I don’t force my kids to eat their vegetables. In fact, I don’t force them to eat anything, really. This isn’t out of laziness, and it’s not because I don’t place healthful eating habits near the top of the list of things I want to teach my children. It’s because I don’t believe that strategy works, and I value long-term success over short-term wins.
There are a couple of key things that contribute to this philosophy. First, I think that forcing a kid to eat something is a complete joke to begin with. There are 3 things you can’t force another person to do: eat, sleep and poop. Now, you can create an environment that hopefully will entice them to go along with your plan and you can establish healthy habits that encourage healthy behaviors, but every parent of a strong-willed child can tell you that short of physical harm you can’t actually force them to do any of those things. Ever tried to get a kid who’s afraid to poop on the potty to do it? You can bribe or threaten them with everything you can think of, but that kid has already figured out that they actually have the upper hand. You simply cannot force them to do it. They can hold it until naptime and go in their pull-up if they want to, and there is next to nothing you can do about it. The same is true for eating and sleeping; you can bribe and threaten, but if they want to be stubborn and hold out, they can.
Now this is where some parents will say that they will simply hold firm and force their kids to sit at the dinner table until they’ve cleaned their plate. Come hell or high water, they WILL eat that broccoli. For some kids, you may be able to outlast them, and they’ll just give in. Even if this is the case, however, what have you really won? You’ve proven that you can be more stubborn than your child. I would submit, though, that while you may have won that particular battle, you’re not winning any wars.
For me, I know that I have to go back and examine my true intentions.
Is my goal to prove to my kid that I am, in fact, the big, bad boss and that I can make them do something if I so choose? Or is my goal to help my child learn healthy eating habits that they will carry into adulthood?
Am I doing this to reassure myself that I am a conscientious parent and that I’m doing what good parents are supposed to do? Or are my actions intended to help my child form a healthy relationship with food that will contribute to a healthy lifestyle for decades to come?
When I think about it that way, I realize that what I’m really after is teaching my children to choose the right things instead of simply forcing the right things upon them. There are only a finite number of years that I will hold a place of significant influence over them, and once they are adolescents and adults they will choose whatever they please. If I have bullied them into doing what I want them to do, what’s the first thing they’ll do once they have freedom from me? Exactly the opposite of what I’ve demanded. And then all of the fighting and fussing and arguing have been absolutely for nothing.
So, here’s where I’ve landed.
First and foremost, I know that the most important long-term influence I have on my kids is what I do, not what I say. If I want them to eat healthfully and value nutritious foods, setting a good example is my first priority. I can’t tell you how many times I see mothers at a restaurant when they’ve ordered a plate of French fries for themselves and a fruit bowl for their toddler and they can’t see the irony in holding your children to a standard higher than what you’re willing to adhere to yourself.
Second, I gravitate toward the ideas put forth by a dietitian named Ellyn Satter (although I’ll admit I don’t implement all of these things well). She advocates what she calls a division of responsibility in feeding children. Parents are responsible for what food is served, and children are responsible for deciding how much to eat (or whether to eat at all). This takes the power struggle out of the equation because as any dietitian will tell you- combine control issues with food, and you’ve got a problem. Different people may manifest these issues differently- anywhere from overeating to anorexia- but food plus control (or lack thereof) equals a problem. So I adhere to the idea that it’s my job to offer nutritious choices, but it’s not my job to make them eat it.
Third, I take a deep breath and remember that whether my kid eats two green beans or twelve, it is not the end of the world. In reality, the nutrition a child needs is available even in very small quantities of fruits and vegetables, especially now that many of our foods are fortified with vitamins and minerals. (Just ask your pediatrician if you don’t believe me). I don’t put hidden vegetables underneath the cheese of their pizza or sneak spinach into their milkshakes because ultimately I think one of the most counter-productive things I can do is assert my anxiety about the issue onto my kid. I also don’t want to put my own needs of being seen by others as a good parent before what is truly helpful for my kids.
I want to be faithful in teaching the right things and then rest in the confidence that my children will grow to make their own decisions. They may not always choose what I would choose for them, but that’s okay. They will be okay. I’m sure of it.