An Exploration of Sacred Parenting and Education

Jeremy HT on ‘motivating children to eat properly’

In Food & Cooking on January 23, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Let me be provocative here, and even introduce a note of levity into a topic which sometimes gets what I believe is over-attention.

On the subject of motivating children to eat properly, I was astonished to read a recent article in the Daily Telegraph which concludes from some research that “Ideally, parents should place seven different items in six different colours on their children’s plates and whenever possible food should be arranged to form a picture.” Frankly, I found this absurd.

Another recent newspaper article (also seen on TV) reports on the culinary art of Kyaraben (character lunchboxes for children) practised by competitive Japanese mothers, where rice balls, sushi, salad and fruit is shaped into cartoon characters like Hello Kitty or SpongeBobSquare Pants, or animals (see Apparently, a lunchbox prepared to the highest standard of artistry can take a whole morning to create.

Perhaps I am the wrong person to comment on what strikes me as an extreme over-attention to the minutiae of food preferences, either to encourage children to eat or to compete with other parents in creating the best lunchboxes. For one thing, I went to a British boarding school for 11 years, and we just ate what we were given. If we did not, we went hungry. In any event, we had to wait until the holidays to get a good meal. Only the British would pay good money to send their children to Spartan schools where the cure for a mild cold was to go for a run in shorts in the snow, come back to a cold shower, and have a meal of overcooked leathery ox liver and watery cabbage for supper. And yet, children of my generation who grew up in the 50’s were apparently generally fitter than those who are growing up today, partly because they generally took much more exercise. It may be that the private school system helped them develop ‘stiff upper-lip’ qualities of stoicism, fortitude, patient endurance (sabr) and lack of self-absorption, which were regarded as marks of ‘character’ (a case where classic Britishness converges to some degree with one of the great Islamic virtues). The Duchess of Devonshire may be right in lamenting the demise of this virtue in modern Britain, which she says has become a “sloppy, sentimental culture of self-pity and self-esteem”. Along with that, we have the narcissistic “you’re worth it” culture of self-entitlement – the “Give Them What They Want” tyranny which is the motto of the store BRATZ, and sadly, applies not only to children but also to many adults (kidults) in our consumer culture.

I agree that the best thing is not to make an issue about food. To do so can turn every mealtime into a nightmare clash of wills. The purpose of sitting around a table for a family meal is to socialise, converse, and enjoy each other’s company while enjoying a meal, not to undergo the repetitive tedium of cajoling children to eat this or that, making ultimatums, striking bargains, or pandering to every individual whim as part of the endless proliferation of ‘choice’. I have been astonished to learn that in many families in modern Britain, everybody eats something different, and often in different rooms. And how often does one hear parents asking their children what they would like at every meal?

There is surely a difference between pandering and the true love which may often work best not by indulgence but by diverting attention from what are useless impediments. One of our nine grandchildren, aged 8, recently wrote to us saying how she was looking forward to coming to stay with us and concluded her letter by proudly writing in bold letters “I am no longer fussy”. On previous occasions when she visited we had never played into her fussiness about food. We had always said that we all eat the same thing, and despite her apprehension about what would be served up to her, it was never given any space for conversation at the table. If the conversation is interesting enough, children will often forget the ‘food issues’ and sooner or later if they are hungry they will eat what is offered. I should say that I do not serve up leathery ox liver and watery cabbage. I love cooking and produce very appetizing meals, although I do not arrange items of seven different colours into pictures.

As for reward, I think the best reward is often an indirect one which arises naturally out of the lack of attention paid to fussy demands and preferences. My granddaughter gained the reward of realizing that the conversation at the table (and the whole process of socialisation) was much more interesting than her own fussiness. Her attention was diverted to something much more interesting, and she realized how boring fussiness is. In this case, intrinsic motivation arose not through an extrinsic reward such as heaps of praise for eating one or two peas, but through the realisation that a family meal is a much more enjoyable occasion if it is not monopolized by the solipsism of likes and dislikes. Diversion is often the key. Behavior often changes most decisively by redirecting attention rather than by explanation or reasoning. Or it can be done by a simple rearrangement of circumstances. If someone wants to lose weight by eating less, the best way may not be to set up an elaborate regime of calorie counting, but simply to give them a smaller plate. In the same way, children may not be captivated by a tendentious ethical lecture on how half the world is starving and they ought to be thankful for whatever they are given.

So, yes, children may be punished by the wrong kinds of rewards. But this is long enough – and I am hope my more assertive tone on this occasion has not raised too many eyebrows.

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. You have given me “food for thought” I hope to try this subtle distraction with my son, who is in the running for the fussy eater of the year award. Lets see! Thankyou

    • Glad to hear you’ve enjoyed it. Will be interested to learn about how it goes!


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