By Lynn Adams
Some childhood problems are intractable, and it’s unfair to parents to suggest otherwise. But that’s not to say we should just sit back and let them happen.
If dealing with a picky eater were as easy as some bloggers and columnists suggest it is, you could ask your grandfather for advice instead of a psychologist. Last year one columnist – usually a voice of reason – offended me by writing a piece about how any kid’s eating problems can be solved by offering them nothing but square meals and waiting them out. I’m a former child psychologist who has given birth to a child who could have been referred to me. Even though I’ve addressed head-on my son’s choosiness and so have multiple professionals, my son’s result is not unlike that of my most hapless patient, a boy who ate at McDonald’s three meals per day for most of his life.
Eating is a complex process, and there are many roads to the common destination of extreme choosiness. Let’s walk through dinnertime at my house for a tour, complete with landmarks. The landmarks are explanations the mini-psychologist on my left shoulder murmurs into the ear of the mini-mother on my right shoulder.
That night I cooked pan-fried tilapia in coconut oil, whole-wheat orzo with just butter and salt, and roasted sweet peppers and broccoli. My husband, as usual, was working late, so I fed the dog one cup of diet dog food and sat down to eat with our two children, 8-year-old James, the extremely picky eater, and 5-year-old Margot, the more typical eater.
Before James even made it to the table (#1: trouble with transitions), Margot was tucking into her fish and the dog was crouching hopefully at her side.
“Can Charlie eat orzo?” Margot asked, beaming at the dog.
“No. But I’m going to give him some vegetables when we’re done. Remember, he’s on a diet.” That’s how it is for me: fat pets, skinny kids.
Margot started in on her orzo, the little pellets of pasta raining off the sides of her fork and delighting the dog. Around this time, James eased into his seat, pulling the tablecloth and thus all contents of the table toward his lap (#2: motor clumsiness).
“Whoa!” I shouted, steadying my wine glass.
“Can I have some cereal?” James asked in a monotone (#3: social skills deficits), without a glance at his plate (#4: love of routine, fear of novelty).
I took a swig of white wine. “Man, you need to do better than that. It’s nothing new on your plate, nothing you haven’t tried before. Eat some of everything.” It’s a miracle how I can say the same thing every night and stay calm.
James pushed the food around with his fingers, then dipped his fingers into his milk (#5: sensory sensitivities). “This is disgusting. I’m not eating this (#6: oppositionality).”
Margot had moved on to her vegetables, eating broccoli with her fingers and grimacing slightly. When I was her age, I’d carefully count out ten green peas, the requisite amount, and then swallow them while holding my nose, my ears popping as they went. The peas came from a can. They were Green Giant.
“This is dinner,” I said.
James began filleting his fish with the dull side of his knife (#7: distractibility). The dog’s nose appeared at his elbow, a big black plum.
“Clean plate club,” Margot said, indicating her empty plate. “May I have an Oreo?”
“Yes, honey, when everyone’s finished. Did you like the fish?”
“Uh huh,” she said, rubbing the dog’s back.
James put a fleck of fish in his mouth, then wiped it off his tongue with the back of his hand. “Gross (#8: black and white thinking).”
“Eat some bites,” I said.
“It’s not so bad,” said Margot. Under the table, the dog snorted.
James put a reasonable bite of fish in his mouth, closed his eyes, and chewed quickly. He swallowed as if it had been a golf ball (#9: overactive gag reflex). “Now can I have cereal (#10: impulsivity)?”
I told James to eat a few more bites, then finished my meal. I got up and poured Quaker Oatmeal Squares into a bowl, topped them off with milk, and put them in front of James.
When is it going to be okay for me to treat James like Charlie the dog? I want to put down a bowl of Oatmeal Squares three times a day and let him eat it with his hands. It would save all of us a lot of trouble.
Unfortunately, I’ll never get to live the boy-dog dream. There are at least ten reasons why James won’t eat his dinner. If I’m going to have any impact on his choosiness I’ll have to address them all, and that’s not going to happen in a single night, or even a single year.
With these ten reasons firmly in mind, I serve dinner after dinner, night after night. At last count James has refused my favorite food, red beans and rice, over 500 times. Am I his mother or his wind-up doll?
I’d argue that I’m the mother, and that columnist is the wind-up doll. A stubborn, unyielding approach, like his or your grandfather’s, sends a child the message that persistence pays off. But it’s a type of persistence kids are better at than grown-ups: stubborn refusal without regard for the other person’s experience.
I’d rather show James that a mother’s version of persistence works better. When James has it in him to eat a variety of healthy foods, he’ll do it.
THE 10 REASONS EXPLAINED
1) Trouble with Transitions: Like the rest of us, James hates to stop a preferred activity (anything but eating) to do a less preferred one (eating).
2) Motor Clumsiness: Mealtime demands all sorts of motor skills. You have to hold yourself upright, avoid knocking things off the table, manipulate utensils, and fend off the dog.
3) Social Skills Deficits: James isn’t thinking about my feelings or how hard I worked on this meal. He isn’t thinking about what other people think of how he looks while he eats. He doesn’t know how to do any of that yet.
4) Love of Routine, Fear of Novelty: James wishes he could eat like the dog, exactly the same thing every night. The dog wishes he could eat like James.
5) Sensory Sensitivities: This meal has lots of different textures. The soft-inside, crispy-outside fish, the pellet-like orzo with its slippery butter, the slick vegetables with a slight crunch when you bite into them. Not to mention the complex mixture of tastes: sweet, savory, fishy, bitter. And what about the smells?
6) Oppositionality: This boy’s first impulse is always to say no, to everything: tooth brushing, putting on shoes, cleaning up, leaving the house. So why would he be any different at the dinner table?
7) Distractibility: There’s a lot going on at the dinner table, and it’s all competing for James’ fickle attention: dog, sister, mother, dishes, tablecloth, conversation, thoughts of dessert, fear of throwing up.
8) Black and White Thinking: Sure, most of us would rather have an Oreo than a piece of broccoli. Broccoli isn’t exactly the yummiest thing I’ve ever tasted. But nor is it the grossest.
9) Overactive Gag Reflex: This goes along with having poor muscle tone in the mouth. Some people have a hard time keeping food away from their uvula while chewing. This is especially challenging with pellet-shaped food like orzo.
10) Impulsivity: James is living completely in the present moment. He’s not thinking of even the most short-term of consequences, like pleasing me, mid-term consequences, like earning dessert and quelling hunger, or long-term consequences, like health and family harmony. He just wants a pleasant taste in his mouth.
Recommended Reading: Just Take a Bite by Lori Ernsperger and Tania Stegen-Hanson. Future Horizons (2004).
Lynn Adams lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children. Find more of her work at www.lynnadamsphd.com