Yucking Yums

by Gina Schouten on August 10, 2023

At the grocery store the other day, when my five-year-old made an impassioned plea for a certain kind of cereal, I said, “nah, that one’s too sweet for breakfast.” He responded with a stern reprimand: “Mom, you shouldn’t yuck my yum!”

I was pretty sure that admonishment didn’t apply here, but I heroically let it go.

Later, while we waited to pay for our groceries, he started chatting to the guy in line behind us. I have mixed feelings about his tendency to strike up conversations with random adults. On the one hand, as his parent, I’m usually at least a tiny bit interested in what’s on his mind. And his conversational bids are occasionally funny. (They sometimes remind me of my late Aunt Linda’s opening conversational moves. Aunt Linda, who had Down Syndrome, loved to talk with strangers in public places, and often broke the ice with a sartorial compliment. Recently, my kid asked a woman on the bus, “where’d you get that beautiful, crispy hat?” and though he never knew Aunt Linda, a master impersonator couldn’t have hit those notes more perfectly.) Most of all, I love the childishness of it. He isn’t the slightest bit worried that he’s wasting someone’s time or annoying them or accidentally saying something offensive. I want him to enjoy his non-self-consciousness for as long as it lasts. (Assuming it doesn’t last too long.)

On the other hand, I am far more inhibited, and his conversations with strangers unavoidably draw me in as a participant. I also can’t decide whether it’s okay for a kid to feel so entitled to grownup attention.

In the grocery checkout line, I would end up wishing he’d been having one of his rare meek days. After his characteristic opening compliment, he steered the conversation to the content of his new friend’s shopping cart. He was particularly taken with a cling-wrapped tray of ground beef. He asked what it was, and the stranger gamely answered, even volunteering his plans to make burgers for the grill. My kid responded matter-of-factly, not meaning to offend, “Oh gross. My family doesn’t eat animals.”

I have no idea where he picked up that way of talking. He knows the word “meat,” and that’s how we talk to him about food choices: We don’t do that thing of referring to people’s meals as “animals” for the sake of making a point. Most of the people he shares meals with besides his immediate family regularly eat meat, often in his presence, and this is sometimes remarked on but never with any real significance. On the few occasions he has asked us about our choice not to eat meat, we fill in the relevant variables in a what turns out to be a frequent parenting line for us: “We don’t eat meat because we think …, but lots of people you know, who are smart and thoughtful, make a different choice.” And we tell him he can make a different choice, too, if he’s offered meat sometime and wants to try it. Yet here he was, shaming a stranger in line at the grocery store for having ground beef in his cart.

His new friend laughed and smiled kindly at both of us, and to our shared relief, the kid immediately thereafter got lost in the work of loading our groceries onto the conveyor belt. But I brought up the incident on our way home: “Hey, what happened to not yucking yums?” He was genuinely confused, so I pointed out the similarities between his meat remark and my cereal transgression. And then I waited to see how sophisticated would be his dis-analogizing. Might this be the day we discuss the difference between judgments for which there are, and those for which there aren’t, objective criteria of truth? Or the normativity of taste and the normativity of morality? Different reasons for making dietary choices and which ones compel us to proselytize to unsuspecting strangers?

Nope. It was not any of those days.

I learned that for my kid and his classmates, the rule of not yucking yums amounts to a very specific prohibition: You do not tell people that the food they like tastes bad. I can see why you might come to enforce such a rule in a preschool classroom.  And I was clearly taking liberties in trying to convince him that he’d been inconsistent. But that grocery trip brought me back to the place I’ve gotten stuck in so many times before, between the norm of niceness, of open, non-judgmentalness on the one hand, and the conviction that morality is not a matter of taste on the other. Some of the moral requirements I endorse are such that I would confidently and openly judge violators, confidently and openly proselytize. But most are such that I feel mortification at my child casually divulging the endorsement. The difference isn’t just about my suspicion that maybe my kid should be seen and not heard, but I don’t think it’s exactly principled either. I suspect it has a lot to do with my projections about how the disclosure of some moral conviction will be received, and how awkward I’ll feel in the wake of that reception.

I know people, though, who would not have awkward-chuckled their way out of that supermarket encounter. When it comes to moral standards, they will yuck all over a transgressor’s yum, on principle, in a wide range of circumstances. I can’t tell if I think this is a mere personality trait or a moral virtue (that’s more easily achieved by people with the relevant personality trait). If it’s a moral virtue, then I can’t tell how hard it’s worth working to cultivate it.  I would have to do a lot of work on myself not to awkward-chuckle out of that interaction. On the way home from the grocery store, it took a lot of work not to insist to my kid that we shouldn’t morally yuck yums, either. But this reticence in the grocery store sits uncomfortably alongside my professed commitment to open deliberation in more academic and political contexts. Here again, I worry that this inconsistency lacks a principled justification.



engels 08.10.23 at 1:15 pm

In many contexts, especially today I think, if you yuck people’s moral yums too directly they quickly start to ignore everything else you say (something which can not then be reversed) or get rid of you.


