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Seven Habits of the Highly Effective Parent of a Picky Eater

SURE-FIRE ways to make pickiness a habit at your house.  – photo by Anna Migeon

Want pickiness to become a way of life at your table? Here are a few tips to guarantee it does.

1. Make feeding chaotic. Feed your child whenever he’s hungry, or let him forage for himself. Let him eat whatever he wants. That’s more natural than being all structured and organized and strict about it.  Don’t refuse him anything he wants. If he’s not hungry when an actual meal rolls round, just force him to eat anyway.

2. Allow your child to eat wherever he wants: on the couch, in front of the TV, running around outside or inside while playing, in the car,  and not just at the table. Children need to be free.

3. Press him to eat if he isn’t hungry, or if he doesn’t eat something you’ve served. Not being hungry doesn’t mean you don’t need to eat. You always need to eat. The more kids eat, the better.

4.  Pit foods against each other as you micromanage and manipulate. “You want a meatball? Well, you have to eat a carrot first. Want dessert? You have to eat all your rice.”

5. Adapt to your child’s eating. If he spits out a certain food, try giving it to him with ranch dressing, or cooked, if it was raw. Or peel it, for example. If he still won’t eat it, stop serving it. Serve him only the foods you know he’ll eat, and serve them the way he likes them.

6. Spoon food into his mouth or otherwise forcefully make him eat.

7. Worry about what he actually eats instead of how he is behaving. Make meals a filling station, focused on getting them to down certain foods in certain amounts, instead of making it a social time where you build a relationship and give your child social skills.

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Emerson and the Calf, or One Good Reason Kids Refuse to Eat

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Ralph Waldo Emerson was smart, but researchers now suspect he tried to make his son eat green beans.

One day,  Ralph Waldo Emerson  and his son, Edward, needed a calf to go in the barn. So the elder Emerson, the great Transcendentalist writer and philosopher, pushed on the calf’s backside while his son grabbed the animal’s head and pulled from the front. They pushed and pulled with all their strength, but the calf resisted with all of his might, over and over.

“How to get this calf into the barn?” Emerson wondered, with his deep, philosophical mind.  He thought about all the advice he could think of from his wide reading. He pondered his own ideals of self-reliance, muttering to himself his famous injunction to “trust thyself,” but could produce no insight on the subject.  He was stuck.

Just then a young kitchen maid walked by and saw the problem. With a little smile, she stuck her finger into the calf’s mouth. The calf began to suck happily on the girl’s finger, and she led the animal effortlessly into the barn.

Like a child who doesn’t want to eat, the calf didn’t want to be forced. It didn’t actually object to going into the barn, it just was reacting naturally against force.

Likewise, a child will want to eat, but pushing and forcing never works. If you push, he has to push back. Some children have physical problems or developmental delays that make it truly painful, difficult or even impossible for them to eat. These kids often react even more violently than other children to being force-fed. Who can blame them?

You can’t compel a calf to go or a kid to eat against their will (not with good long-term results anyway)  but you can arrange for them to be willing. Restricting a child’s access to food is the best way to arrange it.

Like the calf, the child has natural desires and needs that clever parents can leverage. The calf likes to suck, and the child does like to eat, whether it seems that way or not. He has to eat to live. Those natural desires and needs can be understood and worked with.

If a child learns that the only time and place that food is available is at the table at meal times and a set snack time, he will become quite agreeable about going to the table at that time and eating whatever is available. If he knows that if he throws fits at the table or is disagreeable and disobedient, he won’t be allowed to stay at the table and eat for that meal, he will shape up in short order. Getting enough to eat will be become the child’s problem, instead of the parent’s.

But putting pressure on the child won’t make him eat any more than pushing on the calf made him go into the barn. Even if you do manage to get something down the hatch, you can’t make him want it. That tiny battle may seem to be “won” but the war is far from over.

The Push-Pull Principle: two rules to reverse the cycle of pushing and food refusal

1. Limit eating. Pull away. No random snacking to spoil the appetite outside of meals or a specific snack time. If a child only gets to eat certain things at certain times, he will eat those things at those times. If staying at the table and eating is dependent upon good behavior, he will both value the privilege of eating and will behave. Of course, making this plan work requires the parent to be resolute and firm.

