Thursday, August 30, 2012

Monkey Eyes and Keeping Quiet: Some Later Thoughts on Kids and Food

If I were to share with you the most important thing I've learned about feeding kids, it's simply this:

Keep quiet.

This little epiphany came to me courtesy of dinner prep last night.  Let me give you a little back-story: about two months ago or so, Kiddo announced one evening that he didn't like red bell peppers. Okay.... news to us, as he'd been eating them relatively regularly for quite a long time. At the time, I'd simply acknowledged this new preference with "Okay, well, then, you can choose, carrots or celery" and left it at that. Joe and I have had red bell peppers in foods we like, and have casually offered him some while we were cutting it up, but haven't talked it up or said any more on the subject.

Fast forward to last night. Kiddo and I were gathering up the veggies for that night's stir fry, something I know Kiddo is not a fan of. "Do you want your veggies cooked or raw?" I asked him. He answered 'raw', which I had anticipated. We began washing and chopping some vegetables, and suddenly, there was Kiddo, snagging a slender red pepper strip from the pile and eating it. "This is juicy!" he marveled. I just smiled at him and went on with my prep. However, at dinner time, when I offered him a plate of baked tofu, yakisoba noodles with sauce, along with celery and red pepper strips, the only thing that came back unfinished was the celery strips. 

I wondered, this morning, if I would have had the same turnaround if I'd said anything to him yesterday. You know, those really annoying comments parents make that we wouldn't like to hear other say to us? "I knew you would like it. You were just being picky." "What you really meant was not that you didn't like the red peppers, it was that you were bored with them." "See?! You really do like them after all!" I wonder that, if just by being quiet, we are giving our kids freedom to move through their relationship with food--and us-- more easily.  The feeding of our children can become such a charged issue, one that we often struggle to control-- and kids can pick up on this. 

So, perhaps this is late-in-the-day thinking, but I've come to this conclusion: because food is such a charged issue, this is often where kids try to assert their autonomy and individuality. So, when Kiddo says "I don't like such-and-such", I can either try to talk him into believing he does like that-- but at what price to his sense of self, which is trying to be taken seriously about a very small thing?  I can punish him in frustration for not being 100% consistent (which is kind of hypocritical, because when are we always in the mood for the exact same things?), or I can let it go and offer another reasonable choice instead. Letting it go doesn't mean that I'm giving in, it means simply that I'm not going to get into an argument with a five year old about what he does and doesn't like, if only to stave off his having to dig his heels in to prove that he doesn't, indeed, like what I have to offer.

This last part of what I wrote, this digging into dislike, is part of my child-feeding theory I call "Monkey Eyes".  Monkey Eyes is the idea that, when confronted by something we have either decided we don't like, or that which is visually off-putting, we are not likely to change our  minds about that food by being forced to eat it. Notice that I include both the decision to dislike as well as the food's appearance, because both of these circumstances are no different in their outcome. 

Imagine going to a friend's house for dinner and sitting down to a table laden with all sorts of foods. In one bowl, the one in front of you, sits a pile of monkey eyes*. Now, is your first bodily response going to be salivation in preparation for such a delicacy? Likely, not. Likely you are thinking (reasonably, rationally) "why, hell, I do not like monkey eyes! that's disgusting!" . And if your host said "Oh, Dear Friend, I can tell by the way you are looking at that plate that you think you won't like Monkey Eyes. But  you will! Really! Watch me have some! Mmmmmm.... these are such a treat, you know?! You really should try them... just one bite... You'll like them!" At this point,  you would be wondering how high your host was and what foreign substance they'd been smoking before dinner, because Nothing In The World is going to get you to pass a monkey eye between your lips. At this point, you are grossed out beyond belief and have made up your mind to pretend the babysitter just texted you with and you have to go home immediately, because you are Not Eating That.

But then, to make it worse, your friend then tells you, as you reach for seconds of something you do like: "Oh, no seconds for you until you take one bite--just one weeny little bite--of monkey eyes. Go ahead, now..."

