If my daughter has any complaints about my parenting style — She’s a teen. I use the term “if” very loosely! She has lots of complaints.— her main objection comes in the form of a question: Is everything a lesson?
The answer is yes. My daughter isn’t alone in her objection to my style. I sometimes get complaints from readers who say something to the effect, “Sometimes a cookie is just a cookie.” In other words, there doesn’t always have to be an underlying lesson. I would like to agree. Unfortunately, both as a sociologist and as a parent, I can’t. Lessons are everywhere. Does this make me a bad mother? I hope not.
Every interaction teaches your kids something about food and eating. The only question that remains is, what are you going to teach them?
Of course, this lesson-thing is not limited to food and eating. Every interaction with everyone teaches something. Dr. Phil (I can’t believe I’m quoting Dr. Phil. Forgive me.) says, We teach people how to treat us.
Lessons. Lessons. Lessons.
Some lessons are learned more easily and more quickly than others. Moreover, the lessons most people learn aren’t necessarily the ones we set out to teach. Rather, people learn the lesson hidden in our behavior.
This is why it is so important to practice what I call conscious parenting. The gap between the lesson you intend to teach and the lesson your kids learn is where eating problems flourish. It’s all about communication.
For example, you want your kids to learn that eating vegetables is important. You talk about how healthy vegetables are. You insist your kids eat at least a few bites of the vegetables on their plate. You tell them they can’t have dessert, or aren’t allowed to leave the table until they eat their vegetables.
Kids learn some, or all, of the following (plus a host of other lessons too):
- Vegetable-eating is an arena for control struggles.
- Desserts are way better than vegetables. Nobody has to “make” you eat your dessert.
- Parents know better than kids how much they ought to eat, even when kids are full.
- It is normal to eat dessert when you’re already full.
- Healthy food tastes bad. If it tasted good people would talk about taste more than health.
- Brownies magically make booboos heal; broccoli doesn’t have that power.
- Eating vegetables gives you free license to eat sweets. Why else would the two be linked?
Given how important it is to teach our children to eat right, and the consequences for failing to do so, it is surprising how often parents fail to teach healthy eating habits.
Eating right isn’t overlooked completely — parents worry all the time about what foods to feed their kids — but I’ve never been to a play group where parents were talking about how to mindfully teach their children to eat only when they were hungry, or to stop chomping when they were full. I have never heard a group of moms talk about how to teach their young ones not to use food for emotional support or how to help little Johnny learn not to use food to exert control.
Perhaps we don’t teach our children these lessons because we think they’ll learn this stuff when they grow up (they might) or maybe it is because it is hard to do (it is, but only if you don’t have a plan). Unfortunately, though, unless you consciously teach your children how to eat, you end up inadvertently teaching them things you may never have planned for them to learn.
Every year, healthy eating tops the list of New Year’s Resolutions. I find that both encouraging (yay we want to improve our health) and sad (another year has passed and we’re still trying to get it right).
Given the fact that it is hard for adults to master healthy eating habits, perhaps you think it is too ambitious to think you can teach young children to eat right. But isn’t that the point? The habits kids learn in childhood tend to stick around. Even, or perhaps especially, the bad habits.
With each day our children gain a growing awareness of the social nuances of eating. All around them they see people eat for all sorts of reasons. It is not surprising that they pick up these patterns too.
So this month, if your kids aren’t eating the way you want them to, look at the lessons they’re learning and the habits they’ve formed.
Shift your gaze from nutrition to habits and you will solve a lot of your problems. They won’t simply vaporize into thin air, but the benefits are worth the effort.
Then, if introducing new foods is what you’re trying to do, here’s a good post for you.
Overeating the problem? Click here.
Undereating the problem? Click here.
And if your toddler won’t sit in the highchair? Click here.
Got a question? Leave a comment. I’ll get right back to you.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~