Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Power and Food

In general, there is a pervading philosophy surrounding feeding children and healthy psychological practices which supports power sharing between adults and children when it comes to food. This is a good fit with my (developing) philosophy of parenting, and fits well with my desire to avoid the growing problems of eating disorders in young adults, and obesity, disordered eating, and a general disconnectedness with one's body. Disordered eating in particular has been linked with issues of personal power and autonomy surrounding food, so feeding one's kids in a way that shares power makes sense to me. The generally accepted philosophy is (1) parents decide what to offer, and (2) children decide whether to eat it or not. This is simplified, of course. It makes sense to offer at least some foods you know your child likes and will eat, and it makes sense to encourage them to try new foods, or eat some foods they don't prefer. But overall, parents offer a variety of healthy choices, and children eat to appetite.

And then, along comes a child who confounds our philosophies. Not every family has one of these in them, but ours does. Others do, also. Matthew has always been a problematic eater. How else does one say that, in a way that conveys just how much of a problem food consumption is, without sounding negative? Here are the problems:
-He does not eat to appetite
-He does not like to eat meals
-He declares "It's not my favourite" to all foods which are not plain pasta, bread, butter or dessert (our personal family's preferred phrase when rejecting a food is 'it's not my favourite')
-He is quite short and quite thin, with little margin for losing weight or slowing down on calorie consumption

Let me expand. Since he was 15 months, we have noted that Ayden will eat to appetite and declare he's done, and hop down from the table. Immediately, Matthew will declare "all done!" and follow suit. Regardless of his actual bodily experience of fullness or emptiness, regardless of how hungry he is or is not, keeping up with Ayden trumps all. Anything, really, trumps eating for Matthew. Spinning the lazy Suzan on our table which contains our butter, napkins, and salt and pepper. Kicking the dog under the table. Going to the bathroom numerous times per meal. Talking. Clapping. Kicking the table leg. If we let this child do what he wants, he'll play with all the objects on the table for five or ten minutes, ignore his food, declare himself full, and leave the kitchen as fast as can be.
He has exhibited, since day one, a complete absence of bodily awareness as far as appetite is concerned. The root cause of this is simply that there are WAY TOO MANY more interesting things to do than eat. Which is true, in fact. Eating IS kind of boring, and repetitive, especially if it's food you don't particularly like.
But when you like only pasta, bread, and sugar, you're painting your parents into a corner, dude!
There are select fruits he likes, but they change all the time. One day, he loves blueberries. A week later, he won't touch them. Same with grapes. Apples. Strawberries. Melons.
(Unless they are covered in sugar).

I decided he was more of a grazer, and tried to feed him that way for years. But in the end, this resulted in him declaring himself full, and begging me for food CONSTANTLY. Constantly. And he would refuse his meal, or any variations except pasta, bread, or sugar. Brent would make him eat from his plate at meals, but it seemed negative to me, and contrary to the above feeding philosophy.
But I got tired of the constant begging. How can I handle my skinny child being HUNGRY all the time? And how can you blame his body for being hungry, what with skipped meals and blood sugar spikes from all the bread and pasta, and occasional crackers?
So in early July we started a new system. Brent or I make a meal. We select a small portion of what the rest of the family is eating, put it on his plate, and he is required to eat it. All. Sometimes he can exert control over a stir fry or casserole and choose ONE vegetable to leave behind (especially if it's one we know he hates), but the general idea is that we monitor how much we feel it takes to make him full, and we serve it, and--it's totally old fashioned and runs exactly contrary to the current child feeding philosophy that WE AGREE WITH--but he must eat what is on his plate.

And. It. Works.
He doesn't beg for food anymore. He's not HUNGRY all the time anymore. He even looks about 1% less skinny, though that's hard to judge without before and after test weighs, which I didn't do because I'm not being obsessive about this. Confound it, this child WILL challenge all my best loved philosophies!

My greatest hope is this can bridge the gap between NOW and a future developed self awareness with food, fullness, and hunger. But letting him regulate his intake hasn't developed this in him at ALL, and in the meantime, he has to eat. And eat more than just pasta and bread.

The downside is that mealtimes are a struggle to get Matthew to eat. He negotiates constantly. I'm sure he feels a sense of a loss of power over this thing he really dislikes doing, and I try to be understanding but firm. And often, we wind up spoon feeding him the final half or so of his supper. He will eat it, but it's tons faster if we select bite sized (as opposed to crumbs-too-small-for-a-mouse sized) pieces to put on his fork, and put the fork in his mouth. In true form, I once harshly judged a mom for spoon feeding her four year old, and now here I am doing it with my six year old.
Ah, life. You're so thick with irony. Like the milkshakes Matthew loves.

The upside is that I am far more willing to feed him smoothies and desserts and treats that he likes if I know he ate a solid, all food groups, healthy plate at our last meal. So he actually has the opportunity to enjoy food more. And, as we are consistent, although he still argues, he resists less because we consistently expect more.

