As a parent and husband, I’ve noticed that I have a different style of working with my kids than my wife. My wife and I are from different cultures, so we take a different approach to problem solving. That difference in thinking about problems has proven valuable many times over.
This contrast is evident at mealtime. When we sit down to a meal, my wife tends to command the situation whereas I tend to be a “lazy parent”. My wife will say, “Eat your peas or else…” She will try to command our kids into eating.
My wife is from Vietnam and she’s a dedicated Mom, and I love her. I’m, well, American. We just have different styles of parenting, different approaches to solving problems. Like meal time with kids.
To resolve issues at mealtime, I sometimes turn it into a game or try to make dinner time fun. I can recall that at one sitting, my younger daughter was unwilling to eat. Maybe she wasn’t hungry, or maybe she didn’t like what was in front of her, not sure. But I waited until my wife let it go and then I chimed in.
I looked into my daughter’s bowl of food and said, “Huh. I think I see something moving.” Then I raised the pitch of my voice to something small and squeaky and I said, “Help me! Please don’t eat me!” Then my daughter’s spoon dove into the food with a smile and she continued to eat.
Unfortunately, making a game out of eating or making it fun, still doesn’t address the central problem that we create when we tell our kids to eat. I’m thinking pie eating contests here. Doesn’t it seem odd that we make a contest out of eating, encouraging participants in such events to eat without regard to whether or not they’re still hungry? With spectators?
When I was just starting out as a parent, my mother told me something that I will never forget. She told me that kids will never let themselves starve. They will always ask for food when they’re hungry.
She also told me that I was a picky eater when I was a baby and toddler, and that I would spit food out or even throw up. So from that point, she relaxed. She just waited me out until I was hungry, and when I was hungry, she was ready with good food.
If I tell my kids to eat on command, even if they’re not hungry, then I’m training them to eat in response to the stimulus I present. You know, like Pavlov’s Dogs, but in reverse. Instead of ringing the bell to let the dogs know when food is there, I’m ringing the bell to say, “eat or else”.
On the other hand, I could wait until my kids are hungry. If I’m not there to tell them when to eat, drink and pee, then they will feel it themselves. They won’t be looking to me for the signal to know when they’re hungry, thirsty or need to pee. They won’t be so prone to eat upon suggestion in a commercial. They also won’t be looking outside of themselves to know how they should think and feel. Their own brains and bodies will tell them.
I think there is good reason to believe that commanding our kids to eat is the basis of, or at least a large factor in the obesity epidemic in America. Here is another reason to consider in support of my little theory. Long ago, a study was conducted on the impact of visual cues and eating habits. The subjects were given a bowl of soup and told to eat until the bowl was empty or until they were not hungry anymore. And there were two different bowls.
One bowl had a hose that allowed the scientists to add more soup to the bowl before it got empty, before the subjects could even see the bottom of the bowl. The other bowl was a normal bowl. What they found that the people who ate from the never ending bowl ate 73% more soup than those who ate from the normal bowl. So, instead of being aware of internal cues for satisfaction of hunger, most people relied upon external factors like, the state of the bowl. See, the people who ate from the never ending bowl of soup never got to the bottom…
I often check in myself. I check to see if I am really hungry before eating something. I listen to my stomach to see if I need to eat something. I allow myself “mini-fasts” during the day to get a baseline of what hunger feels like. And if I really want to put something in my mouth when I might not be hungry, then I might drink water, eat a banana or have some carrots. I look for the low calorie food and drink that will fill my stomach to get me by until meal time.
With my kids, I lean on the side of self-direction. You know there is a school of thought called the Montessori Schools where kids are given an environment for self-directed learning. The Montessori Method assumes that kids will learn naturally from their environment with minimal direction from their teachers. It’s a kind of “lazy teaching”. What I do is lazy parenting.
I provide a safe, peaceful environment for my kids to learn. I count on them to be internally directed to learn rather than me telling them what to learn. I facilitate their learning with books, toys, games, and a bit of myself in there, but most of the time, I’m on the sidelines, reading, working, but listening and watching for safety.
I do this with food, too. Rather than tell my kids when to eat, I will ask them from time to time, if they’re hungry or thirsty. I want them to check in with themselves to see if they are hungry or thirsty. I want them to be internally directed as to when to eat. I will model this behavior myself so that they learn from me, because they are always watching me.
If my kids are hungry, I’m ready with whole food, minimally processed food and water. I really emphasize water as the primary beverage and rarely drink or serve pop, milk or juice. Water is the most natural liquid we can drink. With simple modeling and patience, I’m teaching my kids to eat when they are hungry with internally directed desire rather than external cues and training for when to eat.
I use this parenting style for several reasons. I don’t want to do their thinking for them. I don’t want to be the consequence of their actions, I want them to see and learn what consequences arise from their own actions. I want my kids to be aware of how they’re thinking and feeling, and to think for themselves. You know, like adults.