2.  Never pressure a child to eat anything. No pushing. Pushing and force is a sure way to create a cycle of resistance.

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Related post:

Serious Reasons Not to React to a “Picky” Toddler


Solution for Picky Eaters: PediaSure, Why Not?

November 9, 2011 4 comments

I just learned of the existence of PediaSure. Apparently it’s been around for at least ten years, but I just discovered it, seeing one of its commercials for the first time. I’m chagrined, but shouldn’t be surprised, to learn that such a thing exists.

There may be some justifiable use of this product, though it’s hard for me to imagine any. For a child who is physically or mentally ill or has genuine, physical sensory problems, I’ll suspend judgment for now.

If it’s for the typical picky child, though, PediaSure is a “solution” that offers false security while aggravating the problem of pickiness in a child. It’s a child’s solution to the problem, not a wiser parent’s solution.

PediaSure will resolve the root problems of pickiness about as well as giving in to a terrorist’s demands or giving a child the candy bar he’s throwing a fit for in the store. It’s rather like providing money for the addict to get a fix instead of doing the tough love thing. PediaSure takes advantage of a parent’s fear and lack of understanding. It’s no solution at all. It perpetuates the cycle. It’s an enabler.

The commercial is infuriating. In the grocery store, a little girl is shown challenging her mom to a battle. As Mom puts real food in the cart, the child tells her, “I don’t like broccoli,” and “I don’t like chicken.” She doesn’t even think she likes waffles. She’s a hard case.

For the first few scenes, I’m pleasantly surprised by the mom. She doesn’t argue with the kid; she keeps her reactions to a minimum. She doesn’t give in. She buys all the items anyway. So far, so good. She could win this thing.

As for the child, that little cutie is an outstanding actress; she has that genuine expression of a picky kid: “And what are you gonna do about it, Mom? Am I gonna win here, or are you? Can I get you to worry and cater to me? Do I get to be the Fussy Princess, or will it fall flat?”

It’s a richly layered acting performance: a kid pretending to be a kid who’s pretending to be terribly picky, just to manipulate her mom. She manages to convey it all. But the child and the mom look so much alike, maybe the little darling and her mom are just being themselves. It’s so lifelike that I suspect this may not be a dramatization, but just another trip to the store with a real mom and daughter.

Then we find out why Mom isn’t worried about her picky eater. She has an ace in her pocket. She has taken it all very seriously and knows what to do. PediaSure is on her shopping list. Her child has the condition of pickiness, for which PediaSure is the cure. She considers her problem solved.

But Mom loses the game at that point. She has given in to her child’s silliness out of fear of the unmanageable little sweetheart, who smiles in triumph.

At home, the mom gives the glass of PediaSure to the girl, watching in deep satisfaction, as if she had finally gotten food for her starving child, who is still strong enough to down it before falling into an irreversible coma: “At last, I found something that will keep her body and soul together.” The girl looks pleased at winning the battle and having a nice, sugary drink. Such joy all around.

“Help fill the holes in your picky eater’s diet with PediaSure,” the manufacturer assures us. It’s all so simple. The mom rests secure that the child is getting the nutrients needed to thrive.

Her little angel is not learning to eat real food, and a decided preference for sweets will be reinforced with every glug of one of those “kid approved” PediaSure flavors. But at least she’ll survive for now.

This commercial illustrates what’s really happening with the average “picky eater.”  The typical picky kid has learned how to defend herself against parental pressure and urging at the table. I don’t blame the child. As obnoxious as she is, her response is normal. The mom’s reaction are the crux of the matter. Her intentions are good, but she needs real help. I’m sure she has her reasons. She clearly doesn’t know any better. She’s listened to lots of advice. But she needs understanding. Change her tactics and everything can change.