The longer I know Matthew, the more I see that he rises to a challenge, rather than gradually progressing to the next stage of development in his life, like most other children. An enriching environment is positive for Matthew, but not motivating, Challenges are motivating. Which is a unique and interesting characteristic to have! And I think could serve him well as an adult, if he can devise ways to pique his long term interest and curiosity in things and learn to challenge himself. Or find an environment that consistently challenges him. Like being a teacher, or owning his own business. Or inventing things. Although inventors seem to me to be solitary types, and one of Matthew's greatest attributes is his charisma. He has a remarkable ability to make people feel special, and to capture their interest and focus. That might be better utilized in a classroom as opposed to an invention workshop....or maybe he will teach, and invent tools and gadgets to enhance learning opportunities in his students??
It will be fascinating to see him grow up into who he will be.

In the meantime, I hope he develops bodily awareness when it comes to food. So I won't be spoon feeding my twenty year old.


Caryn Ouwehand said...

I'm glad to hear your new method is working.

We struggle with Silas' eating too. I wish we could lay down some more laws around mealtime because he is a picky eater, but he is still too young to grasp any type of "rules".

I think you guys are wise to switch things up and do the "you have to eat what is on your plate" thing if the other way wasn't working. Ah kids... if they don't make us liars, they definately make us hypocrites. I am doing things all the time I said I never would.

Tonya said...

Yeah, I don't follow your beloved philosophy. My philosophy is that if I've taken the time to make food, the child is going to eat it. I don't make them clean their plates, but they have to TRY the food. And we end up spoon feeding Josiah many times too (he's 4-1/2). He's VERY similar to Matthew. Sometimes I wonder if he's ADHD when it comes to eating! :-) Now, not if there is ice cream or graham crackers and milk!

Ahhh, isn't being a parent great! Just when you think you have it sorted out you have a kid who doesn't follow your rules! :-) I think it's God's way of keeping me humble.

Asheya said...

You've probably already made the connection, but this seems to me to be very related to his lack of awareness when it comes to toilet issues i.e. he is just not listening to or is ignoring his body's cues about fullness/emptiness at appropriate moments because they are other things that are more important. These things may actually be considered survival things in Matthew's subconscious (oh, I am such an amateur psychologist!) because they are related to people (i.e. Ayden), and our primary need is belonging and love. I would guess that because of his early experiences as a baby and then the transition to a new family as a toddler, he is more concerned on a subconscious level with preserving his social relationships than attending to his bodily needs and functions. So for him, this may be interpreted as 'if Ayden's done, I'm done' because doing things with Ayden is more important than being hungry/not hungry. Of course, eventually this backfires because if you ignore your bladder and pee your pants it's not very socially acceptable, and if you don't eat the good food your mama gives you then your mama may be extremely frustrated! That's just a theory, which may or may not have any validity.

I was talking to one mom who said that she always cooks 3 vegetables, and her son has to pick two. So she will cook one vegetable she knows he likes, and then he has to choose two. Of course, this is harder if Matthew doesn't like any veggies! But maybe you could put an element of choice in his eating by putting strict guidelines in place about choosing from certain options (like he can pick which 2 veggies out of 3). This would help with the 'he has some control' factor while still allowing you to make him eat in a nutritious and filling way.

Of course, I am not at all qualified to offer advice on this subject, as my kids eat fine. So please disregard what I've said if I'm totally out to lunch!

p.s. I was struck by how positive you are about Matthew's qualities that are making life difficult for him and you right now. YOU are great at looking at a challenge and seeing it as an opportunity, and you are also very tuned in to Matthew and what works and doesn't work for him. I'm very impressed! xo

melissa said...

Thank you guys. I LOVE what Caryn said:
"Ah kids... if they don't make us liars, they definately make us hypocrites"
Wow, that made me laugh hard.
And Tonya, on occasion I have seriously considered if Matthew might have some type of condition of the oropharynx or esophagus like a constriction or something, until I remember how fast he can inhale a chocolate cake...
Asheya, thanks for your thoughts! There might be something to the psychological insight, though I lean towards a simple personality thing. But that theory is a good one to consider, and I hadn't thought of it! Most of all, thanks for the p.s. It's very, very vulnerable for me to share anything about Matthew these days, after 3 recent negative 'situations' where people overtly verbally criticized my parenting of him. So I appreciate that you saw something positive in what I said. Sometimes I want to wear a t-shirt that says "I LOVE MY KID" on the front and "MY KID HAS A DIFFICULT PERSONALITY TO PARENT" on the back, you know?! So people will know exactly where I'm coming from...

melissa said...

and p.s., yes I made the connection between the disconnect from appetite and the disconnect from voiding--but after being ripped apart for expressing frustration over elimination, I am loathe to talk about it for awhile, so I didn't mention the connection. I'd say our two major conflicts with Matthew right now are IN and OUT. Food in, food out. So frustrating.

lori said...

Well. This is a very interesting topic, since I too have a twig of a child who just won't eat much in one sitting. As you know, Z is much younger than Matthew and still nursing part-time, but we are seeing the leading edge of this (potentially problematic?) wave. Neither Jason nor I want mealtime to be a battle, so we have tried to keep it fun and light-hearted. And we are fortunate in that she has a very diverse palate. There isn't much she won't try; it's just that she eats so daggone little! I honestly don't understand how she's still alive. I guess my breastmilk is doing a lot.

So, no advice or insight from me, but suffice it to say, anytime you post about trials and errors with this topic, it will be of personal interest to me.