Review of Food Chaining, Part II
“Children are not pets to be trained.”
Food Chaining has a lot of great information in it. It offers parents in-depth understanding of the serious reasons some children refuse to eat. It also offers a logical plan to increase the range of foods even the pickiest eaters will eat. It has a great section about teaching kids on the autism spectrum about food. It’s all about figuring out WHY a child is refusing food and understanding what the child needs to improve her eating.
Then, in a section called “Positive Reinforcement at the Table,” the authors advise us to ignore children completely whenever they won’t eat or they misbehave at the table. When they do what we like them to do, though, we should reward them with the warm sunshine of our approval: smiles, applause, praise and rewards.
Maybe this advice doesn’t shock you. It’s a fairly standard approach today. Yet, let’s take a look at it.
“You want your child to get the message that only acting appropriately will earn your attention,” the authors recommend. It fits in with the view of the child as only doing something decent and positive if rewarded for it, and only avoiding being a wretched devil to escape punishments. It’s a view of a child as no more than a bundle of behaviors. It’s as if a child’s reasons or root causes for behavior don’t matter. It’s as if the only thing that matters between parent and child is extinguishing a child’s disagreeable behaviors.
Cut to the Chase
Instead of the subtle approach without explanation the book advocates, this process of conditioning a child would go much more quickly if parents would just inform the child directly and honestly: “Be warned: I will act like you don’t exist, or like I no longer love you, when you do things I don’t like. I won’t tell you I don’t like it. The code for ‘I don’t like what you are doing’ is henceforth for me to ignore you. Our relationship is over until you decide to do things my way. I don’t care why you can’t do things my way. Just do it or else you are invisible to me. You’ll know when I withdraw all evidence of my love and acceptance that you need to figure out what you’re doing that I don’t like and change it.” Alfie Kohn calls this approach to dealing with a child “conditional parenting.” To control a child, withdraw love or grant it.
Now I’m all for ignoring a child’s refusal to eat. There’s really no other way to deal with it. Food refusal is not bad behavior. It’s a child’s own business, her own body. That is assuming only good food choices are offered. That’s really the only way, too. Providing only the best food we can is our role as parents, not making a child eat.
The child’s role is to eat as she wants and is able. Children should be treated with as much respect as adult guests at our table. They get to decide what and how much goes in their own mouth, without scrutiny, criticism or pressure. It’s the respect we give other adults, so why not smaller human persons?
When adults guests don’t eat our food, we may feel bad, but we wouldn’t bug them about it. Similarly, we may privately worry and think of ways to help our picky child, but pressuring her through ignoring her will get us nowhere. Nowhere we want to be, anyway. If we focus only on stopping the behavior, we may stop it but there may be costs to the way we stop it.
Ignoring a child to manipulate them? No, not when there are other better ways to get better results. Not when ignoring them tells then that our love for them depends on their perfection and conformity to our will.
Use Your Words and Listen to Theirs, Parents
So if children refuse to eat or throw food or cry at the table: how about treating them as humans, with respect and unchanging love? We can keep the relationship intact, continue to show that we love them no matter what, and have a talk. We can listen and exchange some ideas, calmly. Kids are reasoning creatures.
For example: how about not asking her to stop crying or getting mad at her for crying, or acting like she doesn’t exist if she cries, but instead, try to understand why she is crying and address it. How about showing some understanding and interest in what the child may have to tell us?
“I see you are upset,” we might say, and wait for a response. “You don’t want any of that? That’s OK, you don’t have to eat anything.”
“Does something hurt?” we can gently ask. Acknowledge and show understanding and acceptance of her feelings. Don’t disregard them. Listen with attention to your child’s answers. Look for her unmet needs. Don’t try to argue her out of her feelings or dismiss them as silly. You might get the answer you need to help your child. Sometimes just being heard and understood is enough for a child (or adult) to move on from bad feelings.
Related post: Food Chaining: My Review, Part I