(In conversation with Mary Montaut, Aveen Murray explores the reality of trying to put into practice the nutritional and psychological theories about food, a task she feels challenges her to the almost when it comes to feeding her six-year-old son.)
Sometimes it feels like a minefield. I am trying to bring the child from being totally dependent, that is, breastfed or spoonfed, to the stage where he can choose food like anybody else and hopefully choose reasonably healthy options. I am trying to do it in a way that is beneficial to both the child and the family. I specifically did not want to get into a power struggle situation with my son over meals, but I know I still didn’t manage to do it. I think there are probably a lot of parents out there who feel the same. In reading around childcare books and journals or chatting to other parents, I haven’t found much that is helpful on this one issue. People tend to hav e extreme views, so that they either have very set rules about meals or else they just leave it completely and don’t really care what their children eat. I find it very hard to try and negotiate what is reasonable for the child and still be fair to him, while at the same time, not putting the adult in an impossible position. I meet a lot of mothers who cook two or three different things at a meal, where everybody has chosen something different. And I see mothers getting very angry about it – it is an unreasonable strain on their time and energy. And yet I find with my six- year-old that I’m in a power-struggle of some sort. I haven’t negotiated that territory to a point where a meal can just be prepared and sat down at and eaten in comfort.
Power and Responsibility
Feeding the family now feels a bit of a nuisance and a responsibility. My son used to eat anything when he was younger, but I think this probably started when he was around two and a half or when he was able to talk, and was able to articulate what he wanted. He started to get picky. It’s a nuisance, because I feel I can’t just walk into the supermarket and decide to have this for dinner because then he will end up eating almost nothing - or there’ll be a big fuss – or his father will say he’ll have to eat it and he won’t want to eat it and he’ll be choking on it and he’ll be told he has to finish it … Now, do you want to have that battle at your mealtime? So I tend to modify, and yet I’m trying to steer away from modifying to a point where I’m totally catering for his needs and everybody else has to fit in with them It is a power struggle! And then the responsibility side of it is that I feel children learn how to look after their own bodies and take responsibility for themselves largely from the example they get and what they learn in their family. And therefore, I suppose, I feel a responsibility that he will learn to take responsibility for his own body, and understand that you need to eat good food, not just certain treats, or you don’t stay healthy. And somehow I’m not managing to pass that message on to him. When I talk with other mothers or when I see what they do with their children, it seems that this is an area which we think about and don’t know how to negotiate through. I see some mothers end up with teenagers who’ll only eat if special things are made for them and I’m conscious I don’t want to end up in that place.
How Can I Leave Him Hungry?
I’ve read frequently in childcare books and psychology books that you must not make an issue about food, but they give very little information. They just say don’t make an issue about food and don’t have power struggles. The one consistent piece of advice about food, is that if the child doesn’t eat the good food you put on his place, you don’t offer anything else, you leave him hungry. But the idea of sending a child to bed hungry, that does something to me. I am really identifying with the child there, the idea of sending somebody to bed hungry or leaving somebody hungry is very difficult to me… which of course I’m sure the child appreciates. But I’d have to say if I think back, that is probably the one consistent piece of advice I’ve read and I haven’t managed to take it on board. I’m resisting in some way.
How do you draw the boundary between how much choice you let children have generally in life and how far do you let them take responsibility for things? Where you have to come in as the guiding parent? Somehow in relation to food, I haven’t been able to negotiate or handle that issue in a way which I’m really comfortable with for myself, and I’m not sure how to move it on.
Over-Identifying with Him
I think I’m over-identifying with the child in a lot of ways, and I would be conscious of doing that in other areas of parenting, finding it hard sometimes to set the boundaries because of feeling empathy or sadness for the child, even though a bit of me knew that the boundary needed to be set for him to move on. I’ve been conscious of having done that in other areas, but I suppose I haven’t been able to see how that tied in with food, because presumably there are so many other issues around food. Being a nurse, I’m conscious of nutrition. I know that you do get children who are quite anaemic or who get a lot of illnesses because they don’t have a good vitamin intake, for instance. I do feel that what we eat is fuel for our bodies and if we eat poor quality food a lot of the time, we may not fight infection and disease.
For the last two winters I haven’t felt confident that my six-year-old was healthily going into the winter. I have wondered whether he was anaemic because he would eat so little food containing iron, but yet I wouldn’t dream of subjecting him to a blood test because that seems extreme. Still I found myself buying a tonic for him. Really, I’d be dead against tonics because I feel your diet should provide what you need, but I know that it’s been shown that children who are anaemic perform less well at school and they are more prone to illnesses, so I find myself buying the tonic to start him off for the winter, even though that goes against my feelings. If he takes the tonic, I feel he probably isn’t disadvantaged nutritionally. Yet I’ve always been against tonics, I’ve always felt that taking tonics is ridiculous… I found myself feeling anxious about him and I’m treating him in a way I’d prefer not to.
A Cautious Child
My own childhood experience of food came in the sixties, when there wasn’t so much money; you came to dinner hungry and you had your dinner and I always liked what I was given. Generally speaking, you could put any food in front of me and I would eat it, so I feel it’s a worry or a responsibility, having a child who is not like me or anyone in my family. No-one in my family was picky about food. It’s not that I want him to be like me, in that I don’t mind if he eats boring food every day, but it’s the fact that the diet he chooses doesn’t seem reasonably well balanced, that I am conscious that there is a lack in some area of basic nutrition, which I feel doesn’t leave me free to just ignore it. But I also know that he’s an extremely cautious child about everything in life, and that he has always found his way to doing things if he is not pressurized into situations.
