Food fights

Last night I caught an episode of one of the many "Nanny" shows. Apparently this nanny's idea of discipline involves putting children in time out whenever they don't do what they're told, when they're told to. Now, this may seem reasonable when you read it, after all, it's time out, and kids should listen to their parents! But let's look a little closer. In the show, the family is eating a meal. There's a large production crew, plus the nanny who is prompting the parents and kids from behind as they sit at the table. Imagine being a little 8 year old girl whose parents called in this huge crowd because she's been bad, to make a movie about how bad she is. The stress must be enormous. And stress causes kids to lose their appetites. She eats about a half cup of dinner, and then says she's not hungry. Her plate is loaded with as much food as an adult might eat, a lot more than I eat at a sitting, in fact.

The father demands that she cleans the plate. She says, crossly, I'm not hungry. I already ate one plateful (we don't know whether this is true, since we don't see the whole meal). The father tries to cajole her, but the nanny jumps in and lectures the girl about obeying her parents, and then the nanny has the mother bring the child to their time out spot. The girl becomes hysterical --who in their right mind wouldn't become angry and upset about being humiliated in front of a room full of disapproving strangers? The time out becomes a fifteen minute long torture session as the girl is told how bad she is, manhandled by her mother to keep her in place, and commanded to sit up, to finish the plate full of food, to stop crying and to do what her parents tell her.

She finally capitulates, or so it seems-- we never see whether she can actually finish what looks like almost a pound of food. My guess is that they decided to edit it out. I couldn't help thinking that the parents are setting the stage for a possible eating disorder if they continue to make dinner into a war zone.

So how can you rewrite this situation so that the child isn't driven to hysteria, the parents get a calm meal, and food doesn't become a weapon?

First, detoxify meal time. It shouldn't be full of activity, noise and interference. Mealtimes that are calm and pleasant family times will encourage the child's involvement. Second, do not force children to eat more than they are ready to eat. Doing this teaches the child to override his own body's signals that he has had enough. Do that often enough and the child will no longer eat only until he's not hungry, he'll eat whatever is put in front of him. I think you can guess what that leads to.

Serve your children the meal, let them eat until they judge themselves to have eaten enough, and then take the plate away and excuse them from the table. You can remind them that the plate will go in the fridge if they get hungry later, so they can have leftovers. It's wise to avoid serving high-calorie desserts during a period when you are teaching your child how to gauge his own appetite. That way you won't have to deny the junk when the meal is over. It just won't be there. Eating dessert in front of him to "punish" him doesn't really work: it makes you look mean, and it teaches the child that food is a weapon after all.

Your child won't starve to death if you don't make him clean his plate. As long as there's nothing in the house but healthy foods, you can pretty much let him select his own snack menu (as long as he cleans up after himself). And kids who graze on healthy food are less likely to become overweight or develop eating disorders down the road. Of course there are other disturbances to be had at dinner, but choose a battle worth having.

Family dinner is important, but only good when it fosters togetherness, communication, and pleasant memories. So serve the meal at a set time every night, have everyone gather together, ask your kids how their day has been, or what they liked about school today. Tell them something about your day in a way they can relate. Show them by example how to be a good listener, and a good storyteller. Teach table manners by exhibiting them, but now is not the time to nag. Remind them once, and teach only a rule or two at a time. Make sure they have portions small enough for them to complete, but if they don't, don't make a big fuss. The important thing is that they associate dinnertime with the positives of being part of the family.


Parenting refreshers

At each stage of your children's lives you'll find new challenges. Just as each child is different, with different needs and abilities, so too at each age children's needs change. When you need to step up your parenting game, who do you turn to? Many of us rely on what we learned from our parents. We discuss our situation with friends and family.  But if you feel you're not getting the answers you need, why not stroll over to your public library or bookstore and take a look at the parenting books available? Looking for new answers doesn't mean you're not a good or wise parent, quite the opposite. It's helpful to skim through a few books on the shelves and see what seems to fit your parenting philosophy. New ideas may not work as well as you'd like, but often they can help you out of a parenting rut. Another solution is to take a parenting class or seminar, or join a parent support group. Often you local university, public library, county health department, church, synagogue or other community institution will have classes, lectures, or groups you can attend. If nothing is available, why not put one together yourself? When my kids were young, there were several of us moms that met weekly at a local library to talk about issues like school, healthy snacks, play date etiquette, activity ideas, and solutions to everyday kid dilemmas. We all had active preschoolers and the group was more than just a parent exchange, it was an opportunity to talk to other adults, which is a bit of a luxury sometimes!


Parenting styles

Throughout childhood we parents/caregivers/teachers struggle to find a good balance between giving the child freedom to explore and play, and structure to learn and grow. Everyone has their own style, which usually falls into one of three frameworks. The first, which many of us older parents are familiar with, is the authoritarian parenting style. If you find yourself saying 'because I said so'; punishing, giving strict limits and lots of inflexible rules, you probably fall into this category. It has the advantage of immediate obedience and dependability in most kids. However it can also breed resentment, limit self-control, and damage the child's ability to think and decide for himself as he grows.

The second general type of parenting, permissive parenting, grows from the theory that kids know best what they need, and will grow out of any problems on their own. Permissive parents don't punish, but they don't offer much guidance either. If your kids are allowed to run around grocery stores and restaurants, if you find yourself telling them to "work it out on your own" when they're squabbling, and if you often give in to whining, pleading and tantrums, then you're probably acting the permissive role. It has the advantage of giving kids lots of room to learn, play, and practice independence and curiosity. Unfortunately it's a bit like setting a kid loose on a tightrope and telling him to figure it out. Rules do have a comforting place in kids' lives, and kids without rules can be angry, controlling, demanding or depressed, depending on how they percieve parental laxness.

The third parenting style is called "authoritative" parenting. These parents set a few easy to comprehend rules, do not request anything of the child that they don't intend to follow up on, and use a large toolbox of parenting skills, adapted to their children's developmental and emotional stage. They see discipline as a learning tool, not as punishment. Parents in the authoritave mold will give their kids freedom to make choices, teach them to think through the outcomes of those choices, and help them to problem solve so that they can learn to self-regulate as they grow.

I don't think it's any secret which parenting style I think works best, but I don't think anyone is always "authoritative"-- we all have our exhausted "let em be" times and our grouchy "do as I say" days -- parenting is not about perfection, it's about doing your best at the time, learning better when you can, and being your child's best guide to her future adult self. Remember, we're all raising people, not just minding the children.

Engaged parents, happy babies

Engaged parents, happy babies