By Kathy Franklin
My second huge debt to Dr. Spock comes from his advice on taking the value judgment out of your child’s eating habits. Don’t make food an emotional issue, and don’t let it become a struggle. He recommends that you never say, “Have just one more bite for Mommy, please” or “You’re such a good girl for cleaning your plate.” That just adds extra emotional dimensions to food, making it about being good or bad, confusing it with love and cooperation and other powerful things that shouldn’t have anything to do with eating. If you make this mistake, your child may grow up to be just like the rest of us, saying “I was so good today because I didn’t eat any cake,” or “I was so bad, I finished the box of cookies,” or, eating a whole container of ice cream when she’s depressed or upset. If you don’t let food become emotional for your child, then they’re less likely to feel sad, deprived, or angry when they can’t eat some particular thing, or many things, that the other kids can.
Likewise, Dr. Spock advises us to refrain from saying “Finish your vegetables” and “No dessert until you’ve eaten all your spinach. ” In saying these kinds of things, as we all tend to do, we’re inadvertently labeling vegetables as “something Mommy wants me to eat,” and dessert as “something I want to eat.” Don’t worry too much about whether your child is getting proper nutrition, says the doctor, because if you provide a variety of healthy and tasty foods, they’ll eat well enough. But if you verbally push certain foods over others, you may undermine their natural attraction to those you do want them to eat, and encourage an unintended desire for other, less-nutritious foods. You’ll invite a power struggle to boot. Spock jokingly recommends that if you absolutely must say something about your child’s not eating enough, you say “No vegetables until you’ve finished all your dessert.” I’ve tried it, and it works like a charm. Your child will smile, and probably eat the vegetables. Or not. But you’ve defused any incipient argument, and you’ve sent a powerful message to your child that you really don’t care all that much what he eats. Of course you do care, but it’s important for his emotional health, and his handling of his food restrictions, that he feels like he’s in control.
I’m certain that my son handled his food allergies as well as he did – never once did he feel sorry for himself — because there were so few of these extra connotations in his mind. Food wasn’t about love or caring or control or happiness, it was just something you ate to avoid hunger. It’s plenty hard enough having to check ingredients in everything, to be careful not to touch someone else’s snacks, and to remember your meds all the time, without having any extra emotional baggage. God Bless you, Dr. Spock.