Scientists, she learned, observe, gather information (and specimens, which could account for the 20 different bugs she’s collected in her outside “workshop”), ask questions and then make decisions or come to conclusions.
For a mother continuously gearing up to shield her daughter from those forces that beckon her to develop poor eating habits, this proclamation was one key to my summer strategy for continuing to develop my daughter’s internal compass about food.
I have of course used the well-worn “either-or” cornerstone to parenting young children to steer my daughter toward the decisions I wanted her to make as soon as she was old enough to make them. “Do you want water or milk?” No choice other than the ones I gave her.
That works when kids are two or three, but at seven, the age of reason, and beyond, children’s ability to internalize good eating habits must be just that — food choices internalized based on their own developing values and sense of self, and not ones made to rebel against parents. I’ve gladly and most definitely used my daughter’s recent self-identification as a scientist to influence her food choices.
Take for instance a recent trip to a fast casual restaurant that offers fresh, healthful options but also some of the awful choices that, seriously, make me cringe when directed at kids. Fast food restaurants may call a sub sandwich, a fountain drink and a choice of potato chips or cookies a “meal deal,” but I call it a raw deal for kids.
Never mind that a recent study found that consistent consumption of potato chips and sugar-sweetened beverages were the most likely contributors in weight gain over time. As a parent, I balk at how kids are set up for poor eating in our culture when sugary beverages and treats are offered as side dishes to meals, not the small indulgence they should be following a healthful meal, or even later.
So, my little scientist and I were standing there, looking up at the selections on the brightly lit board. There were two things she already knew: from school, she knew that foods are chemicals; from me, she knew that too much sugar in one day is unhealthful. It’s something I’ve been talking to her about since she was five, to understand the hidden ways sugar appears in foods, especially processed foods, and how sugar provides no help relieving that physically raw hunger she feels, especially during growth spurts.
From there, I made it a game, that she was the scientist and I needed her to make the best decision of what chemicals I was going to eat that day. Working off of her observations, it actually didn’t take long to determine which foods had the “chemicals” to eat now, and those to save until later. I followed her line of thinking, she was engaged and she then used her conclusions about my meal to apply to her own menu choices.
By using something that she identified with, I involved the little scientist in her own decision-making process, at a level she could understand. Without getting pedantic or preachy, I found a way to help guide my daughter toward making her own choices rather than my setting a command. And, we had fun!
Every child will be different, but there’s no doubt that as obesity rises in kids not only do parents have to model their own good behavior, they have to adopt an ingrained, consistent focus toward healthful eating habits as much as any other decision-making tools they foster for living in the modern world. Using this one source and its summary on child development, we parents can map it this way:
- Identify clearly the need to make a decision.
- Define the issue in simple terms.
- Brainstorm possible solutions.
- Narrow down solutions based on pre-determined criteria.
- Try 1-3 of the narrowed down solutions.
- Evaluate the solution(s).
- Vote on a decision.
- Re-evaluate as needed.
Defining the issue in simple terms helps guide my approach to balancing my child’s wants with my own desire to have her partake in all the fun of childhood, like summer = ice cream, and special times call for special foods (cake! cupcakes!).
As well, involving her in the brainstorming process, where she has ownership of the choices and the outcome, has resulted in fewer battles between us and more control for her, which of course is what every child wants! It’s definitely a process that takes being present, purposeful and consistent, but the long-term benefits are undeniable. My daughter is like all kids and will push for chocolate milk and ice cream before dinner, but she also continues to show balance and that she’s internalized the criteria for good eating, which is reward enough for me.
—Tracy Ilene Miller