Different Kids, Different Needs

I’ve been thinking lately about how many different parenting styles can lead to successful children.  I don’t want this blog to come across as a how-to manual. I don’t want to give the impression that this is the “right” or only way, and I definitely don’t want to sound like if you do things this way, parenting will be easy or your kids will be perfect.  My hope in writing this blog was to give some structure to your parenting, to have some principles to fall back on when things get hard and when you feel like you don’t know what to do. But many times, there is no right answer.  This is a painful situation for parents, but sitting with that discomfort is part of being an emotionally mature adult. Also, there are many times when any number of responses will be fine. If your overall approach is calm and kind, the details don’t matter as much.

As I think over my parenting career, I can identify three times when I had strong feelings about a parenting principle, but because of certain circumstances I chose to do something else. I thought I would write about them as an example of flexible parenting. We can have principles and beliefs about how to parent, but when those get in the way of our children’s needs, they are no longer serving us well.

Two of these changes had to do with my children’s eating habits. My kids are picky eaters to varying degrees. If they don’t like what we serve they won’t eat. Also, if they don’t have the energy to make a lunch, they would go without lunch. My philosophy regarding this was: they will learn eventually that they need to eat dinners they don’t like, or they’ll be hungry all night; or, they will learn eventually that they need to take the time to pack a lunch, so they won’t be hungry at school.

My husband and I parented according to this logic for quite a while, but finally we decided this wasn’t working for our particular kids. We elected to try something different.  We decided that our children needed more from us so that they could eat and be healthy, happy, and full! We changed our stance on two issues: dessert after dinner and pack your own lunch.

As a general rule, I don’t believe in offering dessert as a reward for eating dinner.  I have very strong feelings that this gives food too much power and infuses it with too much emotion. You demonize one food (I’m looking at you, broccoli) and glorify another (ice cream!).  All food should just be food; some you like, some you don’t.  You shouldn’t have to eat one to get the other. I believe that the promise of dessert after cleaning your plate gives the child food issues such as a dislike of the “have to” healthy food and an extreme desire for the reward food.  My theory was that if you were going to have dessert, offer it to everyone with no conditions attached.

But one of our daughters was so stubborn.  She would not eat dinner.  At first there were some conflicts as we tried to get her to eat.  Eventually we realized it was better to be calm and kind about it.  We explained that she doesn’t have to eat (because you can’t force a child to eat), but she does have to have a small amount of all the foods on her plate and she has to sit at the dinner table with us. On a typical night she would sit at the table for the requisite few minutes, then pick up her plate and take it over to the sink and go back to her room or to the couch.  There was no drama or begging (she was well trained) but there was also no eating!  Sometimes she would complain later of being hungry or ask to eat, but mostly she was (is) a strong-willed and stoic child who didn’t make a big deal of things (but also wouldn’t bend to our ways).

I don’t know how long this went on; it seems like the better part of a year.  Finally, we were worried enough about it and about her that my husband and I sat down to discuss it.  Even though we were totally against the idea of using dessert as an eat-your-dinner bribe, it seemed like the right plan for her.  But we knew that if we gave her this option, it had to be available to the whole family.  Every night.  That was another hard pill to swallow, but we decided to try it.  We told all the kids that for a while we were going to have dessert available every night, and if you ate what was on your plate you would get dessert.

Even now I feel like a hypocrite writing this. Requiring children to eat what’s on their plate! Offering sweets as a reward! Dessert every night! All those things are completely against what I had read and learned about raising children without food issues. But, we felt it was the right thing to do.

We swallowed our pride and put our plan into action.  I would not recommend this plan to anyone without careful consideration. But…it worked. That child gagged down the dinner food every night (even throwing up mushrooms once!) so that she could get dessert. It was the perfect motivation for her.  She ate more “real food” in the coming weeks and months than she had in past years. She would come down to dinner and ask, “What’s for dessert?” and most nights she deemed the trade-off satisfactory. It was worth it to her to eat dinner so she could have dessert.

The other children ate their dinners with more gusto and also enjoyed the desserts. And I have to admit, the plan worked. That stubborn child became a really good eater.  Four years later when she asked us to take her to a sushi restaurant, we almost fell off our chairs! She still loves desserts, but she loves “regular” food also. The other kids are pretty good eaters as well.  Having this system of dessert rewards didn’t “ruin” them and make them focused on sweets. In fact, our youngest daughter doesn’t care much for desserts. My initial parenting rules surrounding food turned out to be the wrong method for this child. I’m thankful that I could be aware of their needs and flexible enough to change my plans.

