When my daughter Ruby was six months old, I knew I wanted to try baby-led weaning. I hoped that simply eating whatever we ate would help her to be an adventurous eater. I had been really fussy as a child and can remember being filled with fear about going to friends’ houses and having to try new foods. I didn’t want her to go through that.
The weaning process went well. Ruby tried everything, and it was great fun sharing food with her. Then, just before she turned one, she became pickier, eating only plain food like bread, fruit, and yoghurt.
A toddler is hardwired to be picky, to some extent. It makes sense to be cautious and stick to the foods that are known and safe. We can’t do much about toddlers’ biology, but we can help build a sense of safety and connection, so that they feel brave enough to try new foods.
Parenting by Connection (PBC) is an approach that offers tools for connecting more closely to our children. We all try our very best to stay connected, but sometimes hurt feelings – theirs and ours – get in the way. For instance, we get angry and frustrated when they refuse our delicious food, or they have had an upsetting day at school and don’t know how to handle the feelings.
Children often pick a pretext – often a small, everyday event – for expressing bigger feelings about something else. It could just be the accumulated upsets of having a hard day, or it could be a greater stress, such as having had a difficult start in life. A stressful pregnancy or a birth with medical interventions can both cause children to accumulate fear. Food is a common thing that fear gets attached to. If our child bursts into tears when we serve up something different, it can be helpful simply to listen before we rush to prepare something else. Crying is a natural healing process. Tears actually contain cortisol, the stress hormone, so when we cry we are literally crying our stress away. Once a child has released the upset feelings, he or she may be in a brighter mood and feel more adventurous about trying the food.
Laughter is also a great way to connect and to help our children release fear. We naturally let go of our anxieties through a good giggle. A nervous laugh when we are embarrassed actually helps rid us of uncomfortable feelings. PBC has a tool called Playlistening, where we encourage our children to laugh while they take on the more powerful role in a dialogue. This helps children overcome difficult experiences where they felt powerless and scared. The more laughter I can bring to the dinner table, the more my daughter is adventurous with her eating. It’s an unexpected correlation that always amazes me.
For instance, I might pick up an item from my plate, screw up my face and say, “Yuck!” before throwing it down. This puts her in the powerful role, laughing at me, as I become the fearful person too scared to eat. Or I make some “mistakes,” such as switching our plates around, and then acting surprised when she points out I’ve got her plate. She laughs and laughs when I get things wrong. After a few minutes of laughter, she often tries her dinner. Or I play the Mmm game, where I start eating my food, and make a long mmm sound, gradually getting louder, as if I’m surprised by how delicious my food tastes. This one was a winner, and the next day my daughter picked up some rice, a food she hadn’t eaten for six months, and gave a big mmm as she tasted it. All kids laugh at different things, and there can be a bit of trial and error involved in finding what gives your kids the giggles.
Sometimes these positive techniques can be a drain on a parent after a busy day. I don’t always want to play; maybe I just want to eat my dinner! This is where the PBC tool of listening partnerships comes in. We can exchange time talking and listening with another parent about how parenting is going. It is like talking to a close friend who listens without judgment, but this process goes much deeper. A listening partner doesn’t offer advice or opinions, she or he simply allows us to explore our feelings and to figure things out for ourselves. After all, we are all the best experts on our own families!
I once vented to my listener about how difficult it was to keep thinking of creative ways to connect and laugh with my daughter. I could see that it worked, but how could I have the motivation when I was hungry and tired. My listener asked me, “What were mealtimes like for you growing up?”
I talked about how there wasn’t a lot of connection and conversation at the dinner table. My parents never encouraged me to try new things but always stuck to the same meals, which weren’t very nutritious! As I talked, I realized that I had fallen into a pattern where I was just focused on eating my dinner and not on connection. Simply talking about things helped me to release the negative feelings that were getting in my way of being able to connect, and to think of creative ways for us to laugh and enjoy our mealtimes. It also gave me the impetus to keep trying and to always offer my daughter new foods, instead of giving up and resorting to a limited diet of simple foods.
We still have our days when she refuses things and I’m too tired to encourage her, but I know she won’t get to her teenage years having never tasted broccoli, cauliflower or curry. I am leaving the past behind, and beginning a brighter relationship with food for my daughter.
By Kate Orson
Kate Orson is a freelance writer and Parenting by Connection instructor. She lives in Basel with her two-year-old daughter Ruby. To find out more about Parenting by Connection, visit www.handinhandparenting.org, or like Kate on Facebook: www.facebook.com/ParentingByConnectionWithKateOrson. For more information on upcoming Healthy and Fun Meals for Kids workshops in Basel ,contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustration by Albina Nogueira
Albina Nogueira has been a primary school teacher since 1992, and a writer and illustrator since 2006. She currently lives in Switzerland, but her homeland is Portugal. She is also the author of Letters to Grandparents and Hairdresser. To find out more: like her on Facebook or see her books in Amazon.