Friday, March 25, 2011

Picky Eaters

As you know, you and I are Super Tasters, and if you end up having children, they are likely to be Super Tasters, as well.

Children are notoriously picky eaters. This may partly be because they are sensitive to certain tastes, smells, or textures - but it is also a power thing, a way of controlling their world. Small children have a limited arsenal of Power Tools available to them, and refusing to eat what is on their plate is one of them. It's a good one, too; it drives their parents absolutely up-the-wall crazy.

But staying a Picky Eater is not a good thing. It limits your options, and it limits your ability to live life to the fullest. This is not something you want for your kid.  A full understanding of any culture rests significantly in the cuisine, as does a large part of tradition and celebration.  Food nourishes both the body and the soul; you don't want to deprive your child of the ability to share fully in such an important part of life.

Being a picky eater also makes you a pain in the butt to anyone who has to either cook for or eat with you, which can seriously hamper your social life.  Not something you want for your kid.

So. What do you do when faced with a toddler who has decided s/he is going to live indefinitely on nothing but hot dogs and cherry juice?

First, remember that this is not a crisis or a moral failure on either your or the child's part. Stay calm. A healthy child will eat anything, if s/he is hungry enough - and if s/he is not hungry enough to eat whatever is on the plate, then s/he is not going to starve to death or become seriously malnourished in the near future.

Start this way: First of all, let the child choose a number of items - no less than 3, no more than 5 - that you will not ask them to eat. Either you will never cook those items, or you will make something separate for them. Everyone has the right to genuinely hate certain ingredients, and to have some control over their diet.

Once you have established which items the child will not have to eat, you explain the Dining Rules of the House.  This is easiest to do at the beginning of a particular meal; I would use lunch, because it is more informal and because there are usually fewer items in question than at dinner.

Put one spoonful or bite of each of the things you cooked for a particular meal on the plate. Calmly explain to the child that from now on, s/he must eat each thing you put on the plate before s/he can ask for more of any particular item. If s/he does not want to eat each thing, that is okay, s/he can ask to be excused from the table - but there will be no extra of a favored item until everything on the plate is eaten, and there will be no snack or drink except water until the next official meal.

If each thing on the plate has been eaten, then s/he can have as much as s/he would like of any dish on the table (not of any plate on the table, of course - every diner gets to own their own food).  The point is that s/he try everything, not to force the child to like or eat any particular thing.

Stay pleasant, but be firm. Stick to the plan. Do not react emotionally if the child decides to eat nothing; be pleasantly agreeable if s/he asks to be excused and has eaten nothing (or has eaten everything but the green beans). This is their decision, and they will have to live with the consequences of that decision.

Do not react emotionally if they later beg for a snack, insist that they are starving, or even throw a giant tantrum. Just tell them firmly that when they got down from the table without finishing, they made the decision that they didn't want to eat anything until the next meal. Then ask if they would like some water.

Your kid is going to test you.  Especially if the kid is around 3-4 years old, which is when the really extreme Picky Eating tends to show up.  Right around the time that your kid is really trying to test the boundaries and see how far the parents - and the world - can be pushed.  It's a power thing, and every kid goes through periods where they are fighting for dominance, even though it wouldn't be good for them if they 'won'.  After all, a world where the child is stronger than the parent is a world where nobody can be counted on for protection and strength when things get scary.

So expect tantrums, crying, whining, and expect that a particularly willful child will refuse to eat for a few days.  Do not worry - again, if your child is healthy, s/he can go relatively foodless for quite a while without becoming malnourished.  If s/he is truly hungry, s/he will eat pretty much anything.  Once s/he knows that you mean business, it won't take long for her to figure out that it's fairly easy to choke down one bite of just about anything.

Two warnings:

1.  If your child is particularly resourceful - which can be a nice way of saying 'sneaky' - make sure all the cupboards and the refrigerator is childproofed.  It's harder to make your point if the child is creeping into the kitchen and stuffing herself full of crackers and raisins between meals!

2.  Do not allow a child to change his/her mind about those Will Not Cook items too often.  Once a month is more than enough, and I'd go for longer than that, maybe review those items every three months or so. And do not let the child change the items during an actual meal.

With kids, what is Yucky today is fine tomorrow, and a favorite item today is going to be Gross next week.  Experience is going to guide you quite a bit as far as knowing whether a particular item is really hateful enough to go on that list.  If the child is really insistant on putting in an item that you feel is not really a true hate for them, just remind them that it's going to have to be a trade-in for something else from the former list, let them make that decision... and serve the former hated item in the next day or two.  The child will figure it out pretty quickly.