Kids are picky eaters because it works for them somehow. They get attention, they feel special, they find an identity as a “picky eater” that serves them. They like making Mom cater to them. They like being able to control Mom and get her to react, and being able to refuse. It all probably began when the girl was a toddler; she experimented with testing her limits and resisting food, and her mom fell right into it. Mom’s reactions created the current situation.

It’s no wonder the little girl won’t be hungry for any actual food when Mom serves that chicken and broccoli at dinner time. She’s filled up on PediaSure. But even if she hadn’t, she’s the type of kid that really cares about winning a battle of wills with Mom. She seems ready to go to extremes to have the last word. Some kids are like that. If Mom hadn’t ever started pushing her daughter to eat and hadn’t allowed herself to be drawn in to fighting with her over food, the girl would get no satisfaction out of being picky. She and Mom would find something to fight about, certainly, but not about food.

As for the makers of PediaSure, they may be perfectly aware of what they’re doing and are cynically laughing at us all the way to the bank. Or maybe they sincerely believe they are providing an excellent product that really meets the consumer’s needs. Either way, don’t fall for it.

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How Much Do You Care about Your Kids’ Eating? How Much is Too Much?

October 24, 2011 Leave a comment

ANGELA can't bring herself to eat her peas because her mom wanted her to so badly.

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In the mid-90s TV show My So-Called Life, a baby-faced Claire Danes plays Angela Chase, an emo teenager.

About four minutes into the pilot episode, the scene opens with Angela’s sigh, and an arial view of her plate of peas with mashed potatoes and gravy and meatloaf being pushed around by her fork.

“I cannot bring myself to eat a well balanced meal in front of my  mother,” says Angela in a voice-over. “It just means too much to her,”.

JEREMY MAY FEEL A LITTLE SMOTHERED now and then.

An old Zits comic strip uses the identical statement to illustrate the same kid attitude.

Jeremy is earnestly confiding in his best friend, Hector, how he wants to join the Peace Corps and give back to society in response to the abundance and opportunities he’s been given in life.

Just then Jeremy’s mom walks by. Her ear is caught instantly and her head stays behind to catch the rest.

“Are you kidding?” Jeremy yells when he sees her eavesdropping. “Spiderman with a laser gun would beat Hellboy any day!”

Mom walks on past, with a sigh and a roll of her eyes.

“I can’t bring myself to ever have a serious conversation in front of my mom. It means too much to her,” Jeremy explains.

Isn’t this the kids’ fault? Aren’t they little stinkers to act that way? Maybe, but we probably can’t change them. Maybe they’re only responding as normal humans to our pushiness and over-eager parenting.  It’s known as hovering. Being control freaks.

Parents may need to summon up more dignity, more leadership, more self-confidence, more confidence in their kids and less fearful fussiness when this is the kind of reaction we get from kids.

Maybe these examples help explain why begging, pleading, praising and telling kids how much it means to us when they eat their peas only results in more resistance.

Maybe our kids, like Angela and Jeremy, actually do want to do the right thing, if we’ll just get out of the way.

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Related posts:  The Secret Life of Kids: Are Picky Eaters Still Picky When No Grownup’s Around to See?

The Golden Rule and Helicopter Parents at the Dinner Table

Another Bad Tip for Feeding the Hypersensitive, Orally Defensive or Sensory Processing Disordered Child

November 30, 2010 1 comment

HYPERSENSITIVE or Orally Defensive children are not your typical picky eaters. — photo by Anna Migeon

In my last post, we looked at Amy, one of those children generally considered to be on the autism spectrum, with neurological and physiological causes for being a picky eater.   Amy was diagnosed as “hypersensitive to oral input” or “orally defensive.”

Such children should be under the supervision of a doctor to make sure that their nutritional needs are met. But as with all children who resist eating, the family dynamics and relationship around eating can either aggravate the problems, or ease them.

Amy’s parents do their best to get her to eat. Most recommendations they’ve been given for getting their hypersensitive child to eat involve various forms of pressure and urging. The more desperate they are to get her to eat, the more she digs in her heels, saying her throat “feels swollen up.”

If pressuring your child to eat doesn’t work very well, as it doesn’t with Amy, doing more of the same probably won’t work any better. It may be time to try something completely different.