Another thing I feel strongly about (and even wrote an article on for Powerofmoms.com) is that children should pack their own lunches. I wanted my girls to get themselves up in the morning, pack their own lunches (starting around 4th grade), and be responsible for getting their homework done (without a lot of micromanaging from me). I succeeded at two of these three things (wake up by themselves and manage their homework). For a while they packed their own lunches.  But when they got to their high school years and had to get up earlier, they often got lazy about packing a lunch.  Nothing sounded good and they didn’t have time.  They underestimated their lunch hunger in the morning and only took a small amount of food.  Even though they were suffering the consequences of being hungry, they never got in a habit of packing a lunch.

I had an epiphany about this one day when my third daughter was in middle school.  As I drove her home, she told me how she hadn’t taken anything for lunch, but some of her friends gave her some food.  She’d eaten a bag of chips and some broccoli. What?! Raw broccoli? I was shocked.  But then it dawned on me: when you’re hungry at lunchtime you might eat whatever is in front of you! If we send vegetables in their lunch, they may or may not eat them, but if we don’t send any vegetables, they for sure won’t eat them! From that point on we changed our ways.  We packaged fruit and vegetables every night and told our girls that they had to take those two things and then they could add whatever else they wanted to it.  We offered to help them gather and pack a lunch every day.  We hoped they would still become independent adults even though we did this for them!

There is another family dynamic that led us to change our lunch-packing ways. Our oldest daughter didn’t eat lunch very often or packed only a little food (we didn’t pack anything for her because we wanted her to be independent), and she ended up having food problems.  She was underweight and when she was stressed, she tended to eat even less.  She spent a lot of time not feeling good and trying to get herself to eat more.

Our third daughter has a lot of similarities to our oldest daughter, and we didn’t want her to have the same experience.  We decided it was worth it to possibly enable their lunch laziness and help them pack food. As soon as I thought of doing this (after the broccoli conversation), I immediately knew it was the right thing to do. I can understand why the girls don’t take the time to pack good lunches (or any lunch). It’s a pain and a hassle to get that stuff ready and not something that is high on the priority list of busy high schoolers.  We knew we were doing the right thing for our family by helping them prepare their lunches.

The last change I made in the way I parent is the hardest and easiest for me to admit.  It has to do with time children spend watching TV.  When I was a young parent, I read a lot about children and TV (this was before there were so many other electronic entertainment options). I became convinced that the less TV children watched the better.  I realized quickly that when kids watch any TV they want more (it’s never enough) and so no TV is actually easier than a little TV. So that’s what we did with our first three children: virtually no TV when they were young. The first three girls were very good at self-entertaining.  We read a lot of books and played together.  When they were older, they read to themselves and played on their own. It was peaceful and relatively easy.

And then came the fourth child. She did not self-entertain very well.  She always needed more attention than the others, and she was way more social.  She continually asked to play with friends and couldn’t find anything to do if she wasn’t with friends. She didn’t love to listen to our reading as much as the other girls, and when she learned to read on her own, she didn’t enjoy it as much.  Also, she begged to watch TV more often than all three other girls combined. I guess by then the older girls were watching a little TV and maybe she was more exposed to it at a younger age than they were. Whatever the reason, she was hard to keep happy.

I felt strongly about the negative effects of TV, but I was also far enough into my parenting career to know that sometimes things have to give. Also, some things aren’t as important as you once thought they were.

*sigh* I have given in on TV.  Where the other kids rarely watched one episode of a show a week, the last child watches more than one a day, a lot more. If there is a friend to play with, she’s happy to do that, but if not, she can’t think of anything to do besides watch TV. She doesn’t like reading as much as the others, as I mentioned, but she also doesn’t like coloring or playing dolls or many other quiet play-by-yourself activities.

During this time, I read a cute book called MWF Seeks BFF. The author, Rachel Bertche, is trying to make friends in a new city. She talks about how much she loves TV and how that was an important criterion for her in a new friend.  This gave me a different perspective. Maybe TV can be a bonding topic between friends. And maybe people who watch a lot of TV in their youth can become successful (published authors!) adults. I know that sounds extreme, but the articles I read convinced me that TV had so many detrimental effects and no positive ones. Reading Bertche’s book gave me the wake-up moment that I needed, the reminder that it’s all going to be okay.

All of us have these moments where we think we’re going to parent in a particular way and then reality sets in. Children aren’t perfect, and they also aren’t automatons who can be put into certain categories and parented in a specified manner.  We need to be aware of their individual needs and quirks and adjust our parenting accordingly. If we are willing to do this, and willing to trust ourselves that we know what is best for our children, it will benefit our children and it will bring us more peace.