If this seems silly, it's because it's meant to. My point in all of this is that this is exactly how a kid perceives the struggle when we tell them to eat something they've decided they don't like. It doesn't matter if it's a perfectly friendly food like, say, oranges-- to them, it's Monkey Eyes. They have decided they don't want it-- why force it and cause a potential aversion? 

I've been working with kids for twenty years, and not once have I heard a child say "Hey, thanks for making me eat that". NEVER. 

Last night, though, I did get a thank you for handing over a freshly-sliced strip of red bell pepper. 
I keep thinking that we have a lot to learn about how to treat children like people. This doesn't mean letting them go hog-wild at the store and buy whatever they want. This does mean consistently offering the healthiest foods possible and doing a lot of ignoring, not arguing, not buying into the idea that if they don't like it now, they'll never like it. I do buy into the idea of accommodating kids by buying the fresh veggies and fruits we know they will eat and then, just being patient. Most of us remember becoming better, more well-rounded eaters as we grew up and got older. We also remember unhappy times at the table when we were forced to eat foods we just weren't wanting to eat and the battles that went with it. How defeated we felt. How futile it was. 

I'm glad that I'm learning to just be quiet, to give Kiddo more opportunities in the kitchen to rediscover foods he might have written off, and to give him more autonomy in packing his lunches and planning some of his meals.  Our mealtimes of late have been pretty pleasant, and I think the above is, in large part, what works so well about them. No, Kiddo, I won't be putting "monkey eyes"-food on your plate, and if I do, sometimes, you aren't forced to eat it. I just want to give you a chance to have your say, and to also have mine, to offer those things every so often and to sit, silently happy to watch you eat them, and only to whisper in my own ear-- "Yep. I told me so."

*Yes, there are people in the world who do eat monkey eyes and other culinary atrocities... do a Google search, but prepared to be seriously grossed out.

Monday, August 27, 2012

To Tell The Truth

"I cannot tell a lie..." Those famous words of legend, spoken by a boy who knew he'd done the wrong thing, knew he was likely in for it, and still would rather have been honest and dealt with the consequences than to dishonor himself by telling an untruth. George Washington, so they say, had a sense of moral fiber long before he became the first president of our country. The story often focuses on Washington's honesty with his father, confessing to having cut down the famous cherry tree, and it seems to me that we often focus on young Washington's filial loyalty, his respect for his father which was so great he knew not to insult his intelligence with anything other than the truth. But I sometimes wonder if perhaps the double meaning of the story was that the insult to himself, in lying to his father, was so reprehensible to Washington that he simply could not stomach it. There's something to be said about valuing our relationships with others, and then there's the reality that no matter what we do, or who we do or don't dupe, we have to live with ourselves.

It's this sort of thinking which led me to where I was on Monday afternoon. Kiddo and I were on the bus, headed downtown. We were to meet Joe and then take Kiddo in for his Well-Check and yes, he would be getting shots. I hadn't quite hidden the reason for our trip downtown,  however, I also hadn't voluntarily explained it beyond "We're going downtown to meet Daddy", either. I don't offer upsetting news until it's really necessary, but when push comes to shove, if Kiddo asks about something, I will tell him the truth. It's just better this way. 

Or is it?

Cruising down Northeast Couch Street, toward the river, Kiddo asked the more direct question I'd been waiting for. "What are we going to do after we meet Daddy?" I hedged and answered that we had to take care of a few things. He pressed for a more exact answer and I told him "Well, you have a doctor's appointment." 

"Will I get shots?"

Bracing myself, and with a matter-of-fact voice--"Yes, honey, you'll need some shots."

What followed was a slow meltdown building up to a very upset, nearly hysterical kid who threatened to "hold everything on the bus so you can't take me off". I put him on my lap, and he did calm down when a group of day camp kids came on the bus, all of them together with the matching tee shirts. We got downtown, got off the bus,  picked up a cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese for him and settled down in front of the bagel shop. If I was going into a tough afternoon, I was going to make sure that at least he had a full stomach. We had a few more attempts to stay 'rooted to the spot', grabbing onto bars and the big bike racks, but nothing unmanageable. These were his half-hearted attempts to stay away from the doctors' office, which by this time he likely envisioned with a huge hypodermic needle sticking out of it's roof. 

