A stunning new dining hall at my sons’ school features this quote from Shakespeare engraved in stone high on the front wall: “Strive Mightily, but Eat and Drink as Friends.” It is an appropriate quote for a school where the competition and camaraderie are strong threads knitting together a community that spans generations.
But sadly, all too often parents and children “strive mightily” at the family dinner table, instead of “eating and drinking as friends.” Misguided efforts at control disrupt precious family fellowship.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I am not one to just take the easy way out. In fact, sometimes I think I approached parenting with the motto “There must be a harder way!“ as if the hardest way was always the best way. No pain meds during labor, four sons in 5.5 years, cloth diapers, homeschooling – I did what I thought best for my children, even if it was hard. Hard is not bad, just hard.
But in some areas, it seems that my husband and I took paths that were much easier than those chosen by many of our friends. And we didn’t do it because it was easy, but because we thought it best.
Here is how we handled eating. This worked well for us.
When the boys were babies I fed them when they were hungry. Some days they nursed often and for long periods and other days much less. Routines are helpful, but a baby, unlike an adult, is changing rapidly every day. What worked yesterday might not work tomorrow.
As soon as the babies began eating solid food around six months, they would join the family for dinner. My husband worked late often in the early days, but we would do our best to work dinner around his schedule, dispensing pre-dinnner snacks as needed to keep everybody happy. Now we have studies linking family dinners to lower rates of substance abuse and higher SAT scores. Then, we just knew it was the right thing to do. As the family ate, one of us would feed the baby his cereal and baby food. We just put the spoon in that little mouth as long as it kept opening eagerly and stopped when he lost interest.
As the boys were able, they transitioned to table foods. Most family meals consisted of simple wholesome food – meat, grains or potatoes, fruit, and vegetables – but we might have had anything from pizza to jambalaya. If I was preparing an unusual dish I would make sure that there was at least one side dish of something basic most anyone would like, just as I do for adult guests.
I introduced my sons to complex foods but remembered that biologically kids’ mouths are different. While the average adult has taste buds on his tongue only, kids have taste buds all over – even on the roofs and sides of their mouths. They may be more easily overpowered by strong flavors.
The boys ate what they wanted to eat from the food provided for the family meal. We did not require that they taste new things, although usually they would. They did not want to miss out on something we were enjoying, and they had no fear of being forced to eat something that they did not like.
Although never as clever as Calvin’s mom in the above cartoon, with my first son I tried some tricks to entice him to eat more during a period when his appetite dramatically diminished. “Edward, we are having trees for dinner tonight. Do you think you could eat a tree?” (Just look some time and notice how easily you can cut broccoli to look like a tree!)
With the younger ones, I forgot to be creative. Frankly, we simply gathered for a meal, and enjoyed being together. I made sure food made it on to each boy’s plate. After a while we picked up the plates, scraped the leftovers into the trash, and went on to something else.
If some of the boys went through periods when they weren’t eating much or were not eating their vegetables, I wouldn’t have even really noticed. Like babies, growing boys will have dramatic fluctuations in hunger levels day to day.
They were healthy and happy. I trusted that appetite and example would do the trick without parental intervention. We never said “You must taste this,” “You must finish your milk,” or even “No dessert until you eat your broccoli.”
I cannot imagine sacrificing the peace of family fellowship around the dining table with ineffective and potentially harmful fights over how many green peas the child has eaten.
My boys were free to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. If they ate too much they would feel uncomfortably full. If they did not eat enough, they would still be hungry when they left the table.
And what if they did leave the table without eating enough? Suppose that the last dish has just been put away, and a child comes to the kitchen saying “I’m hungry” not more than a hour after the meal.
You might say, “You should have eaten more at lunch. Now you will just have to wait until supper.”
This seems consistent with children learning from their mistakes, and for a while it was what I did. It made some sense. And I did it partly beacuse I felt pressure not to yield from other mom friends, who tended to be more controlling of meal times in general.
But then I thought more about it.
What was my son learning from that approach?
”I had better eat more than I feel like eating just in case I might get hungry before the next meal or snack.”
That is not so good when you think about it.
So instead I just decided to relax about it and allowed the boys unrestricted access to simple and nutritious snacks like bananas, peanut butter, or yogurt with bit of fruit. Once they were old enough (2.5 or so) to prepare snacks themselves, they wouldn’t even be expected to involve me. Generally, they ate the meals I prepared. But sometimes they wanted something else after the meal was over, and they got it. It just wasn’t a problem.
This may sound like coddling, but even from their earliest days, healthy babies and children have the ability to regulate their intake of nutritious food. Parental interference thwarts the child’s developing self-governance in these areas. It can do real harm, allowing power struggles to disrupt family meal times and may even contribute to eating disorders.
My pickiest eater now loves quinoa and steamed veggies, my dessert-skipping boy is an offensive lineman, my chunky baby is a rail-thin distance runner, and my junk food junkie is a nationally-ranked decathlete. Oh well. As you can see from the picture below, they all figured out how to eat.
I am not advocating that parents abdicate their authority. Children must be taught to obey their parents, and life affords many opportunities to teach this. In some areas my husband and I are completely inflexible and work to ensure obedience.
If it is clearly an issue of right and wrong, we don’t hesitate to direct our teenagers.
For example, we absolutely require that our boys be involved in church, although this has never been a source of conflict. We believe that God expects this of us as parents. We require that our children speak to us and to each other respectfully. We believe that God expects this of them as children.
In areas of right and wrong, the result of making a mistake is parentally imposed discipline.
But so very much of parenting involves helping our children navigate a lot of choices that are not issues of good verses evil but are instead just personal preferences.
One option may seem wiser or more reasonable, especially to the parents, but the other is also morally acceptable. In areas such as whether they finish their milk, how late they stay up, how messy they like to keep their room, or how they dress (within reason!), we rarely use our authority to direct our children’s choices.
In areas of personal preferences, the result of making a mistake is learning to make better decisions next time.
Early on, there are only a few areas of self-rule for the child, but as the child grows parental control should decrease and the child’s responsibility for himself should increase.
Our goal as parents is not to have mistake-free children but rather children that are making good progress toward being self-controlled and discerning adults.
So don’t battle at the table. Instead, simply delight in the fellowship of your family.
Sometimes the easiest way is actually the best.
This essay is written by Molly Lindsey Powell for the blog In-House Counsel. To Follow this blog via email, please visit https://ihcounsel.wordpress.com and sign up. You can also visit us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/InHouseCounsel. Facebook has instituted changes and not all friends or fans receive status updates via Facebook, so please sign up for emails if you want every post. Or just drop by when you can. Thanks for reading.