Usually the list stays pretty stable.  For you, it was tuna, liver/liverwurst, hot spicy things (except Admiral Soup), and oysters.  You still aren't big on tuna...


Remember that growing up is not all about making the Right decisions. Nobody gets to make all the right decisions; we all make weird turns or suddenly run up against walls, we all get lost sometimes. Growing up is about figuring out how to deal with the decisions we have made.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Parents and Children

We know our parents in one way when we are children, in another way when we are youths, and yet we do not truly know and understand them until we are well into adulthood, if we ever understand them at all. It takes many decades for us to see them clearly and with compassion as the complex and sometimes contradictory human beings that they are, because we need time and maturity in order to see them through the lens of shared experience.

When we are children, we see our parents through the lens of our own needs. Because we are fragile and cannot fend for ourselves, we are entirely dependent on our parents and so need to believe in their strength and wisdom, no matter how flawed those things might be to the less biased eye.

When we are young adults, we recognize how vulnerable we have been, and resent the flaws in our parents that kept them from meeting our past needs and keep them from meeting our current desires. Both parties long for the days when the child believed wholeheartedly in the strength and wisdom and love of the parent, and both resent the loss of the pedestal the parent formerly occupied, even as both recognize that there
was a great deal of illusion involved that was bound to be dispersed sooner or later.

The worlds of theatre and childhood share a similar dependence on the willing suspension of disbelief, and neither is improved by the cold light of day.

Still, as youths we remain protected from many of the rougher aspects of life, by our parents and by society at large (if we are lucky). We are free of the burden of housing and feeding ourselves, we are free of the responsibility towards others that becomes so compelling as we build our own nests. We may fear abandonment, but we don't fear for our survival. We can indulge in idealism and judge our parents by pure and relatively untested theory, measuring them against the yardstick of What Should Be.

Few of us measure well against that particular yardstick.

For one thing, the adult world is made up nearly entirely of Compromise, and to the youthful eye, Compromise bears a striking resemblance to Hypocrisy. To the middle aged eye, it sometimes bears a striking resemblance to Failure; that dream-filled and critical youth still lives deep inside us, for whom we bear a sense of nostalgia, sympathy, and a certain degree of ironic condescension. That youth can be a loud and unforgiving audience to our lives. Finding happiness in adulthood often requires us to find some sense of peace with the gap that develops between the dreams and beliefs of our youth and the realities of our later years.

What I hope for you is this:

That you can forgive your parents for being sometimes selfish, neglectful, foolish, harsh, unthinking, critical, forgetful, impatient, and otherwise human and flawed.

That you can forgive yourself for being likewise.

That you can remember that most people - including your parents, your grandparents, your friends and yourself - do the best they can with what they know at a given time. Sometimes what we think we know is incomplete or just plain wrong. Sometimes the experiences of our past get twisted in our heads, and teach us lessons that damage us and hurt those we love, that lead us to behave in a way that is against our own interests and against the interests of those around us.

But in spite of all that, we mostly stumble on, doing the best we can. You shouldn't let people hurt you repeatedly, you have the right to protect yourself from even inadvertently inflicted harm, you should love and protect yourself as much as you love and protect your friends and family. But maintaining a stance of compassion and understanding towards yourself and others will help you set aside the burden of bitterness that poisons life, and will allow you to step forward with hope and love and appreciation.

I hope you will remember this throughout your lifetime: we have loved you more than life itself, and we always will. That love is a given, a bedrock on which to build your life. You are lovable, and you are loved.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

First Of All, And Last Of All, My Love

Light of my Life~

I am writing this for a very sad reason. As you know, at this point it seems that my life is drawing to its end, and that I probably do not have a great deal of time left in which to say all the many years worth of things that I would like to say to you.

Certainly I do not have the time left in which to do all the things that I would like to do with you. I wish with all my heart that I could be with you to see you grow into the man I know you will be, to see you reach all the milestones that you will reach, to cheer you on in all your accomplishments large and small, to celebrate with you all the joys you will experience, and to comfort you in the myriad of sorrows and confusions that litter the landscape of every life. But that is not to be.

Throughout your life we have held each other up in hard times, we have learned about the world and its myriad wonders, we have laughed and played together in good times and in bad. That time is coming to a close, and you will have to go on without my arms around you, and without my voice in your ear (the latter may not be an entirely negative thing for you, but I digress...)

I cannot make this parting of ways easier for either one of us. I am not leaving you voluntarily, and I know that you don't want me to go. But in this one thing, we have no choice. We have some choices about the manner in which we handle the parting, but parting there must be, at least in this life.

And so I am writing this, as a sort of savings account of words, stored up against your future need. I hope these words will be of some use and comfort as the years go on.