I began to doubt my so-called wisdom of being honest. Maybe it was just foolishness, this sticking-to-being-honest thing. Maybe I was a total dumbass and not respecting some unspoken rule all the other parents knew but me: lie lie lie. Whenever you can. Make it a surprise. Blame it on the doctor. "Oh, she says you have to get shots after all. Sorry!" I know some parents lie about shots. And after that afternoon at the doctor's office, I learned why.

First, Kiddo wouldn't get out of the car. Despite my usual "I am not carrying your capable five-year-old self" rule, I did indeed carry a fetal-position-clinging-to-the-car-with-a-death-grip child into the doctor's office, passing a woman on the street who looked at me in sympathy. It would not be the last of these looks I would get that day. In the waiting room, when his name was called, he got down on the floor and slid under a plastic rectangular bench to hide. What's most remarkable about this feat was that the space beneath the bench was probably 6 inches tall and so how in the world he flattened himself enough to fit in that space was truly a marvel. The CMA who had called Kiddo's name began laughing and called the other medical assistants to see. "No one has ever done this before!" While she was in awe, all energy and ready to help our little guy, we were in the 'cringing and bargaining stage'. Kiddo was screaming and crying about not wanting to get shots and I was promising myself I would definitely have a shot of something alcoholic when I got home.

And we weren't even in the exam room yet.

I'll spare you the rest of the gory details, but suffice it to say that by the time the doctor's visit was over and then medical assistants (yes, two of them) got Kiddo's shots done, one of us was a puddle of goo. Unfortunately, it was me. We had spent the close-to-ten minutes waiting for the doctor on Elevated Fear Level-Code Red, and while the doctor visit went well (she assured him she wasn't giving the shots), once she left, we had another bout of hysterical crying. And then, when the two MA's came in to give the shots, it took two of us to hold him--he,  on my lap, with his arms crossed in a restraint hold and one MA to hold his leg while the other did the shots. We thanked the ladies profusely and I tried to pull myself together, and not to cry. We'd gone through 2 Rescue Remedy pastilles for him and one for me and still I was a quivering mass. This was the worst, worst visit ever. Worse than when he was two and cried and cried after the shots, looking at me, looking so betrayed. This was worse.

I wondered, later, about how 'worth it' telling the truth was. I had told the truth and had probably a half-hours worth of out-of-control fear and panic to deal with. We were all exhausted and grumpy.

I wouldn't know the benefit of this until the next day, when Kiddo and I were out for a walk. He was playing with a rather long hangnail and then had complained about it. "Let me look at it." I offered. He hid the hand behind his body and turned so that it was held away from me.  "NO." he replied.

"Are you afraid I'll touch it or pull it off or something?" I asked. He nodded. "I won't touch it, I promise. I just want to look at it and make sure it isn't bleeding." He looked doubtful. "You know, Kiddo, I don't lie to you, and if I tell you I won't touch it, I won't. Will you please just show it to me?"

And with that, the look on his face changed. Maybe-- I like to think, anyway-- he realized that what I said could be relied upon. He brought his finger out for me to inspect. I bent my head down and lowered my glasses for a closer look.

"It looks like it hurts." 

"Not too much. It's okay." he smiled at me, reached out his hand for mine, and we kept on our walk. Yes, perhaps it was the hard thing, to tell the truth. However, it's the hard moments which prove to Kiddo that I am trustworthy, that I will 'tell him true'. He knows that Mom won't just say what he wants to hear and then do something different. I hope this is some very good modeling for him, for those years ahead when he has to tell me something I don't want to hear, or when he might have to tell a child of his own something that they will never, ever want to hear~

"Yes,  honey, you'll need some shots."

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Little Cabin in the Living Room

A few days ago, Kiddo asked if we could rent "Alone in the Wilderness" again...  or as he called it, "the old man in the wilderness".  This dvd of Richard Proenneke's life in remote Alaska was fairly influential last December when we watched it, and this time around was no exception. We've had a huge cardboard box in the living room for the last month and so, with a little bit of patience and work, it's become Kiddo's own Wilderness Cabin.

