed.

Peace coverRead this article in its entirety on Attachment Parenting International‘s “Nurturing Peace” issue of The Attached Family.







*First photo source: FreeImages.com/Milka Huang

**Second photo source: FreeImages.com/Mark Karstad

Share Button
Tamara Brennan (3 Posts)

Tamara Brennan, PhD, is a mom, psychologist and writer living in the borderlands of Mexico and Guatemala. She is the Executive Director of the Sexto Sol Center for Community Action and the creator of Our Cozy Time Story Club, featuring her original stories for children, where she blogs about Attachment Parenting.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Secure Sleeper December 16, 2015 at 10:44 pm

Thanks for the info .


Sarah December 27, 2015 at 1:31 am

My children are from Ghana in West Africa, and yes, they were incredibly malnourished, so they were “starving children in Africa.” They stop and stare at the commercials on TV that show “starving children in Africa.” I think it’s important to consider statements like this in light of the increasing numbers of African children in the U.S. When we say things like this and our children have classmates who are African, this is one of the thoughts that might cross their mind. There are children everywhere, even in the U.S., that regularly don’t have enough to eat.


Janusz August 23, 2016 at 10:35 am

My grandma told me to eat everything from my plate because children are starving in Africa. Now I’m fat, but I hope childern in Africa are happy now, cause I ate everything.


anonamus September 3, 2016 at 7:46 am

You people don’t realise that Africa is not a country, it is a diverse and beautiful continent. I myself live in Africa, am from Zimbabwe and can tell you that most of Africa is wealthy, happy and peaceful. Zimbabwe, South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia and others that wold take too long too list are NOT full of starving children, mud huts, lions in the city or whatever else you think. So stop thinking Africa is a continent to feel sorry for and take pity on , because most of it is not.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: