Dad: “So, Ella, what do you want to have in your sandwich? Ham? Cheese? Tuna? You like ham. How about Ham”?
Ella: “I want tuna. Tuna is my favourite. And no cucumber, and can I have the bear crisps too?”
Dad: “Okay, tuna it is, with no cucumber. And some bear crisps on the side.”
The lovingly-prepared sandwich appears…
Ella: “I don’t want tuna! It smells yuk. I don’t like tuna.”
Dad: “ But Ella!!! You said that’s what you wanted?!”
Recognise this? You ask your child what they want (or they volunteer it). You prepare the food as per instructions and then they don’t want it after all. This is SO irrational! Can you imagine going to a friend’s house, saying you’d like a white coffee with one sugar, then when it arrives, announcing that you don’t want it because it has milk and sugar in? Nope. you can’t - because you are an adult.
We are (mostly...) rational creatures and reason underpins our decision making. Young children are less reason-driven. They live in the moment, and reason is often about long term consequences. It’s cold outside - you put your gloves on to go out because you know that after a while, your hands will get cold. You are thinking ahead. Your child doesn’t want to put their gloves on because their pressing concern is getting outside in the snow to play. They are all about NOW. So children are often ‘unreasonable’ and this can be very frustrating for adults.
Back to Ella and her Dad - her behaviour seems pretty irrational and her Dad is left feeling frustrated and exasperated. He asked her what she wanted because he thought that this would increase the likelihood of her eating what he made (seems reasonable, no?). However, giving children choice and control in this way is actually not supportive of a positive relationship with food.
Offering choice feels like the right thing to do...
I understand why many people offer choice or ask a child what they want. It feels respectful, like we are treating our children as people with rights and preferences. It can be a response to our own anxiety: when we are worried that our child is not eating adequately, it might feel like giving choice or letting them dictate the contents of meals and snacks will increase the likelihood of food getting eaten. Finally, it is culturally normal. Often we do stuff because… it’s just what people do.
This type of choice, though, sets the scene for conflict before the food has even hit the plate. It has the potential to introduce negative emotions on both the parent and child’s part and it can increase the stress levels of children who already have a tendency to be food-anxious. Just the very thought of what will be served and whether it will be okay for them, can make them feel antsy. Research shows that both conflict and stress have a negative effect on eating. The best way to help children eat is to ensure that they are as relaxed as possible before and during mealtimes.
At a deep level, power and responsibility frighten small children because they need to know where their power ends in order to feel emotionally safe. They need to know that ultimately, the big people are in control. Children will take more and more power until they hit a boundary, simply because it is psychologically imperative for them to know where that boundary lies.
Finally, we need to understand that very picky eaters might genuinely want to be able to eat that tuna sandwich, but the reality is just too much for them. Their lack of self-awareness (or their ambition, to re-frame it) shouldn’t become a source of frustration for us, but it so often does.
How to give children positive control
Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DoR) model provides us with a way of being respectful to children - of giving them choice and control - but within a context that we set. DoR is about understanding what is our job and what is the child’s job. We decide what foods will be served (and when and where). The child decides how much to eat and even whether to eat anything at all.
This is so powerful because it eradicates all of those food debates that introduce negativity and increase anxiety. Mealtimes can be positive and built on trust - your child can rely on there always being something they can eat so that they won’t feel hungry (see this post on menu planning) and you can learn to trust them to make their own eating decisions.
Tell, don't ask...
So next time you are about to ask your child what they want to eat for a meal or a snack, pause. Instead, try telling them what you have made and then respect and empower them by leaving them in control of how much of it they actually eat.