Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Parenting advice that works!

I love reading parenting books. I feel like I need a lot of help, and many books out there have great advice. (In a later post, I'll share some of what I've been learning this summer).

But of course, there are so many parenting books out there, and some give differing or contradictory advice. How do you decide which advice to follow?

I have a good friend whose daughter was born a year after my daughter, and I wrote her a letter upon her daughter's birth titled something like, "The Ten Lessons I Learned from My First Year as a Parent." I don't remember all 10, but I do remember that I wrote something like the following about parenting advice: "Take it all in, weigh it, and decide whether it makes sense to you based on your experiences and what you know about your child. And if you're not sure, try it out and evaluate the results." In other words, parenting advice is just that--advice, not truth etched in stone. Advice can be weighed, examined, tried, evaluated, and even rejected.*

One piece of advice I have often read is about children who are picky eaters. The general consensus is that you shouldn't force children to eat anything, just encourage them to try new foods, and eventually they'll eat a variety. Other tips are offered: for example, having children help you grow, cook or prepare foods, and setting a good example by eating healthy foods yourself are recommended.

Still, there are some dissenters from this advice, those who say that kids learn to eat all kinds of foods only when not given a choice about whether or what to eat or not. And sometimes I struggled with whether or not that was true. Here is my tale...

My stubborn mama: My mom grew up with Depression-era parents who were of the mindset that you never waste food and you eat what's put before you or else. My mom, however, was both a very picky eater and very stubborn, and she fought them tooth and nail in this arena. If she was told she couldn't get up until she cleaned her plate, she sat at the table all day. If she was told that she could leave the table but would have to eat the same plate at the next mealtime, she'd go hungry. When faced with a kid that stubborn, parents either have to give in or become abusive (force-feed the kid, beat them, or starve them). Since my grandparents weren't abusive, eventually they'd give in.

But my mother never forgot those battles, and never really overcame her aversion to many foods, either. To this day, she hates oatmeal and most vegetables, except for sweet potatoes, green beans and iceberg lettuce.** And she decided that she wasn't going to battle with her own kids at the table.

She'd serve vegetables, even though she didn't like them, because she knew they were good for kids. But she'd make deals with us: we had to eat as many bites as we were old. Or, if a nutritional equivalent was in the fridge (a salad, or a leftover vegetable we liked), we could exchange it for what was on our plate. Because of this system, there weren't any dinner table battles in our home. But there might not have been anyway, since my siblings and I weren't very picky eaters. (I only disliked peas and lima beans).

My picky daughter: I had hoped for the same with my daughter, but alas, it wasn't to be. While she happily accepted baby food veggies at first, at about 18 months she started spitting them out. By age 3, the only vegetable she would eat was French fries with ketchup. And that bit of advice about how after 15-20 tries of a new food a kid will eat something? Not my kid. I tried hard not to compare her to my niece, who at age 3 was happily ordering bowls of broccoli for lunch.

At this point, I began to doubt the "don't force them, give it time" advice. Only the realization of how forcing a kid to eat backfired with my mom held me in check.

You know what? It eventually paid off. It took a lot more than 15-20 tries, but by age 4, she was gradually accepting vegetables again. First carrots, then celery, then salads, and so on.

Success! On Sunday afternoon, my 6-year-old daughter asked to make her own lunch, and I said yes. Usually when she makes something for herself, it's a sandwich or a bowl of cereal. This Sunday, however, was different: she made a salad. And not just a basic lettuce salad, either. Her salad (in a big bowl, btw!) contained romaine lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, celery, green beans and carrots. She added ranch dressing and ate the whole thing! Patience and a good example paid off.


* One piece of advice I rejected when my daughter was an infant: read to your baby 20 minutes a day. Whose infant can sit through a 20-minute story??! Not mine. She'd either fall asleep after a minute or two, or grab the book and chew it! By age 2, however, she loved to have stories read to her.

** My mom, of course, waited until we were adults to tell us this.

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