(and other musings on language)
I love to learn. Almost to the point of obsession. If I’m not studying or furthering my knowledge in one way or another, I feel restless. Right now, I am mid-way through my PhD (in picky eating, of course) and this provides me with much of my learning fix, but I also love to learn from other professionals. Today, I’m going to share one of the things I took away from a recent webinar I attended: a training by the awesome Dr Katja Rowell, co-author of Helping Your Child With Extreme Picky Eating.
Katja mentioned that while she used to use the phrase ‘safe food’, she has chosen not to do so anymore. This is because it implies that non-safe foods are dangerous. I have never really given the word ‘safe’ much thought in this context. It is just the standard term (used by many people working in the world of feeding) for a food that a child reliably eats. But what Katja said made sense. While foods that a child cannot eat may feel frightening to them, we don’t want to reinforce this via the language we use.
I thought about using ‘non-preferred’ foods instead, but when it comes to very limited eating, it’s not just a matter of preference. Food rejection can be much more complex and extreme than that. Katja suggested ‘accepted’ foods and I like this because it describes the situation in a neutral way.
I talk to parents all the time about the language they use, teaching the importance of limiting labels (like describing a child as ‘fussy’ in their hearing) and sharing positive language (like ‘foods we haven’t learned to eat yet’ rather than ‘foods we don’t like’). But what about the words professionals use?
I have said before (and will no doubt say again) that I hate the term ‘picky’. It implies that a child is just being choosy… that they have a choice about whether or not they eat non-accepted foods (see, adopting new language is easy!). Frustratingly, in academia, ‘picky’ is usually the term used by researchers and it is a phrase that parents in many English speaking parts of the world use too.
Personally, I prefer ‘limited eaters’ or ‘food-anxious children’ for those kids who are genuinely fearful of eating new or disliked foods, but I also need to use words which will allow people to find my work. There is a constant tension between challenging the standard terminology and using it in order to communicate effectively.
What I took from Katja’s observation about the word ‘safe’ was a reminder to always question myself - to ask myself in relation to language: “what connotations does this word have?” and “what assumptions underpin it?”. Because language matters. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world”.