Promoting Healthy Eating and Natural Body Weight for Kids:Number One Mistake You Should Not Make

Let me eat my cookie in peaceMy children are all grown up now, and to tell the truth, I can’t remember all of their early feeding struggles (except for my oldest daughter refusing to eat Cream of Wheat unless it was perfectly smooth). Oh, and needing to hide the jar of mayonnaise when I made tuna because my youngest daughter decided she hated mayonnaise and would not have eaten the tuna had she known. My son ate everything. I may have paid more attention to my first child, but by the time I had my third, well, I was lucky they all miraculously grew……anyone with a few kids knows you kind of lose track of things after that second one.

Anyway, the one thing I do clearly remember with my first child was reading every book I could about raising children. This was my first baby, and I really wanted to do things right. When Jennifer was born, except for deciding to arrive 2 weeks late, she was the perfect, easy baby. She slept through the night on her first day home (and silly me woke her up to nurse because they said she would be nursing at night, so shouldn’t I wake her up?). After that she woke every night at exactly 3 am, but quickly eliminated these feeds and was sleeping through the night. I never let her cry, and picked her up the minute she started to do that beginning cry, when it kind of sounds like a cough….so I would comfort her before the actual cry even started. Soon, she learned to basically just let out a little cough, and I would come. It was actually pretty funny, because people wondered what she was doing…..Why does she cough to get your attention?! Smart child.

So, before her second year of life this little girl was a piece of cake. I did read however, in one of my books, that the second year of life typically begins the notorious “terrible twos”. The book said a child may start to have tantrums and throw themselves down in fits of anger when they are upset. Supposedly, this horrifying behavior would likely start even before the age of 2. Not my daughter, or so I thought. And then, one afternoon, my perfect little 22 month old sweetie wanted some scissors.

Down she went. Right in the middle of the hallway, she threw her entire body down in a full blown, perfect demonstration of a classic temper tantrum. I was stunned. I stopped in my tracks, my instinct screamed “go pick her up! your poor little girl is so unhappy! You need to comfort her, that is what a good mother does!”

But I didn’t. The words I just read a month earlier or so stuck in my head:

“If they have a tantrum, and get what they want, they have learned a powerful lesson. It works!”

And they will do it again. And so, I did one of the hardest things I ever did, and I stepped over her, continued down the hall to the living room and sat on the couch. As I stepped over her I calmly said “you can’t have the scissors. I will be in the living room”.Of course I could see her from where I was sitting, and I knew she was safe. It only took a few minutes until she got up and came into the living room and started playing with her stuffed animals. She no longer seemed to even care about the scissors. And I honestly don’t ever remember her having a tantrum like that again. Phew. Not to say the next two children were as easy, my son especially had a lot of energy to put up a long fight, and yes, it was exhausting at times. But he also did not get what he wanted. With my third (poor Kara) I had it down. It actually came to the point where I just would start humming that Rolling Stones song, one of my favorites. You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

What does this story have to do with promoting healthy eating and “natural” body weight. Notice I didn’t say “healthy” or “thin” because, remember, all children, just like adults, are not supposed to be the same size. But, we all have basic nutritional needs and need for sleep and movement and peace in our lives. To teach children what a healthy lifestyle is, well, we need to work on it ourselves. Think about these three areas involved in being healthy:

  1. Sleep
  2. Eating
  3. Fun movement

I think most of us agree we all need to work on getting more sleep, eating more fruits and vegetables, eating at the table (family meals) instead of while watching TV or in bed, and playing less video games. Most adults I know are wanting to be more active and get more exercise. What happens when it is bed time and your child has a fit? Or maybe your kids put up a fight and don’t want to sit at the family dinner table. Are they absolutely glued to their hand-held device, refusing to give it up even at the dinner table? How do you handle it? Do you feel as I did at first, that seeing your child so upset is hard to handle? Yes, it is hard to see your child sad. I think it is a natural instinct to want to protect your kids and make them happy.

But what if you knew that letting them get away with whatever they want (even if it feels unimportant) may have long lasting health consequences? In my job where I see kids referred for food refusal and picky eating, the story is almost predictable. The parents are usually absolute sweethearts. The child, a tyrant. They weren’t born that way, they just probably have evolved into this obstinate kid who refused to eat anything but chicken nuggets. From McDonald’s only, of course. Granted, there are many kids with sensory issues, but these are not the kids I am referring to. These are the legit, controlling little people who run the household because they have learned what works. It is not easy to undo, but it can be done. Parents need to get on board and agree to gradually change things, no matter how upset little Susie or Joey gets. I always say, a two year old tantrum is easier to deal with than a sixteen year old tantrum. Nip it in the bud.

So what is the number one mistake you should not make if you want to have a healthy child and promote a healthy lifestyle?

Refuse to let your child rule the house.

Try to accept that being sad and NOT getting what you want every day, in every situation is a much bigger gift in the long run, because it builds coping skills. When something happens in the real world, when things do get tough and you are no longer there, your grown up child will know “I can deal with this”.

We are all different and we all have a right to live whatever kind of life we want when it comes to food, where you want to eat, when, what, how much sleep you want to get, how much TV you want to watch, and even if you feel the need for physical activity. But if feeling good and teaching your family healthy habits is important to you, then this is for you.

My advice: learn the song. You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find….you get what you need : )

For more information on promoting a healthy feeding relationship, see Ellyn Satter Institute

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