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.

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