Welcome to The Small Stuff, a sporadic series about liberating ourselves from the (often dumb) parenting habits we hate.
I recently bought my son Jesse a $36 bright green stainless steel “Kleen Kanteen” water bottle. He’s had his own water bottle since he was about two—all the kids we know seem to, once they reach that age. They are omnipresent—bright, ugly talismans that crowd picnic tables and clutter the foreground of photos. Over the years we’ve probably gone through about half a dozen—he’s lost them, I left one on the roof of the car and drove away, they get left behind on school outings. They’re semi-disposable, which is depressing, considering they’re supposed to provide an alternative to bottled water and juice boxes.
I bought him this latest green one to assuage my low-key class anxiety. Something about this Kleen Kanteen seemed permanent, part of a tidy, upscale little kit that he does not actually own, but that the water bottle helped me to visualize. I was reluctant to spend the money on it but then reminded myself of an annoying adage, “the poor pay more,” and thought, this is how well-to-do people do things. They buy fewer, better things.
You know where this is going—he lost it after like two days. I was extremely pissed, which mystified him completely. What’s the big deal? We’ve lost plenty of water bottles before! A few days later, having gotten over it more or less, I was in class and noticed that everyone in my seminar had water bottles out. I didn’t own a water bottle till I was about 25, but since then I’ve rarely been without mine. I don’t remember anyone owning water bottles when I was a kid. We drank juice boxes and from the water fountain, and in terms of volume, since we didn’t have water within arm’s reach at all times, we probably drank a lot less.
Was everyone in history pre-2000s a little bit thirsty all the time? Seems unlikely. The culture of hydration has changed in two ways over the past few decades: Municipal drinking water in has become less reliably potable, causing more people to buy bottled water. But more significantly, sports drink companies like Gatorade (owned by Pepsi) and Powerade (owned by Coca-Cola Inc.), have been sponsoring research arguing that staying hydrated requires drinking a lot of fluid—way more than you’d drink if, say, you only drank when you were thirsty.
In his 2012 book Waterlogged:The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports, South African exercise scientist Tim Noakes called out the sports drink companies for their influence on sports science. Waterlogged makes the case that athletes are encouraged to hydrate far more than is necessary or healthy for the human body, and much of that encouragement can be traced back to research sponsored by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, founded in 1985. Until that time, athletes were discouraged from hydrating during exercise. The hydration stations that dot the length of marathon routes appeared in the late 1980s; before that, runners were encouraged to only drink when thirsty.
That same year Waterlogged was published, the British Medical Journal published an indictment of the sports drink industry and its pernicious inroads into academia, laying out convincing evidence that, yes, hydration as we know it is a social construct. Not only were sports drinks brands working to convince athletes that they needed to hydrate constantly in order to perform, but they were targeting kids, through research marketed to parenting media and school nutrition programs. This research argued that kids are likely to forget to drink enough fluids, and should be reminded and encouraged throughout the day. Never mind that the human body has a built-in hydration alarm, “thirst,” and children never miss an opportunity to announce, loudly and repeatedly, when they experience it.
Dr. Rachel Scott, a pediatric endocrinologist at St. Justine Hospital (Centre Hospitalier Universitaire St-Justine) in Montreal told me that medical dehydration is pretty rare under non-desert circumstances. “Thirst is a very powerful instinct, and it’s very closely tied to your body’s hydration status,” says Dr. Scott. “As soon as the fluid level in your body decreases even as little as 1%, your thirst mechanism will kick in. Anyone who is able to ask for water is going to drink enough to avoid being dehydrated. The recommendations for fluid intake, I feel, don’t take into account that everything we eat contains water, so water isn’t the only way we take in fluids. I’ve never seen a kid with normal thirst and normal access to water—through a tap or water fountain for example—become medically dehydrated. Obviously there are special circumstances, being in the desert, for example. But with normal environmental conditions and a healthy child, it’s just not going to happen.”
Yet water bottles have been added to the ever-growing list of “essentials” for the Western child. Following the lead of every parent I know, I never go anywhere without my kids’ water bottles, and frankly, it’s a pain in my ass. I realize this is a very trivial matter, but I ask you—where does trivial end and important begin? Important matters are usually nothing more than a bunch of trivial matters linked together. Whether or not I carry around a couple of kid-sized water bottles in my backpack at all times is trivial, but the global reusable water bottle industry was worth over $7 billion US dollars in 2015, and is projected to top $10 billion by 2024. There is a tipping point beyond which a small gesture in the name of “sustainability” becomes just another enormous, insatiable market for non-biodegradable plastic.
Water bottles (or the gateway version, sippy cups) are manufactured garbage. They are pre-trash trash, only nominally less disposable than single-use water bottles, and much less easily recycled. They form part of a network of accoutrements that parents carry around dutifully—even proudly—for their little kids. They are physical representations of the care you are constantly providing. Nobody wants to be the ill-equipped parent; somehow, being “well equipped” is now interchangeable with being a “good parent.” But what if the notion of “well equipped” is a trick of the eye, and what you’re really doing is carrying a bunch of garbage around?
Sometimes I fear that all the work it seems to take to be a good parent these days is an elaborate conspiracy distracting parents from the pain that the world is in. By tending to our little domestic gardens very very carefully and at great expense, we’re always slightly too overextended to fully commit to the resistance. I’ll find myself deep inside the eighth minute of staring at a rack of boys’ athletic socks at Marshall’s and realize, holy shit, what am I doing? The more stuff we feel we need, the more time we spend trying to pick out the right version. This is how I found myself dropping $36 on a fucking water bottle that would be lost two days later.
There is a class dimension to giving your kid a water bottle, too. Alongside the aforementioned lack of access lower income communities often have to clean drinking water, parenting media is all over water-drinking as an alternative to sugary juices and sodas that are widely proven to be harmful to kids’ health. In middle-class parenting, juice and soda are touchy areas. Letting your kids drink too much juice or soda is a marker of either carelessness or poverty, despite many of us having been virtually raised on one or both. Supplying your kid with a water bottle at all times is part of performing healthy, engaged parenthood. I drank juice daily as a kid, but I hastily water down my kids’ juice on the rare occasions that they get to drink it. A lot of this is due to the a wave of research on the health consequences of sugar.
I propose that we stop worrying about our children’s hydration, if only to free up another tiny parcel of mental real estate for more important matters. Once a kid gets to be 9 or 10, they can keep track of their own stuff. If they are sporty and want a water bottle, that’s up to them. But for toddlers and younger kids, whose stuff is basically the parents’ responsibility, water bottles are a waste of money and attention.
I am committed to a gradual loosening of constraints, both for myself and, you know, for all of us. Parents are so unduly hard on ourselves, and no one wants to go on the record giving us permission to chill. If you live in a really hot place where morning radio hosts talk about the risk of heat stroke while reporting the weather, by all means do what you need to do. But for those of us who, for the moment, live in temperate climates, let’s just stop it with the water bottles. The next time your kid loses one, don’t replace it. If you have one, let them use yours. If you’re in public and they start whining about wanting a drink of something, they will survive until you get home.
The certainties of science won’t let you down. As my grandmother used to say, “Mother Nature bats last.” Here are a few things we can be sure of: Carbon emissions cause climate change. The polar ice caps are melting. And your kid won’t peg out from dehydration on the way home from gymnastics.
Kathryn Jezer-Morton lives in Montreal with her husband and two sons. Find her on Twitter @KJezerMorton.