MisterMr 08.10.23 at 1:51 pm

I think that the logic is that imposing my own values on you is a form of violence, and therefore has a moral “price”.

So if you just eat meat / fart loudly / vote for the wrong party I’ll not try to impose myself on you, but if you steal / beat people / vote for a VERY wrong party this surpasses the ‘price’ and therefore I will impose myself on you (in extreme cases also with violence in the strict sense).


Kevin Lawrence 08.10.23 at 2:27 pm

I think there is a principled difference between sharing a difference of opinion—whether that’s an opinion about values or about tastes—and attempting to impose your opinion on someone else.

I am not fully schooled on the details of yucking someone’s yums (moral or gustatory) but if it’s to say that you dislike their favourite food, I’d say that’s perfectly acceptable. If it’s to condemn their (food or moral) choices then it crosses a line (unless that choice causes harm to others).

When my son declared his vegetarianism, we made a deal that I wouldn’t give him a hard time for his food choices if he didn’t give me a hard time about mine. I still feel entitled to tell him that I don’t like cabbage. I just don’t tell him not to eat it and he doesn’t tell me not to eat my locally-raised rack of lamb.

Last point about talking to strangers:
When my daughter was five, she would freely speak with strangers, even to the point of introducing strangers she had just met to her (quite shy) parents. By the time she was six, that trait had completely vanished and her new-found paralysing shyness has been a real disability for her. Halfway through her Master’s, she is just now re-learning how to speak to adults again. I still look back on conversations in the checkout line wistfully. Don’t wish them away!


marcel proust 08.10.23 at 5:03 pm

This post sounds like an argument for online shopping and curbside grocery pickup. Also, bowling alone (or only with your own child) ;)


engels 08.10.23 at 5:15 pm

Now I’ve now got an earworm of Lou Reed singing: “when I’m yucking on my yum then I feel just like Jesus’ son”.

Btw what happens if my yum is yucking others’ yums?


LFC 08.10.23 at 6:20 pm

Five year olds should be uninhibited, as described here. (At least in cultures where such lack of inhibition on the part of small children is viewed as completely normal.) At a certain age, though I’m not sure exactly what age, the lack of self-consciousness stops being charming, as the OP suggests.

Re the end of the post: if there’s not a principled distinction between a check-out line and a classroom, there is a practical one, which maybe is all that’s required.


Heshel 08.10.23 at 6:31 pm

I often puzzle over the positivity bias behind the prohibition against yucking someone’s yum without a corresponding proscription against yumming someone’s yuck. Why are yums more worthy of protection from disapprobation than yucks?


Sashas 08.10.23 at 7:04 pm

I don’t want to try to read too much into the thought process of a child I’ve never met, but to me “don’t yuck my yum” is explicitly contrasted against moral relativism. That is, yucks&yums are about taste, and the prohibition is that it’s impolite to respond to a statement of taste with direct disagreement. Once someone has said something with some moral significance (e.g. meat-eating vs vegetarianism) all bets are off.

@Heshel (7) I think you can get away with a comment like “more for me!”. People yum my yucks all the time and I find it just about as obnoxious as the reverse. I think the distinction may be that when expressing a yuck, there’s a weaker barrier between what you are doing and what I am doing. In other words, “I think it’s gross that you are eating that!” parses much more cleanly than “I think it’s gross that you are not eating that!”.


Adam Hammond 08.11.23 at 12:19 am

Societal norms are built out of the uncountable number pairwise interactions where we yuck or yum another society member’s choices. I know that this is a leap, but I consider the ability to develop social norms to be one of the major achievements of our evolutionary lineage. We don’t have to distribute new genetic alleles in order for our societies to adapt to changing conditions. It is important! (It also makes us susceptible to everything from fads to doomsday cults, but whatever)

So, there are at least three norms at work in your story, one about rudeness in casual conversations, one about eating meat, and something about parenting as well. But, the important thing is that you shared the story, and we all get to think about it! Society for the win! It’s all good.


marcel proust 08.11.23 at 1:05 am

Once, when his yucks were being yummed by adult who was trying to encourage him to eat something, a 7 y.o. of my acquaintance responded to “More for me” with “Less for me!”


engels 08.11.23 at 11:05 am

1 Your yum is yuck — an aesthetic statement
2 Don’t yuck my yums — a moral statement proscribing 1 (but not 2)

He’s not being inconsistent, he’s a observing a hierarchy of value claims that prevents inconsistency.