Bad Tip #4: “Praise her for trying or eating things.”

What could be wrong with affirming and approving your child, who has such a troubled relationship with food, when she does manage to eat?

Amy is a child in ongoing distress. She’s hungry yet can hardly get food down her throat. She needs to feel unconditionally accepted as well as to feel capable and in charge of herself and her own eating. We want to increase her level of comfort with the food itself, not take advantage of her desire for acceptance to control her and to increase the pressure on her. Being watched, fussed over, urged, and evaluated only turns eating into an even less pleasant experience.

“I’m so proud of you for trying the beets!” sounds like positive reinforcement— hardly qualifying as “pressure”— but  it actually underlines the idea in the child’s mind that eating beets is an act of self-denial, the disagreeable thing you do to make your mom happy.

Praise or  any other such tactics to control her and pressure her to eat just causes Amy to retreat further. Even more than most of us, she naturally resists a push. She needs, even more than the typical child, to take the lead in her own eating.

Instead of Praise for Eating:

  • Switch the environment of pressure to eat to one of letting her come after food as she is able.  Allow her to pursue food for herself instead of feeling she must defend herself against its onslaught or eat something that disgusts her to gain her parents’ approval. Assume she is hungry and wants to eat if she can. Don’t use the power as the parent to get the child to do what you want, even it is “for her own good.” Make only good choices available, then support and reassure rather than pressure her. Let her be in control of her own eating. Your child shouldn’t be eating to please you or for any other reason than to enjoy it and to feel satisfied by it, in the friendly company of her family or friends. Give her the dignity of as much self-control as possible. Avoid giving her any cause to refuse to eat out of rebellion. Back off and let her take the initiative to touch, sniff, taste.
  • Remain as neutral, casual and calm as possible about her eating.  Denying her feelings and difficulties or expressing anger, as frustrating as it all is, will only make matters worse. It’s not fun for her, either. Your hypersensitive child doesn’t start out refusing to eat to make you crazy or to be bratty, though as with any child, that element tends to develop under pressure.

Getting excited when she does manage to eat something different may increase the pressure on her and detract from her own positive feelings about the eating itself. The flip side of the praise coin is criticism. If we praise, what will stop us from criticizing when it doesn’t go as we want it to? If we act like eating is a behavior, good or bad, and judge her for it, how is she going to feel accepted when she can’t help being an extremely picky eater?

Try to accept her problems as the way things are and move forward with as much cheer and nonchalance as you can muster.

  • Let her take the lead about whether she wants to talk about her eating and how she feels about it. Don’t use your own feelings to pressure her to eat. Accept and acknowledge her negative feelings. Instead of praising, reflect and name her own feelings of satisfaction about eating.

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Coming soon:

How to support and encourage a child who has difficulty eating

More Bad Tips for Feeding Hypersensitive, Orally Defensive or Sensory Processing Disordered Children

Related Post:

Three Bad Tips for Feeding Hypersensitive, Orally Defensive or Sensory Processing Disordered Children

“Stealth Health” or “Psychological Nudges”? Getting kids eating better

October 25, 2010 7 comments

From the NPR website: Courtesy of Christine M. Gray, principal of Oakton Elementary Third-graders Kalli Cannistraro (from right) and Emily Park sample healthy food options at Oakton Elementary

This morning on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, two solutions were offered to get kids eating healthier at school.

The first, developed by a couple of moms, is to conceal pureed vegetables–“hidden healthies”– in kid favorites like cheese sauce on corn chips.  Obviously, this is a plan inspired by two mom-authored cookbooks published a few years ago, which arm moms with all the weaponry for getting vegetables down kids’ throats without their realizing. These  double-dealing recipes are, I suppose, probably nutritionally superior to the processed junk most schools are feeding kids.

The problem with this approach, as pointed out by David Just of the Center for Behavioral Economics and Child Nutrition at Cornell University, is that kids aren’t learning to make good choices. They’ll get a little nutrition inside them at school through these sneaky dishes, but their tastes and their choices are left in the same sad shape for wherever else they eat.