On Sunday night, Joe and Kiddo played in the box, which is laying lengthwise on the floor. I'd measured out and then cut, using a Saag tool, a double set of windows, and then they had done some chalk drawings. One wall has a fan with a smiling face in the center of it-- I'm sure you can't get one of those happy fans at the store. At some point, inspired by Proenekke's hand-hewn latches, Kiddo had used a pencil to make a hole in the cardboard and figured out how to slide a popsicle-type craft stick into the cardboard of both windows so that it held between the corrugation. "It's the window latch" he said, demonstrating to me how the stick held both sides together. 

Then, he suggested that the 'cabin' needed a chimney, so we measured and cut a hole/flap for the top. Inside, we used a long skinny box for the chimney stack and affixed it to the bigger box with brass 'brad'-type fasteners. Below this, Kiddo wanted a 'woodstove', so a Bogs boot box became that. But, the stove needed windows in front, so the box was deconstructed, a rectangular hole cut, and then reassembled. THEN the woodstove needed burners. Hmmm.... what would work for this? While my first idea was to use red construction paper, there was none to be found, so we used white paper and made some circular patterns via the Spirograph for the burners, then cut them out and glued them to the top of the box with the instant convenience of a glue stick. 

Now to play: Kiddo grabbed a handful of craft sticks and stuck them in a tea tin, re-purposing them as 'matches'; Lincoln Logs were placed in the woodstove, and then he wanted 'fire', so out came some tiny red fabric flowers and they were sprinkled on the logs. I brought up a very spartan kitchen: some tea items, a pot, a couple of wooden 'veggies' to chop with their cutting board and knife,as well as pretend olive oil and jelly. A latch was contrived for the chimney as well.

The best part of it all was today, when two neighbor children came over to play. Kiddo was so excited to show them his cabin, all the latches he'd made himself--"That's clever" said the older neighbor boy, obviously impressed.  Because they all agreed the cabin was only a 'two-person cabin',  I set up the old IKEA play igloo tent, and with a few pillows and baby blankets, the kids were set. This began a game of 'forest creatures' disturbing the campers by scratching at the tent, which made the kids inside giggle so sweetly. I was doing dishes, but couldn't help myself and joined them from time to time, transforming myself into a raccoon who 'wants to eat your garbage', sniffing loudly, scratching around the base of the tent and making little critter sounds. "Block the raccoon!" ordered the eldest of the children, and they bravely left the tent to block me in with 'blockers' made from the blankets they held up. Then I told these dear sweeties about how, on our last camping trip, the racoons got into the cousins' hot chocolate packets and devoured the sweet powder inside. 

In the twisted words of Billie Holliday (singing the song written by Harry M. Woods in 1934):
"Ooooh, what a little cardboard box can do
Oooh-ooh! What a little cardboard box can do for you.... "

Friday, August 10, 2012

After the Fun... oh, Ho Hum!

Rolling into August, I can't help but feel something is slipping away from me. Perhaps this is due to feeling a bit brain-dead as of late... too many hot days melt my noodle, and it's been hard to come  up with much to post on. So I've been squandering some of my time giving advice on the forum; the rest of my mental faculties have been engaged in keeping my house and family more or less on track and up to speed.  

We've had some very fun goings-on in the last month.  Joe and I went to Seattle for two days for a couple Mariners/Yankees games while Kiddo spent those days in the company of his former preschool teacher, who treated him like royalty with blueberry pancakes and a trip to Cannon Beach with another little five year old boy. Then, Joe took the two of them off for a Boys Weekend in Newport, leaving me to 101 degree heat but a heavenly, silent house. While all of this was fun, those special times leave the ho-hum average days in an unfavorable contrast, especially for Kiddo. It's good to treat ourselves a bit, to enjoy life and the novelty of different places and activities, but oh, the humble offerings of home begin to look too mundane in the shadow of such fun, especially to little boys who like to think that everything should be fun, fun, fun.