Harry B 08.11.23 at 12:17 pm

On talking to strangers: at some point my own (similarly uninhibited) son (maybe 10 or 11) said “Dad: why didn’t you tell me about stranger danger” to which my response was “we didn’t think you posed much danger to strangers”, a judgement that may not have been right to be honest.


steven t johnson 08.11.23 at 4:39 pm

Not sure whether Horace said “De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum” and chaos in the boxes in the attic deters looking. The various forms of color blindness certainly leave solid grounds for disputing color. The impossibility of disputing is more ambiguou, perhaps. Person Y can’t win a dispute over whether person X likes this much salt, at least not by logical argument. But Person Y can win a dispute over whether this white stuff is salt or sugar or flour.

The thing is of course is that there is usually held to be such a thing as good taste. I believe in practice this is a socioeconomic status marker. My experience has been that many people who formally disavow a standard of the best (best=elite, by the way) have one in practice. I’m pretty sure almost everyone is vehemently committed to notion of good taste in pornography/erotica, starting with denying the legitimacy of being responsive to such things to whatever.

One of the adult ways of justifying the notion of good taste (as more than asserting a bald claim to be a better kind of person) is to conflate taste with performative morality.
Attacking someone’s bad taste as endorsing immorality seems to be the issue raised by the OP. One problem there perhaps is the general undesirability of tacitly assuming you the critic are morally superior when this is not necessarily manifest to all? Given that so much of social life is segregated by SES, so that the proper tastes are likely to be shared by peers, though, it’s not clear this is a social problem. And the occasional dissidents can be condemned as trolls, no?

There are two other problems I think. One is that it is not clear that taste is performative at all. Of course many conceive of morality as public consensus, a communal almost ritual affirmation (real or imagined seems to be irrelevant.) For those who (incorrectly?) think of morality as how you actually treat others in social life, it is not clear how taste is causal, whether for good or ill. In this light, attacking others’ taste under guise of immorality is somewhat aggressive. And even worse, the kind of aggression that doesn’t even help advance the alleged moral cause!

The other problem is the claim that taste is choice is an affirmation of free will. Compatibilism between ideas/ideologies of free will and the facts of biology and sociology (to be brief) are apparently unquestionable in most circles. But so far as I can tell, compatibilism is incoherent. Of course, if you call this eclectic, you can find a tremendously useful—for some parties—flexibility in justifying condemning people for choosing the wrong pleasures.

As to the issues about education of children I will comment another time.


Eric Paul Jacobsen 08.11.23 at 7:35 pm

At some point in our upbringing, it is useful to discover that esthetics and ethics are two different things. A thing is not necessarily morally good merely because it is yummy, nor is it necessarily morally evil because it is yucky.

(Jonathan Haidt notwithstanding.)


Fake Dave 08.11.23 at 11:24 pm

I was in a “foodie” facebook group that I’ve since largely given up on where “don’t yuck their yum” was an explicit rule you could get banned for breaking. There was also no question that this extended to the insufferable carnivore/vegetarian debates and “healthy” food absolutism (as well as the opposite conviction that all such food must taste like grass or cardboard). At first, I was just annoyed because it seemed like more of the arbitrary tin-pot authoritatianism so common to these groups, but I sort of came around to it. People were mostly posting good or interesting food they’d bought or made and the comments were positive and kept the focus on the food itself and the joy it brought to people, as well as being a useful resource in a somewhat sparse rural food landscape.

Then I got a little sick of all that positivity. I wanted to call out restaurants that I thought were bland or overpriced or sketchy and I didn’t think people should be quite so quck to seek an adoring public for their uninspired or unsuccessful home cooking projects. This was clearly my problem. Years of exposure to literary criticism, Critical Theory, and critical __ studies and the jaded “takedown” culture of the online left appears to left me with a default mode that is rather, well, critical. Watching lots of cooking shows didn’t help. It feels like I’ve been conditioned to find the “problematic” side of mediocre consumer culture even when the stakes are low to nonexistent.

The downsides of devaluing someone’s personal experience or preferences can easily outweigh any enlightenment they’re likely to receive from pompous critics blurting out our opinions, so it really shouldn’t be so hard to check our sanctimony. Still, even though I was willing to follow a “if you can’t say anything nice” rule, I found the idea of it actually be enforced to be rather oppressive and sometimes found myself stuggling with the notion that it should be just as true for me as anyone else. Something to work on, I think.


