The Kiddy Pool: Teaching Good Taste

Image- Gudlyf via Flickr (CCBY2.0)

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

This weekend, my family hosted a couple of out-of-town guests; we went out to dinner on Saturday evening, with the goal of finding an appropriate place for children with great food for all of us. So my husband and I fell back on our ranking of the top three French fries in the Hudson Valley, and we selected an off-time for our meal at our number one location. The restaurant, like the others in our top tier, serves fresh, local ingredients; the fries come with an aioli dipping sauce instead of ketchup, and my children (as well as our grownup guests) loved them. Our fancy fries brought the conversation around to a topic that’s dear to my husband and I for developing our children’s palates as well as their spirits: good taste.

I understand the initial objections to the idea of teaching taste—that it smacks of elitism and it’s ultimately subjective. Artist Laurie Fendrich takes on that argument in “The Problem of Aesthetic Taste,” where she explains “For all the impossibility of defining good taste, good taste tends to precipitate out over time and then solidify.” She indicates the importance of environment in cultivating good taste in her example of the bonsai tree: “Just as bonsai trees owe their grownup state to the multiple causes of how they were planted, their particular container, the light, the wiring of their roots, the water and fertilizer and the clipping of their limbs, visual taste varies from culture to culture. Even so, all tastes, everywhere, are contingent on the quality of the ‘gardener.’” Whether someone agrees with Fendrich’s particular taste or not, I would assert that there is value in paying attention to the quality of what children—and adults—consume, and I use that metaphor beyond literal nutrition.

A steady diet of junk food seems likely to produce a palate saturated with fat, salt, and sugar, with little appreciation or even recognition of subtler flavor cues. Why wouldn’t the same principles apply to art, music, films, and literature? Why wouldn’t they apply to our spiritual development as well? The label “Christian” represents a marketing strategy more than a theology, and it doesn’t bear out that loving Jesus (or, more cynically, using Him to move goods) means the work itself is actually lovely. And we are called to think on what is good and lovely. To me, that means the fresh French fries that taste more like potatoes than salt.

I feel even more passionately about this topic in my area of expertise—literature. I’ve seen too many children’s books where the original text is delightful, but the plot and characters diminish in serializations that just push the branding. It’s not that I always or only read the classics, or that I consider myself the sole arbiter of good books. But I think about what I read and why I like it, and I think about what my children read, and especially what books I’m willing to purchase for their growing libraries. I reflect on what I choose to feast my eyes upon just as I consider what foods to use as fuel for my body. And I think that it matters to my mind and spirit as much as to my body that I do not consume thoughtlessly.

A steady diet of highly-processed, mass-produced junk food dulls the palate until we don’t really know what we’re tasting any more. As much as individual preferences may differ, I think I owe it to my children to articulate what I think is good and why I think it’s good, and that requires me to reflect on my habits of consumption. It makes me savor my food and appreciate well-crafted language and listen to the lyrics of songs. It means I miss the mark sometimes, of course, but that I model a pattern of caring how I fill my mind, body, and spirit for the glory of a God whose first role is creative. I can honor that by offering my children real potatoes, literally and metaphorically.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.


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