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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

Carrot sticks as virtue signals

Many years ago, when our first son was something like three years old, we flew as a family to Mombasa in Kenya to stay with my wife’s grandmother. We’d looked forward to the moment when four generations could be present together and a treasured memento is a photo of my wife, son, her mother and grandmother all together. In the event it was the only such encounter, the old lady universally known as Mama sadly having passed away a year or two later.

In preparing for this same son’s departure for university a few weeks ago, that moment came back to me. On the one hand, I was indulging in a lookback at my experience of parenthood and instances that epitomised our family story so far. On the other hand, in making sure he was packing the various ointments and creams needed to keep his eczema under control, a particular incident during our return flight from Mombasa came back to mind.

Our son was then in the process of developing severe eczema and it was proving a highly complicated challenge for medical specialists to make sense of, let alone for ourselves to deal with day to day. It was seemingly a combination of both physical (diet and environment) and mental/emotional (particularly stress-related) influences and its diagnosis was hampered by his fragmentary early medical history, including antenatal conditions, from the time before we adopted him.

But one thing becoming clear was that he had a low tolerance, among other things, to certain food groups relatively high in Vitamin C. The most violent and instant reaction was from kiwi fruit (never again), but there was a difficult-to-discern intermediate threshold from some other food groups, especially certain fresh fruit and vegetables. This pained my wife, for whom fresh, healthy and wholesome cooking was fundamental and she was constantly trying to find the right balance for him.

So, for our first intercontinental foray with our boy, we tried to cover all the bases, including a seat cover against the risk of adverse reaction from aeroplane cleaning products, and foods definitely “safe” for him such as crisps. There he was, happily munching away on some, and at one point he wandered down the aisle slightly out of view packet in hand.

Two minutes late he arrived back with an unexpected carrot stick between his teeth and clutching more in his spare hand. He loves carrot sticks and so he was crunching away contentedly. We glanced round and espied, two rows behind, the person who had evidently fed him and she had on her face what I can only describe as the smug sense of having done something virtuous in educating apparently troglodyte parents by direct transmission to the child. Why should she think such an act as anything else, an obvious good deed for the day (other than a sure-fire bet that she would violently oppose the principle of any children of hers being approached with food by strangers)?

Well, carrots were in that category of potentially causing a strongly adverse reaction in our son and in our experience it could take just one or two such items to set him off, depending on other things going on in and around him including the prospect of heightened stress during aeroplane landings.

Sure enough, as we were making the final approach, our son started scratching violently and our thoughts turned to the scenario of rushing straight to the nearest A&E department near Gatwick Airport because of the established risk to him of deep infection from skin rupture.

In the event, our son calmed down just enough for us to race home and apply water-soaked bandages, our final resort, and hospitalisation wasn’t needed that time (it was on other occasions).

I don’t entertain fears that our son will be enticed with vegetable sticks at university – although I don’t doubt there are plenty of other lures he will have to make his own judgements on – but that carrot-pusher’s beatific expression has always stayed with me and acts as a useful reminder that any situation at hand, however seemingly simple, can lead to severe complications through well-meaning but misguided and ignorant behaviour.

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