Thursday, March 19, 2009

Great Expectations

The other day in a comment Becky asked:
Hey, do you have any posts or opinions (and if I know you at all, you definitely have opinions! :)) about eating habits? Both of my kids' grandmothers like to tell me I'm starving my children. My rule is if you're playing at the table or throwing food, you get one warning, and then you're done. Mealtime should not be a time that people (meaning me) dread every single day. Some days we do well and some days not so well, but my children know the rules. And we try very hard to be consistent. Boy, do we try! What's your take on mealtime?
Well, I've never posted about it before, but I have been thinking I wanted to write a series about my philosophy on discipline and parenting, and this is as good a place to start as any!

The short answer is
I believe that kids will live up to whatever is expected of them.
Please note that that may or may not be the same thing as what you say you expect of them. For example, if you tell your teenager that he had better not miss curfew again, but in your heart you figure he'll miss it because he has so often before, then I believe he'll miss it. Because he knew that you expected him to anyway, so why bother to try. On the other hand, I have seen impeccable behavior from very small children because they knew what was expected and they simply did it. (Apparently I was one of those children--my parents tell the story of a time when I was not yet 2, and they were at a social function being held outdoors at a park. Apparently I had done something inappropriate, so my father stood me on a storm drain cover for a time-out and told me I needed to stay there for a few minutes until he came to get me. Everyone else at the party looked at him in shock: how could he expect that of such a small child?! But I stayed until he came back for me.)
And so I repeat, it's not just about obedience, it's about genuine expectations. It's about what you truly believe your child can and will do. Kids have a remarkable way of living up to precisely what we expect of them.

In regard to the specifics of mealtimes...
Obviously it's still important to teach our children, and personally I think that a rule establishing food for eating (not for throwing or playing) is entirely rational, logical, and fair. I add to that rule that if someone leaves his chair (other than to get a drink or run to the potty or that sort of thing) then he is done. I don't care if he is still hungry, I don't care if he had food left on his plate, he needs to stay at the table until he's done. (So, Becky, apparently I have one-upped you in the 'mean mom' contest, and you can let your mother and mother-in-law know that you're terribly laid back compared to some people you know. ☺ ) I believe in being gentle with children, but I do not believe in letting them run the house. Mom's needs are a valid consideration in the equation, and I've never met a child who starved from eating only half a meal.
I should add that we do have a few foods that are allowed for snacking almost any time. When a child gets himself booted from the table and subsequently complains of hunger, I do let him eat something...not during dinner time of course, but a little while later, when he's had a chance to feel hungry and develop a little motivation to follow the rule next time.
Incidentally, I understand that my kids may not love every food I prepare. They are required to taste something before they are allowed to have an opinion, but once they have a validly-formed opinion I will respect it and not make them eat something they don't like. I am not willing to be a short order cook, but when Wolf doesn't like sweet and sour chicken then I don't mind if he makes a peanut butter sandwich. Applesauce and yogurt are always available, and "peanut butter spoons" (a spoonful of peanut butter) are very popular with my boys. As before, I'm not forcing them to starve, and I don't force them to eat something they don't like, but they do need to respect the notion of standard mealtimes, and eating with the family.


Becky said...

Oh, good! I was beginning to think I was the Wicked Witch of Wasilla. :)

I love that you said this: Mom's needs are a valid consideration in the equation. I think some people believe that once you have kids, it's all about the kids. I've learned that if I make it all about the kids, I end up disliking them. And myself.

Mallory said...

Amen! Of course, Bug is still pretty young to deal with this, but I will have high expectations for my children. Most of my expectations are for Sundays though!

Becky N. said...

This is good food for thought, hehe!

I need to work harder at my expectations, I think. Half the time, both my kids leave the table without taking more than about two bites (when they had been apparently DYING of hunger the entire hour I was preparing the meal). They don't complain about being hungry - until a good hour or so later when we tell them it's pajama time. Suddenly, at that magical moment, they realize that they are, in fact, once again completely STARVING. I used to give in and let them eat some food just before we brushed teeth.... but now I've been telling them they need to decide to eat before it's bedtime. And as far as I can tell, they haven't starved to death, yet. ;) In fact, most mornings they still delay breakfast a good hour or so, so they can't have been terribly hungry.

Anyway. I like hearing your experience, as well as your theory. Thanks for sharing!

Lisa said...

Mealtime has always been a struggle with my 6-year-old, but that's because he has sensory issues with food and is a truly picky, picky eater. We've tried lots of things over the years, and vascillated between being very strict and very laidback. With him, being strict did not help, it just made the battles worse. So, with him, we really don't have any rules except that Mom is not a restaurant, Mom makes one dinner and that is it. If he doesn't like what we are having, he is welcome to fix himself something else, but the key is he fixes it. Not Mom. Since he is only six, that limits what he is able to prepare, but he can do a simple sandwich.

A few weeks ago, he came and asked me if it would be OK if on Saturday nights, I would please make something he likes. I said OK, but we made a deal that if I do this, then on Thursday nights he will eat whatever I have fixed with no complaining. Amazingly, this has worked! (I always try to make something that is not part of his typical diet on Thursday nights. I am holding him to his word, and using this as a time to really expand his palate!)

One thing I have learned is that even though there are real, legitimate issues with food for him, there are also behavioral things too. One mistake we have made has been giving too much attention to his behavior, which has encouraged it to continue. So now we really try to make meal-times as low key as possible. We address things, but don't dwell on them.

We haven't had too many problems with either kid as far as table manners. If you're playing around or throwing food, it's time to get down. Our issues have had more to do with whining and complaining about the food.

TopHat said...

I've been thinking about how our expectations of our children are picked up on by them. I wonder if the "terrible twos" are terrible because that's a tough age (and I do know that their feelings vs. words they have access to aren't the same, so it would be tough) or if it's because we keep using the phrase "terrible twos." I think we compound the "problem" by how we label that age.

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