L. and P.

L. has a quirky habit — okay, he has lots of quirky habits, but I’m only planning to address one in particular tonight.  We’ll leave the fact that he bites his toenails for another day.

He is the master of repetition, in a way that is alternately charming and crazy-making, and which has led J. and me to occasionally refer to him privately as “rainman” because he sometimes does it in a manner that just screams “These are not my K-Mart pants.”  He’ll ask us the same question four times in a row, or repeat the same piece of information — “Did you know Joey’s dad is BALD?” a dozen times in a single day.  He’s particularly repetitive when it comes to information he’s trying to get straight in his head; new concepts, answers to complicated questions, new schedules and routines.  And lately, I’ve had to repeat the same answers to him over and over again, regarding the following questions:

“Mom, SOME cookies are good for you…right?”
“Are crackers a healthy snack?”
“Animal crackers are cookies, but they’re healthy cookies, huh, Mom?”

Answers: “No, L., cookies are cookies.  And they’re not good for you, but that’s okay.  They’re treats.”  “What kind of crackers?  No, they’re not really healthy — not like fruits and veggies are healthy.”  “Yes, animal crackers are really more like cookies, but no, sweetheart, they’re not healthy.  Because they’re cookies.”  And, as you can imagine, we swing round again to Question #1.

WHY am I repeating myself so much?  Besides the fact that this is just sometimes how life with L. rolls, I’m having these conversations again and again because my child is receiving mixed messages and cannot seem to work out in his very clever little mind why Mommy and Daddy say one thing and Every Other Tall Person In His Life says another.

L. is accustomed to snacks, provided at his school, at church, at parties, at playdates, and even at — God help me — his martial arts class, which are mainly based around crackers and cookies.  Or, in the case of the animal crackers, cookies masquerading as crackers, which is like the ultimate confusion for little minds.  It’s not that I think this situation is unique; sadly, I’m fully aware that it’s anything BUT unique to find children in America who are firmly entrenched in the Nilla-Wafer-as-sustenance doctrine.  But lately, as I think about the way we grow eaters in this country, I have started to realize that we are up against a very serious enemy, one which most of us have thought of as our parenting friend and ally. 

We’re being thwarted by consistency.

Yes, that’s right.  The very hallmark of good parenting, the one thing many old-school mothers and fathers would immediately tell us is the MOST important component of raising children successfully, is the thing that’s causing the greatest kid-and-food issues in America right now.  As hard as we may try to instill good eating habits and food values within our children by offering consistency in our own homes, the outside world is ALSO being consistent, and its message is carried farther and wider than ours.

As we’re offering leafy greens and quinoa the requisite dozen or more times, firmly reminding ourselves that “it may take up to twenty tries for a child to stop rejecting a new food,” the schools, daycare programs, and activity providers are offering a dozen or more tastes of sweet, salt, fat, and starch to our kids’ eager palates.  As we’re lovingly and consistently explaining that cookies are a Sometimes Treat — and even receiving backup from the Cookie Monster himself! — the other people and institutions in our kids’ lives are offering up desserts and calling them snacks.  For every time that I tell my kids they’ve got to eat a vegetable before they can carry on with their carb loading fantasies, there are probably two or three times they’ll encounter some crazy exterior message like tomato-paste-on-pizza-is-close-enough.

Children respond to consistency, and they love repetition, and just as they’d rather read “Green Eggs and Ham” for the millionth time today (despite your desperate pleas to at LEAST convert their allegiance to “One Fish, Two Fish”), they’ll happily stick to the same old pizza-french fries-chicken nuggets-crackers-cookies regime if they’re allowed.  And unfortunately, while many of them may NOT be allowed to follow that regime at home, it doesn’t make them immune to the messaging that DOES encourage such behavior — with consistency, and repetition — outside the home.

How many times has L. seen animal crackers on the snack table in his five years?  I couldn’t even begin to say; but I can at least point out that it has taken him this long to start struggling with the recognition, however dim, that there may be something amiss about that.  I’ve never in his life served him animal crackers at snacktime, but only now does he begin to realize that there’s a sort of cognitive dissonance going on between Mommy’s version of snacktime and the standard institutional snacktime he encounters pretty much everywhere else he goes.  And that’s MY kid, who probably hears more about healthy eating blah blah blah than many, many other children his age.

Tonight, whether by coincidence or not, L. and P. both ate only semi-well at dinner; they were allowed a very small slice each of Swedish cardamom bread after they’d proclaimed themselves done; and then BOTH of them started whining for “something else.”  Something else?!?  I was baffled…until P. went to the pantry and started rummaging for SNACKS.  Somehow, despite a nightly routine that has NEVER wavered, despite a dinner rule that has held for longer than L. has been alive, my two children were under the impression that a cursory pass at their meals would entitle them to find something SNACKISH in the pantry and fill up that way. 

Of course, there are no animal crackers, or actually crackers of any type, in my pantry; but that’s beside the point.  I’ve worked hard to instill good habits in these boys, through consistency and repetition and example, and suddenly I’m reminded quite clearly that just because I’ve been consistent thus far, doesn’t mean I can stop anytime soon.  Or ever.

The more consistent the rest of the world is with presenting its junk-food agenda, the more consistent and vigilant we conscious-eater parents must become about instilling what we think are the RIGHT values and choices in our kids.  (A theory, by the way, which applies quite handily across the board, not just as it relates to food.  There are plenty of consistently bad messages I see kids getting these days that have nothing to do with nutrition.)  I don’t mean we’ve got to disallow all sweets and treats, or that we’ve got to make only THE HEALTHIEST of choices all the time, never slipping up or compromising; I just mean we’ve got to know what we believe, say what we believe, model what we believe, and stick to it.  It sounds simple, but at times — especially right now, with the holiday parties and festivities taking over all the white space on our calendars — just understanding, quite clearly, what’s important to us about food and eating, and being guided by that understanding, can be frustrating and draining. 

Consistency.  Mom and Dad never said it’d be easy.  But who knew it might end up becoming both friend and foe?