Anyone who has a toddler or who has been around a toddler knows that eating habits are sporadic and odd at best. As parents, we try to offer a variety of healthy choices, and agree to almost any combination of them the toddler chooses, as long as those choices meet the nutritional needs. For example, a lunch might be a yogurt (she can open it herself, and please don’t stir it for her either), some ham and cheese (but certainly not on a sandwich, but maybe tomorrow), and part of a banana (in the peel today, out of the peel tomorrow, and forget about it if there’s even a hint of a bruise). Parents have to pick their battles wisely, even if it means allowing a nutritious cold cereal with milk and fruit for dinner once in a while.
We count it a great blessing to have both kids like a variety of good foods. We know their likes and dislikes, but there are many things I can offer at each meal, and know they will find something about which to say “yum”. Sometimes, though, even the favorites fail to impress, and tonight there was a small standoff between our daughter and her dinner.
I had made a slow-cooker beef roast, some rice, sweet potato fries, and a spinach, carrot, and cherry tomato salad. Usually, if I pour some of the “juice” from the meat over Little Girl’s rice, she can’t get enough. She loved the sweet potato fries over the weekend when my husband had brought some home; but these were a different brand. The rest of us were almost done with our meal, and there she was, just a few bites of rice and four cherry tomatoes down. She had pushed the rice around, but I could tell she was skeptical since some of the actual meat had found its way into that section of her plate. I was starting to lose hope, but then she asked for an old standby, mac & cheese. I would have said no, except I had a portion or two left over from a previous dinner. I heated it for her, and she ate a decent portion of it, but I knew she could (and should) eat a bit more to make it suffice as a meal.
I encouraged her to finish some more bites. She took one bite, and then said, “I’m all done.” Gently, I pointed to the remaining elbows on her plate, and told her there were still some more noodles to eat. In a truly slow and dramatic tone, she said, “Mommy. Why do you always say I haven’t finished my mac and cheese?!?” She has tried this line before with other things, and if it wasn’t so darn funny, I’d have smoke coming out of my ears. Isn’t it frustrating to make a tasty, healthy meal, and have a child pick out the least nutritious element? And isn’t it more frustrating to hear a child ask for dessert, but somehow have no ability to finish his or her meal?
After a few firm but gentle reminders that there would be no dessert if she couldn’t finish more of her dinner, I decided to clear my spot, hoping that she would find some motivation in my brief absence. I needed a break from being a food coach. My son came into the kitchen behind me, and I had an idea. I asked him if he would try to encourage his sister to finish her dinner–using whatever method that came to his mind. I stayed in the kitchen while he returned to the dining room, and then I heard laughter and the clink of her fork against the plate. She was eating! All he was doing, was making a funny face while pretending to chew, and then getting her to do the same while she took bites of her mac & cheese. Really? That’s all it took?
Soon, she had finished all but two noodles, and I stopped there, considering it a victory! As I got their desserts (modest scoops of gelato–vanilla for her, chocolate and caramel cookie crunch for him), my son came in to the kitchen. I thanked him for helping his sister in such a fun and loving way. He boldly replied with, “Well, when you’re talking to babies or toddlers, stern words just makes them kind of afraid. You have to be funny and nice, and then they’ll probably do what you want them to do.” I wish I could have said, “Of course, that’s what I do all the time!”, but really, I was thinking that my 7-year old just showed more wisdom than me. I love the idea of keeping things “light”, of using humor whenever possible, of finding the right sugar to make the medicine go down, as the song says. Unfortunately, I forget. I get tired. I just want there to be a few more “okays” and a few less “but Mommy’s…”. Parents need to be stern sometimes if we want to be parents and not friends. Perhaps, however, I gave up too soon with my daughter’s dinner this evening. Or, maybe she just responded positively to her brother helping her instead of me.
I plan to take my son’s nugget of wisdom for all it is worth. I am the first to admit that I am far from being a perfect parent. I want the best for my children, but I also know that just like everything else, I fall woefully short. I need to look to God every day, every hour, for wisdom, encouragement, and strength–what surprised me today was how God gave me that wisdom. I’m glad our son is an instrument of blessing to his family.
My final thoughts are around this verse from Proverbs 15:1: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” I was certainly not angry or harsh with my daughter over her lack of interest in her dinner, but I was a little frustrated. This verse reminds me, though, of the importance of our tone and our choice of words when we speak, especially to our kids. They are so sensitive to our moods, emotions, and expressions. They tend to mirror our verbalizations and gestures and volume–when we are gentle, patient, and kind, they are also more likely to act in those ways. When we lose control, raise our voices, and are too quick with our words, they usually panic a bit and lose control as well. I pray for gentleness, patience, kindness, and love to well up and over in my heart, to flow over and into my children, and deep down into their hearts so it can well up and out of them. I suppose I got more than physical nourishment out of this meal; thank God for the mysterious ways in which he speaks to us!