The reality is, of course, that life is not always fun. Fun and leisure time is a relatively new concept for humans, especially if we look at the centuries-- nay, millennia-- of toil that came before us. Of course, I'm not about to explain this to Kiddo when he's in the heat of dissatisfaction that he has some or another task to do which is not convenient for him. I won't even call these tasks unpleasant, but will just say that they are not things he wants to do in that moment. I can relate to this on myriad levels, yet I know that trying to express this to a child who wants to play while his mother asks him to set the table-- this sort of "hey, I know how you feel" will fall on ears already filled with his own thoughts. Sometimes, as a parent, we don't get to be the bad guy AND the good guy. "What? Mom knows that it's not fun to have to interrupt what she's enjoying to take care of responsibilities? Well, boo-hoo for her!" No, sometimes I don't get to make any empathetic connection, because it's all my fault that the fun stopped to begin with.

Well, sue me for the hard realities of life. I'm sure there's going to be plenty more where that came from, just you wait. (she said without any glee.)

I didn't wish the hard parts of life on Kiddo, but some are just how it is. Kiddo's started vision therapy and has eye exercises to do on a daily basis. Like most kids with any sort of dedicated practice, some days go more smoothly and with a more optimistic demeanor than others.  I've tweaked the day's schedule so that we do these before any fun--playdates, outings, etc.-- trying to get him at his freshest. Some days, he enjoys his time; on others, it's my determination that gets us through. It's my commitment to his eventual ability to read things clearly, my dedication to helping him develop these under-developed muscles. Unlike teaching him to use the toilet, I can't wait for him to be 'ready'...I have to drive this train myself, daily, whether the little passenger wants to go along for the ride or not. 

This, of course, carries over into other aspects of life. Lately, the smooth places have been made rough and bumpy, like Isaiah 40:4 in reverse. The little challenges which were mastered so handily a few weeks ago now bring fresh tears and a digging in of a child's size 12 heels.  Today I found myself handling his anger at cleaning up his room beautifully-- I figured out the trick was to pretend I wasn't his mother and that he was a preschooler instead-- just another preschooler, and go at it like a pro, with no emotional baggage from the similar outbursts over the past few days. I forgot that everything seemed big to him and instead brought myself to a place of 'oh, that poor kid has a problem! What can we do?'  Sometimes, being emotionally distant and not getting pulled into reacting to tears but focusing on the task at hand is the better way to address things. NOT rationalizing. ("You've had a great day and got lots of playtime with your buddy... what's the problem?") NOT explaining it in logical terms. ("Dude, I don't play with your toys and I didn't make that mess?") NOT turning it into a big emote-a-thon. ("Oh, honey, I know you didn't want to stop playing outside and I know you want to eat dinner because  you are tired and hungry...")  Just dealing with what needs to happen in the moment, solely, and moving on. Because, for heaven's sake, we've gotta move on....

I know that the shadow of kindergarten looms overhead, like the shadow of a hawk circling the chicken yard. Heck, we're all little chickens, even if I do look like a short, funny little hen at times. I do my best to keep my little one interested in what's right in front of him-- look, a worm!--and keep my own eyes on the sky. It's not for him to watch or worry about, although he likely does. I just try to stay present and let him snuggle up under my wing or run off and follow his momentary bliss.

All of these adjustments and recalibration make me long for a simpler time in my life, when I was a machinist and everything was measured more by micrometers, less by moods. The beauty of machining is that when you are trying to work a piece of metal and bring it true, you can use a blade and just work away, cutting off the wobbly excess until it's perfect all the way round and ready to really be used for something precise. Kids, well, not so much. You get all their wobbly spots and even when  you try to smooth them out, your gauges are still going to show bumps and imperfections. There's never perfect balance, only something good enough to roll along with until life's next phase...

I write all of this with a smile. I do not want a perfect child. What a bore that would be! And how the other mothers would hate me! I'd be completely unrelatable and yes, the worst thing about it would be simply this one, self-centered reason:

I'd have nothing to write about.