“It is not your responsibility to make someone happy by trying something you don't want to eat...”
Apart from the striking fact that really wanting a child to eat something is experienced by that child as pressure, which actually makes eating worse, this got me thinking about how children are, for the most part, wired to look for adult approval.
Teresa Graham Brett (author of Parenting for Social Change) talks about making children choose between self-respect and adult approval (reflections inspired by John Holt’s book, How Children Fail). She uses the example of her piano playing as a child:
“I remember as a child how it felt as though whenever someone came to our house to visit and expressed interest in my piano playing, my mother would require me to play for them. I felt as though I could not say no, even though I came to hate performing for others.
My inner truth was that I wanted to play piano for myself when I wanted to, not when others required it of me.”
This is an eloquent description of how it feels when a child’s behaviour is driven by the needs of others, rather than by a strong sense of their own needs. The more loudly we clamour for our children be who we want them to be, the quieter the voice expressing their ‘inner truth’ becomes.
Children should eat because of their tummy not their mummy.
When eating is driven externally (ie. by the adults in a child’s life) whether that is through the giving of approval, bribery, coercion, or an authoritarian approach to parenting, a child's ability to self-regulate is compromised. Self-regulation, in relation to food, is all about a child being able to tune in to their body’s cues and make their own eating decisions accordingly. As soon as we give or withhold approval for how a child eats, we are getting in the way of this process.
Eating is not a behaviour to be modified. In order to give a child a positive relationship with food, it is essential to understand this.
In my house, we have a few rules that we all try to live by and that I expect the kids to live by them too. For example, in communal areas, I expect them to tidy their things away when they have finished with them. They are not toddlers anymore; they need to understand that we all have to co-exist and be thoughtful of one another when we are sharing a space. But eating is not in this category. It is (I believe) my job to ensure that my child does not to leave their clothes on the bathroom floor. It is not my job to make my child eat what is on their plate. Ellyn Satter puts it best:
“The parent is responsible for what, when, where. The child is responsible for how much and whether”
Next time someone tries to persuade your child to try something because it will please them, or because they spent hours slaving over a hot stove to prepare it - next time someone tells your toddler to eat one more bite "just for me" - be that child's advocate and explain that in your family, everyone can make their own eating decisions.