Just’s almost equally sneaky plan takes us one step further toward a solution to the problem. With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his group is studying the “psychological nudges” that can directly influence children’s food choices in the lunchroom.

For example, if we make the chocolate milk a little harder to see and reach than the white milk, more kids will choose the white milk, if only inadvertently. It works on the youngsters in the middle, who aren’t that committed to junk food, those not paying attention, whose vote can be unconsciously swung with certain strategic lighting or by making the junky choices less convenient in various ways. The idea is to create an environment that encourages good choices without confronting the bad choices.

It’s fascinating to see how our choices can be influenced by smart researchers. It’s interesting. It’s clever. It works. It’s not a bad thing. I like to be sneaky too: put out raw vegetables when kids are hungry, or serve salad as a first course, also when they’re hungry, so they’re more likely to eat it.  I try to serve healthy food attractively. I’m all for such wisely passive techniques to get kids to eat better.

I just wonder how much money is coming out of tax dollars to develop these painstaking methods to increase the good choices our kids are making, on top of all the money being spent at the same time to buy junk food to offer in school cafeterias. We’re proposing it with one hand while we try to get them not to take it with the other. It seems like a house divided. Still, the plan has some value, but I wonder if kids’ choices will be any better when they leave school, when they’ll be bombarded by the urgency of bad choices. What happens when the psychological nudges are all pushing the other direction? What will happen when they walk down the street, or watch TV, or go to the movies or a restaurant?

The trouble with this solution is that it still doesn’t go nearly far enough.  We can create an atmosphere where the “psychological nudges” are positive but that doesn’t mean we’ve instilled conviction or understanding or any kind of commitment to healthy choices or appreciation of healthy food. The only good thing is they might gradually start getting used to and enjoying healthy choices a bit more through exposure. These choices we’re encouraging are still unconscious and temporary, dependent on just the right cues. We can’t recreate these cues everywhere in the world any more than we can get rid of all the germs or allergens our children might encounter in the world. Maybe leaving the chocolate milk as a choice would be a good thing if we could manage to get all the kids to reject it, if they were learning to choose well when they are tempted, but that’s not what the psychological cues methods are attempting to do.

What we can do is so much simpler. It doesn’t require any government funding or expensive research. It doesn’t require sophisticated expertise in psychological manipulation. It just requires good sense and a commitment to teaching our children to feed themselves well for life.

First, at home and at school, we need to provide only good choices, without apology. Just as kids will encounter germs in the world,they’ll also face plenty of pressure to eat junk in life. However, we don’t want to be the ones actually providing a filthy environment or junk food with our home budget or our tax dollars. How much resources are going into getting kids not to drink the chocolate milk, when we could just eliminate it from the choices? Yes, kids want choices, but those choices we provide should be between great and great, wonderful and another kind of wonderful.

If parents want to feed their kids sugar and junk food, there’s probably not much that can be done right now, other than education and awareness. Many parents are apparently supplying their kids with plenty of junk food. I just don’t see how we can justify proving a single bite more in tax funded schools.  How can we deliberately choose to use our resources to add to the problem?

Next, we want to cultivate children’s tastes. We need to quit being sneaky and be direct. Kids are reasonable creatures and can take it. They can learn to appreciate real food. We want to introduce them to the genuine article: real vegetables in all their naked glory, as amazingly prepared and seasoned and as beautiful and fragrant as we can manage.  We want to expose them to the widest variety of real foods possible. We don’t need to invent new or sneaky recipes, rather bring out the most amazing ones that have been developed around the world and through the ages. We want kids to make friends of as many different healthy foods as can be. We need to create an atmosphere where healthy food is yummy and interesting and attractive, rather than just the more convenient option. We want them to learn to enjoy healthy foods. If they don’t, we’re giving them a fish instead of teaching them to fish.