I’ve seen people who washed their children’s hair, holding them down, with the child screaming at the sink. For some reason he was very frightened of having his hair washed – no matter how we tried to do it, he felt very uncomfortable and frightened. So I adopted an attitude that it wasn’t that important to have your hair washed, because years ago people didn’t wash their hair all year, as long as you kept an eye out for any infestation. I didn’t want to do something which seemed to frighten him and so he didn’t have his hair washed or cut for a long time. Every so often he would let you give it a tiny wash, and eventually he came round, so it didn’t become a major issue. I am conscious that he is like that, there are things that seem to frighten him, I don’t know why – I couldn’t relate it to a specific experience where he’d been forced to do it. And when we allowed him the time to come to know that there were safe ways of doing things, he moved on in his own time.
When He Changes His Mind
I suppose I have applied the same idea around food and handled it similarly – he doesn’t like meat, so I don’t tend to push him to eat meat. But then every so often I’ve cooked something he would have said he liked and he decides he doesn’t like it – and then I find I’m really irritated. I feel, “Well for goodness sake, you’re not pushed to eat things that you say choke you and upset you and that feel wrong in your mouth, you normally like this food and it’s been cooked for you, and now you’re saying you don’t like this either! This is ridiculous.” The last time this happened I insisted he ate a reasonable portion of it. and I didn’t give him anything else. I didn’t feel I was being unreasonable towards him, and I didn’t feel I was being unfair to him. I was angry that, having had choices and having chosen to eat this food, he was now making a fuss about it. I suppose it was OK but it wasn’t a situation I wanted to find myself in too often. I suppose I’m a bit irritated that I had to end up being cross about something which I didn’t feel warranted it, like food. I feel cross about being made cross, it’s an issue about food again …. I suppose I would have to say that food is an issue with him in this house, whether I like it or not, and that, having tried not to make it one, I’ve ended up with it. I would like to negotiate out of that situation to where it’s not a major issue, and where I feel comfortable to let him look after it for himself.
What is Reasonable?
I feel that if children are responsible for their own food and for eating, then they should have some choice about it. And for some meals it seems that it’s alright for children to have choice, for instance, they can come in for breakfast and say they’re not having cereal but they feel like a yogurt this morning, and that seems to be reasonable choice. Yet when it comes to main meals, that’s where I find it’s a minefield. It doesn’t seem reasonable that a child has the choice to reject the main meal and just have something else. That’s where I feel really stuck – at what point do you say, this child is responsible for eating for himself and I can only tell him what’s good food and hope that he’ll eat it: while on the other side, we prepare family meals, it’s good food, it’s healthy food, and people should be expected to eat it - and I’m stuck in there, in that I don’t know what’s reasonable for a six-year- old.
I think I still have some difficulty, if I decide to take on board the one piece of advice that has been consistent, which is to say: “This is a meal that has been prepared for everybody and if you don’t want it that’s fine, but there isn’t anything else.” If I decide to take that on board, it still seems to leave me with questions in my head about choice, and what is fair and reasonable for a six-year-old as distinct from an adult… I’m conscious that when I was six, I didn’t have a choice and I did just eat everything, but I knew that if I didn’t eat my dinner, there just wasn’t anything else, there weren’t yogurts and other options in the fridge! Presumably my mother was able to make this transition that I’m finding so difficult to make, in that I grew up believing that you ate what was put in front of you…
Finding My Way
Finding my way as a parent as how to manage the different age groups, some of it has come from reading, some from understanding a bit of psychology, some from what I felt was right (even though I’m aware that your gut instinct isn’t always right because it depends on what it’s being fuelled by), but a lot of the good advice I got from other mothers, who’d discovered that there are ways of doing things that allow the child some independence and choice and yet guide them in what seems to be the right direction – but I’ve never found I’ve got that about food. When the issue about power and food would come up with other mothers, they didn’t seem to be able to help me solve it, although they could take other issues about child-rearing and other complex and sensitive issues on board, but in this case… I have friends who just accept that they make two or three different dinners and, although they moan about it and obviously they don’t completely accept it, it’s allowed to continue and happen and go on as normal in the family. The reason I wanted to look at this issue and have it aired is that I don’t want to be in that situation and I don’t think that it’s a reasonable situation to be in.
Maybe without being aware of it, I tend to over-emphasise on the nurturing side? That would tie in with what I said earlier in relation to the boundaries – I would have had difficulty with those, even though I see that they are very valid and very important to maintain, to develop an integrated human being. So if you were to ask me, yes, it is probably much easier for me to be nurturing than it is to set boundaries and see them maintained at the distress of the child… There is a bit of me saying that this is not the way I want it to be, and I want it to change, but I accept that overall I’m still buying into it which I’m not happy with, it’s not leaving me feeling satisfied as a parent. I don’t feel that I’m handling it right or that I’m giving him the right message… What message would be right? I find that hard to answer… The easy answer would be that food is enjoyable and it’s wholesome and it’s an important side of our life, we need it and we spend a lot of time eating, and therefore it’s a shame if it’s such a big problem to you and if you can’t get enjoyment out of it and if it’s such a big issue.
And yet he could turn that on its head and say, “Well, if you’d just let me eat what I want, it wouldn’t be an issue at all and I might just eat bread and cheese for the rest of my life, and why should that bother you?” So – what would be the right message to get across? I suppose the message that at some level I really am saying is that I would like him to eat a reasonable amount of food that other people eat because that is what suits the management of the family … and that is probably where I have the difficulty because I am keying into the empathy side, saying, if it feels wrong for the child … and that’s where I’ve not separated.
Aveen Murray is a nurse working with children in a hospital setting. She has two sons, aged six and three. As a member of the editorial board of Inside Out, she maintains a lively interest in psychotherapy as a lay person.