A Big Fight Worth Having
“Ean, what you’re saying does not make any sense and I don’t think you’re behaving appropriately for your age.” He responded by crying.
“We can’t go on like this. you’re turning 4 years old soon and you can’t live on meatballs and pancakes.” He just looked away and continued crying and I felt horrible, but determined.
“I don’t think I’m being crazy, all I’m asking you is to try this little bite of mashed potatoes and then you can continue eating the fries and meatballs. It’s not the mashed potatoes, it’s the principle of trying something new. You remember how you refused to try ketchup because it looked slimy but then loved it? Well, everything that you know and love to eat and drink, you love because at some point you tried them. That’s how you find new things to love.”
This went on for about 20 minutes, long after the food had gotten cold and I really didn’t want his first taste of something new to be served to him in the wrong way.
“Okay Ean, last chance. Please, I beg you, take this one tiny bite so you can continue eating your food or we leave.”
“No Papa, NO!” His voice quivered as he tried to hide behind his mother.
I packed the food in my empty sandwich container and stood up to leave. He objected less than I expected to be honest but was not happy with this at all of course. Neither one of us were happy as we walked through the glorious labyrinth of IKEA, exhausted from the arguing. I put him in the kid seat on the shopping cart and by now, we had both calmed down.
“Listen, I’m not angry, I’m not saying this to make you feel bad. The simple truth is that without a variety of food you risk getting sick more often. You need vitamins, minerals, fibers, proteins and other nutrients to grow and stay healthy.”
“And antioxidants?” He interjected.
“Yes, and antioxidants.” I said and chuckled.
“Don’t you want to grow and be a big boy? What if your sister eats more and better than you? She will become bigger than you and that would be crazy right?” I said, with a goofy face.
He laughed through the tension and the mood improved slightly as we left the furniture giant and got into the car.
“Ana, please go sit in the back with him. I don’t want him to feel like we’re shitting all over him. We need him to know that we are one unit, all three of us and that the two of us are not ganging up on him.”
“Mama, I want your phone. Please can I have your phone?” He asked with a pleading voice.
“No Ean, if you don’t want to do anything we say, we don’t have to do anything you want. That means no toys, no birthday party tomorrow.” She replied firmly. I was so relieved that she took this as seriously as I did.
It was a somewhat tense drive home and as I pulled up to the house he was almost asleep. The lack of food probably played a big part in that. I dropped them off and went to park the car.
As I got into the house they were cuddling on the sofa when he jumped up and shouted “daddy!” and it was obvious he was trying to diffuse the tension by monkeying around a bit. I played along for a bit and then took him to the kitchen.
“Look here Ean, this is a puree with healthy vegetables. Puree’s are usually for babies without teeth who can’t chew and since you refuse to eat the healthy nutrients I need you to eat, you will instead have this puree and you won’t get any dessert after. Is this what you want?”
“Yes!” He replied, without hesitation as I lifted him up on the countertop to turn on the microwave.
“My son, listen. We all have our duties around here. If mama doesn’t work, we don’t have money to buy food or to live here. If I don’t take care of the house you won’t have clean clothes, the house will be dirty and messy and we would all get sick. A part of my job is to take care of you and make sure that you perform your duties too and those duties are simple, eat, drink, sleep. These are your most important duties right now and just as mama does hers and I do mine, you need to do yours or it’s unfair.”
Ana opens the pantry and takes out the last piece of my birthday chocolate and offers it to him as reward if he tries the food.
“If you take one bite, you can have this chocolate”.
I took the chocolate and put it gently in the palm of my hand as if I were holding something precious (which I absolutely was!).
“Ean, look. You know this is my favorite chocolate and that this is the last one, so you understand that this is important for me.”
He hesitated for a moment but finally agreed. I reheated the food and took it out as he looked at me nervously with the same facial expression he usually has at the doctor before a vaccination.
“This is it Ean, this small bite.” I said with the fork in my hand.
He ate it with some hesitation and exlaims, “I did it!”
“Yes, you’re on your way to becoming a big boy now! How was it? What was it like? Was it sweet? Salty? Creamy? Crunchy?”
“Sweet daddy, sweet with the ketchup.”
Both me and Ana took a deep sigh of relief. All this, over half a fork of mashed potato.
I believe that by making it an intellectual exercise in linguistics and analysing it, it distracts him from thinking too much about excuses to why not to eat it.
“One more bite just to try?” I ask with a mischievous tone.
“Okay” he said with a smile.
“Great job Ean! Do you want more?”
“No thanks, I want the meatballs and fries. Can I eat the chocolate first?”
“No, dessert comes last. Finish your food, then you can eat the chocolate.”
“Okay daddy”, he replied and skipped into the living room to eat. He was starving!
Ana introduced a great new idea and said:
“Why don’t we make this a daily challenge, every day you try something new.”
He wasn’t too happy about it but reluctantly agreed.
“Yes”, I added. And if you do this for us, we will do all the things with you that you love, play with your toys, watch movies, take you to the park and parties.
The day after, during lunch I decided to bring him three options to try. He was making less fuss than I expected so I modified the challenge.
“Try a bit of each and have it together with this crunchy bread that you love.” He tried to get out of it but finally sat down to try a bit of Edam cheese, cheddar cheese and some red pepper. None of it stayed in his mouth for too long, but he did try all of them and described the characteristics of them.
So, was it worth that long standoff and arguing? Well, yes. We’re raising a person and a person has to understand cause and effect; that there are dynamics in life that will lead to different outcomes. Just because you’re a cute little muffin doesn’t mean you can skate by in life without consequence. No, saying no and setting rules and boundaries are just as important as showing love and compassion. It builds character and teaches important lessons.
Now I doubt I’ll be able to pull out three things per day to try but it’s not something to be manic about, it’s a loose framework where playfulness and obligation melts together with curiosity and bravery. Yes of course, it takes bravery to put something in your mouth that you are pretty sure is going to make you gag, which he did with the pepper… but he persisted and I believe that will make him a better person. Not because it’s cheese or pepper, but because he now understands better, the importance of stepping out of his comfort zone in favor of the bigger picture.
His bigger picture? Sure, right now he sees the rewards of toys and Netflix as rewards but underneath all that he’s at the same time widening his pallet and hopefully one day he will be half as passionate about food as his parents. If not, at least he won’t be that kid who calls food yucky and pushes it away. Baby steps, baby steps.