Next, we need to educate children about the terrible things junk food does to their bodies. We need to be vivid and graphic and terrifying. Disgusting works, too. We need to show them how junk food is produced, its nasty origins and what’s wrong with it. They need to hear how corporations are poisoning them for profit. They need to see demonstrated dramatically the havoc sugar and industrial grease wreaks on your body chemistry.  They deserve to know about the illnesses bad eating causes. We need to tell them the same stories that have convinced and inspired us to want to eat well.

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Related post:

Child Obesity Task Force: Stacking the Deck against Parents and Health

Why Dessert as a Bribe is a Bad Bargain

August 13, 2010 6 comments

Let’s just say we want to eat ice cream every night as dessert after dinner. We’re grown-ups, so we eat our dinner first. The problem comes when the kids, who don’t care about what’s good for them, just want to eat the ice cream and skip the salad, meat and veggies.

So we make a bargain, for their own good: they have to eat dinner before they can have ice cream. Sometimes it works. Sometimes maybe it’s the only way we can make the children eat their dinner.  It becomes complicated, though: just how much dinner must one eat to get the ice cream? If they won’t eat what we want them to eat, we deny them the ice cream. Then they throw fits. Should we quit eating ice cream? Should we let the kids do what they want? Things are not going well, and no answer to the problem seems quite right.

I think eating ice cream every night is unhealthy.  But that aside, using one food to coerce children to eat another has other negative long-term results.

The danger is they might react the way kids often do in such circumstances.

A study was done on preschoolers to see how they responded to being bribed to do things that they would normally be willing to do. The kids were offered incentives for coloring with markers instead of crayons. So, naturally, the kids colored more with the markers that day. But the next time, when no one was rewarding them for using the markers, they used the markers less than they had before.  They used them less than the other group of kids who hadn’t been bribed. The fact that someone had wanted them to use the markers and rewarded them for doing so seems to have taken some of the shine off using markers.

In a similar study, some other kids were offered incentives for trying a new yogurt drink. Others were just offered a taste, freely. The ones offered the prizes didn’t much want to drink it later without a prize. Those who got no prize were more likely to like it and to drink it again later.

So maybe kids don’t like being manipulated in general. Maybe that’s what put a bad taste in their mouth. Or maybe getting a prize for doing something planted the idea in their heads that it wasn’t something worth doing on its own, without a prize. Their perceived value of the markers and the drink seems to have gone down.  Either way, postitioning good food as a means to an end, the obstacle between them and what they want,  does little to establish it in kids’ minds as something they actually like and want.

What is intended to encourage appears to actually serve to discourage. We just might be asking for more food resistance rather than real compliance or generally better eating.

Using dessert to get kids to eat dinner is an unsustainable, short-term solution that works against getting your kid’s healthy appetite working on its own long term.

A kid who’s relating normally to food is going to enjoying eating a healthy dinner.  It is possible to have kids who eat real food with gusto every day, given the proper environment. My kids are proof of it.

In several ways, using dessert as a lever to get kids to eat dinner establishes a bad relationship to food:

  1. It positions dinner as something you need compensation to eat.
  2. It gets you in the habit of eating what you don’t want to eat, maybe eating more than you really want, instead of a habit of enjoying and wanting healthy foods.
  3. It shortchanges the joy eating real food can be.
  4. It probably sets kids up for craving sugar.
  5. It develops the habit of eating real food not because we like it but because we want the dessert afterwards.
  6. It develops dependency and fussiness instead of a self-propelling, natural, healthy appetite.

Let’s compare eating to reading.  A child who grows up from toddlerhood being read to will want to read on his own. He will like to read and enjoy reading.  What have you accomplished if you get kids to read only by bribing them?  A book or two read reluctantly and little desire to read more. If you’re very lucky, they’ll stumble across loving books on the way to getting the bribe, but the bribe itself makes that considerably less likely.

Coming soon:

How to Insure that Kids Eat Dinner whether There’s Dessert or Not

How to Deal with Food Tantrums

How to Have Dessert without Making it a Bribe

Dos and Don’ts of Dealing with Dessert

Related posts:

Leveraging Dessert to Get Kids to Eat Dinner Every Night

The Right Strategy to Get Kids to Eat: Put Gas in that Car

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 13 August 2010 / All rights reserved