domingo, 30 de junio de 2013

Food Freedom for Children

When I had children and knew I would be rearing them in a very different way to the one I was brought up, I would have never thought that food would be the main point of disagreement between me and other people. Even though I have made myself clear about my philosophy on food, I still have to witness how other people try to control my children about what they eat, at what times and how much of it.

Before starting this new post, I reread the one I wrote last year about food, The Food Obsession, at the start of our two-month stay in Spain. We are now again at home with my parents, and it has also been just one week, but food has already been a problem. I've never thought of Dave and Alex as being fussy eaters, but in the eyes of other people, they are. My parents complain that they don't eat what they're given.

'Neither do you,' I said to my dad. 'Or I, for that matter. And by the way, thank you for letting me use your kitchen to prepare whatever I feel like.'

'But children should eat everything without question. We cannot be preparing different meals for everyone. With the thousands of children who die every day of starvation and malnutrition, they should be grateful for what they're given.'

This is what he used to say to me when I was little, and he still doesn't see the harm in it. I used to cry for those poor children, while forcing the food down my throat and failing to see how that was going to save them. Now I tell him my children are not to blame for that. On the contrary, we adults in developed countries are the ones who should eat less, buy less and waste less food and find the way to channel all that excess food to poor countries where it is really needed.

My mum still puts too much on the children's plates and encourages them to finish it all. She talks about 'lunch time' and if either one of the kids asks for a snack, urges them to wait, so as not to spoil their appetite. If the kids refuse to eat, she can't help but say, 'If you don't eat, you won't grow up fit and strong.' She claims that when I'm not around, they do eat whatever they're given and 'behave themselves beautifully'. She coerces them gently to try everything. My dad is not so gentle and one day he yelled at Dave, 'You either eat what's on your plate or you don't eat at all!' Dave had never been told this before and left the table in tears. Alex followed him and sat next to him on the floor, crying as well, in brotherly sympathy. Dave said he wouldn't sit at the table with his grandfather again until he apologised for talking to him that way. My dad  doesn't believe in apologising to children. Dave has kept his word, and I'm immensely proud of him for doing this.

So after less than a week here, we do what we always do when visiting my parents. The adults eat whatever they like, and I, knowing what the kids like, prepare the food for them. They don't eat a huge variety of things, but that has never been a worry to me. It is still a balanced diet and I actually don't understand why most people make such a fuss over children not trying absolutely everything.

With Dave and Alex's dad there is also disagreement over food, but in a different way. He buys them junk food, but because it's not really good for them, he tells them how much of it they can have. When we visited him recently in Korea, he would go to work while I stayed at his apartment with the kids knowing there were lollies and junk food hidden in the cupboards. At home, I don't hide food. Whatever we have in the fridge or the pantry is for the three of us to have whenever we please and how much of it we want. So while staying at their dad's this was a problem. He told me off for not putting a restraint on the amount of chupa-chups they had, and I said he shouldn't have bought a chupa-chup jar in the first place. He warned the children that if they couldn't stop themselves from having all the lollies, he wouldn't buy any more. We all said that would be a good idea. I don't eat any junk food myself, so I'm never inclined to buy any. When we go grocery shopping, though, I let them buy whatever they want. They usually get an ice cream and a packet of biscuits. It is up to them to get more stuff, but they don't.

I'm the one who seems to give them the most food freedom, although I realise that I still have a lot of conditioned parenting to get rid of. For example, I still struggle with their sugar intake. I think they have too much of it, and in the past I've made a point of telling them how bad certain foods are. It was my new friend Alice, whom I met on Gili Air, who made me see that projecting that negativity on junk food was actually worse than the food itself. Since then, I have refrained from saying anything bad about the lollies they eat or the many ice creams a day they would have when we were on the island. Looking back, I can't believe how negative I was sometimes about junk food. I always try to talk about positive stuff with the children, ignoring the negative so as not to focus attention on it, but I haven't always done that with food. I still talk about food (because I love it) and its nutritious content, but I now tend to ignore junk food like I do negative criticism or judgement. If they want it, they can still have it, but I don't talk about it anymore. To my enormous surprise, since I don't get so worked up about it, they've been less prone to eat badly.

I hear a lot of people talking about obese children nowadays. They blame TV, electronic tablets and junk food. In my experience, though, if you give children freedom to eat whatever they want, play for as long as they want, and watch TV as much as they want, they don't do so much of it. It is when there are restrictions or limits when they tend to overindulge. I set a good example by eating healthy, and I'm convinced that is the best way to educate them to have a healthy relationship with food. I want them to listen to their own bodies. They eat when they're hungry, and whatever they want. I don't think this is spoiling them. Adults also eat whatever they want. Children are people too and just because they're too little to fend for themselves is no reason for them to be deprived of certain stuff or forced into eating certain things they don't want.