Phil H 08.12.23 at 4:34 am

First, your son sounds great. I first of all want to do the fellow-parent thing of saying, worry a bit less, you’re clearly doing this right. (Doing it right includes all this pointless worrying you’re doing, so I’m not exactly saying don’t worry. I’m just saying that your role is to worry, and mine as a fellow parent is to tell you not to worry, because you’re doing it right!)
Second, I feel like this post is vastly overestimating the value of explicit moral consistency. I’m not sure how possible it is to be morally consistent, given how complex the world is and how limited our understanding is. But it’s definitely not possible to be explicitly morally consistent, because we often don’t even know how we’re making decisions, let alone whether those decisions are right. So we should definitely be fine with there being quite a big gap between our explicit moral commitments and any kind of full coherence or consistency with the world. This creates educational challenges, but it sounds like your son is navigating these fraught waters pretty confidently at the moment!
Finally, I feel like you could be more relaxed about the possibility of mild friction with strangers. A society full of strangers includes disagreements and frictions, and that seems… OK. If your shopping line interlocutor had been offended, he could have said so, and as long has he didn’t get too angry about it, that would have been OK. Or he could have challenged your son’s views, and that would be OK, too.


Phil H 08.12.23 at 4:42 am

@comment 15
Yeah, I have a very similar thing. I often try to impose positivity on myself – for online comments and emails I have a process where I try to edit before posting and simply take out any negative parts. The resulting text is usually just as effective as a text with the negative parts included, but it definitely takes extra effort to do the filtering. I think it’s a valuable process.


engels 08.12.23 at 8:40 am

The thing is of course is that there is usually held to be such a thing as good taste. I believe in practice this is a socioeconomic status marker.

That’s also true of morality to a great extent imho.


Paul Segal 08.12.23 at 10:09 am

High up on the list of previously-valued characteristics that, for me, did not survive the experience of having kids, is consistency based on principled justification. In my experience the attempt to maintain consistency of principled justification in the face of children’s demands is doomed to failure and, given the costs of trying to maintain it in the face of the bulldozer of a child’s desire, does more harm than good.

I remember being a child and my mother ending some conversations by saying loudly and firmly, “because I say so”. I found that statement unacceptable at the time; now as a parent I find it indispensable.

I think there are three reasons why I do this. The first is that some principled justifications involve a lot of rather complex steps that I don’t think my kids will follow, or I don’t have time for in the stressful moment at hand. To be fair I think I do more than most parents to explain such steps to my kids, i.e. the complexity has to be above a fairly high threshold before I reach for the nuclear “because I say so” option. But there are plenty of cases that do exceed that threshold. The second is that some of the steps might involve information that I (reasonably) don’t want my kids to have. So far I’m absolving myself from real failures of principled justification, justifying the fact that I don’t always parse my reasoning in full for my kids.

But the third reason is that quite often I’m too tired/stressed/distracted/annoyed and I just want the thing done or not done because it will slightly lighten the load on me in that moment. I can give this a bit of fake gravitas by citing Hume’s “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions”. And I can argue that it’s good for my kids to see that the world (represented by me their parent) does not always run on consistent or justifiable principles. But I can’t pretend that this is my consistent reasoned justification for my unreasonableness. The truth is I’m just knackered.


steven t johnson 08.13.23 at 2:39 pm

engels@18 How great an extent? Many, maybe most people, approve of jails and prisons being operated as torture chambers. They seem to love to joke about prison rape, for instance. This sort of adherence to ruling class morality is a false marker, a tacit premise that the owners and the lowers are somehow part of the same group, an undifferentiated “the people” versus suspiciously undefined “elites,” perhaps. Or may simply “us” versus “them.” Always, see SES rather than class. Consumption, lifestyle is a choice. I don’t think we can see snark about eating dead animals as a hidden form of class struggle. But we can see an American flag lapel pin as virtue signaling a class collaborationist?


AnthonyB 08.16.23 at 1:29 am

Wittgenstein, Tractatus 6.421: Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.


Trader Joe 08.17.23 at 3:46 pm

I’d note – when you rejected your son’s cereal choice you didn’t actually yuck his yum, you gave a reason why it wasn’t appropriate for breakfast. A different parent might have chosen to buy the cereal anyway and offer it at snack-time which would in fact have affirmed his yum.

The exchange with the stranger was only possible because it was your son commenting on their packet of meat. Had you or I or anyone on the board said the same thing more likely than not the rebuke wouldn’t have been a polite chuckle. I’d note also, fair or not you and your parenting were judged by the remark – you can almost hear the lady relating to her spouse or friend “Do you know what some kid said to me in the grocery today?”

I’d agree with the posters upstrand – get over small details about moral inconsistencies. The Kids allright.

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