We don’t have cable TV or anything else that gives us more than the basic television channels. Two years ago, after reading the book Affluenza and discovering just how extremely targeted children are by marketers, Brian and I decided to get rid of commercial television. It was difficult at first, but we’ve found plenty of creative ways to still watch that big screen in the living room without the pervasive children’s commercials.

When I hear that Corporate Accountability International is calling for McDonald’s to push Ronald McDonald into retirement because of his influence on children’s desires and waistlines, I understand the sentiment behind it. The Retire Ronald website puts it this way, “For nearly 50 years, no one has been better at hooking kids on unhealthy food, spurring an epic of diet related illnesses. Ronald deserves a break — and so do we.”

I can imagine that most people’s first reaction to that statement is, “Yes, let’s get rid of Ronald.” Yet, when I really think about the statement from the Retire Ronald website, it feels almost as manipulative as the marketing that the campaign is trying to abolish. I would hope the organization isn’t trying to manipulate, but the statement makes it seem like our country’s out-of-control eating problems fall squarely on the shoulders of corporations like McDonald's.

Here’s what I think the statement is trying to say — this is strictly my interpretation.

  • It’s McDonald’s fault that you feed your children an unhealthy diet. They have gotten them hooked on Happy Meals. You are a victim of McDonald’s evil advertising machine.
  • You deserve to be freed from the bonds of your children’s incessant begging for McDonald’s food. You deserve a break from it and getting rid of Ronald will give you that break. Get rid of Ronald and your life will be easier.
Let’s look at this from my family’s experience. I know all families are different, but we’re a fairly typical middle-class family. Mom, dad, two kids, mini-van, busy life that makes the drive-thru tempting … you get the picture.

Before deciding to stop eating almost all fast food, I nixed the kids’ meals. It was an environmental decision. Those cheap, plastic toys were NEVER played with once they made it home. They would collect at the bottom of the toy box to be sent to a charity every six months, and I always wondered if they got thrown in the trash at the charity.

The pleading from my children for the toys lasted quite a while, but it subsided. It was about a year after nixing the toys that we got rid of cable and almost simultaneously stopped buying fast food. (If you want to really turn your kids’ lives upside down, try reading Affluenza and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle back to back).

So in the past two years, I’ve bought them McDonald’s exactly twice, and they have been minimally exposed to McDonald’s advertising. They understand why my homemade burgers are miles above a McDonald’s burger nutrition-wise, and they admit they taste better. Yet, for a long time when I would say let’s go out to dinner, they'd say, “McDonalds!” It’s only been recently that they’ve begun to say, “Well, I know you’re not going to let us got to McDonald's, so let’s go to ….”

I’m sure the lack of exposure to Ronald has helped a bit, but if McDonald’s retires Ronald, the company will still advertise. It took what many people would consider extreme measures to get my children to this point — cutting out the television advertising and saying “no” to fast food.

Let’s be honest here. My children wanted McDonald’s because I was buying them McDonald's. They were hooked on Happy Meals and other fast-food restaurants’ kids’ meals because my husband and I (okay, it was more me than him) allowed it. It was not McDonald’s or Ronald’s fault that they were hooked. They may have been more interested in the food because of the advertising, but McDonald’s never forced the food down their throats.

Getting rid of my children’s exposure to the advertising was only a small part of getting them to stop begging for fast food. What finally gave me the break that the Retire Ronald site says I deserve was consistently saying “no” and understanding that I had created the problem. I was going to have to be patient and live with the begging for a while — quite a long while. The begging has stopped.

Parents, we have difficult jobs. We have to do what is right for our children even when they whine, complain, beg, moan, explain that EVERYONE else is doing it, and shoot us evil looks. It’s tempting to give in. I may have kicked the fast-food habit, but there are other areas where I give in. But, I understand that any habit that I want changed for my family is going to come from Brian and me. It’s not going to happen because an advertiser changes methods.

We don’t need to retire Ronald to get a handle on our families’ eating habits. We just need to say no to the foods we don’t want our families to eat. That’s a lot more difficult than signing the Retire Ronald petition and waiting for McDonald’s to do our jobs for us, but our kids and their health are worth the effort, don’t you think?

MNN homepage photo: Amy Laframboise, Ronald McDonald House/AP

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Is Ronald McDonald really the problem?
An advocacy group wants Ronald retired because of his influence on children, but there’s another option. Parents can exert their influence over their children