Sometimes, you gotta let loose

Sometimes, you gotta let loose

Sometimes you have to loosen the reins a little bit.  This is a gut-check moment, I think – it’ll be different for everyone, and it’ll be based on your kid’s personality or what you (or they) happen to be up against at the moment.  But our gut-check moment came this week, and it came in the form of a rather put-out kindergartener.

This week, after nearly six years of eating (and being enthusiastic about) Mommy’s packed lunches, L. started to rebel.  I’ve been waiting for it, not because I think J. and I do a lousy job of educating our kids about food or because L.’s a rebellious child (he’s as far from rebellious as I think you can get, actually), but because I know that he’s smart enough to notice that comparing his food to most of his classmates’ is like playing a game of One of These Things is Not Like the Others.  It started with snacks.  I won’t rehash all the boring details here, but the gist is that L. complained one afternoon that he wasn’t happy with his after-school snack.  I suggested he make me a list of things he’d rather have me pack.  He listed “Cookies, Soda, Chips, Candy Bars.”

Obviously, this wasn’t the list I’d wanted or expected, but as I prepared to roll my eyes and give the predictable spiel about healthy snack foods, I caught L.’s face.  He was sulking.  Legitimately sulking.  Not in anger, not in defiance, but in real sadness and frustration, and that stopped me in my tracks.

I sat next to him and said, “This is quite a list.  Want to talk about it?”

He wasn’t expecting that reaction, I could see – which made me all the more glad that I’d taken a minute to quell my knee-jerk response.  He kind of leaned into my side, just short of a snuggle, and from there it took less than 2 minutes for the truth to come out: that all the OTHER kids are eating that stuff, and he wishes he could fit in better.

In those two minutes, I knew three things very clearly:

  1. If ever there were a time when I could easily turn my child against the idea of healthy eating, this is likely it.
  2. What’s really going on is that L. feels different and he’s uncomfortable with that.  It doesn’t matter that it’s about food right now – the food is just the symptom.  He’s six, and when you’re six, the social order at school can feel like the whole world.
  3. It is my job as his mother to take the very best care of his body AND his spirit, and these two things, at this moment in time, exist in a very delicate balance.

So we talked a little, and I found, unsurprisingly, that L. knew exactly why he’s not given those items for snacks, and he knew that he was needling me by suggesting them, but that still wasn’t the point.  The point was not nutrition education.  The point was that after years of being different in many ways, both due to his disabilities and his brightness and to the fact that he likes the color pink and the fact that he’d rather play the piano than play kickball…after years of feeling different and staying really strong and secure in himself through all of that, L. was finally bothered by being different in a way that he felt he could actually control.

Haven’t we all felt that way?  I know I have.  And I know I don’t want to be a part of making my kid feel that way.  He’s got enough battles to fight.

We compromised and made a list of things that we could both live with, and I promised to buy or make them and send them in his snack a couple of times a week.  Organic graham bunnies.  Yogurt-covered pretzels.  Chocolate-chip banana muffins.  Chocolate almond milk in single-serve boxes.  It was important to me that we choose things that are allowed in our home, and that I’ve bought for the boys before; L. had to know that I wasn’t going to just start packing Oreos and Lunchables.  But they also had to be things that represented, in his six-year-old eyes, a change from the usual – a way for him to feel less like the kid who never gets what he really wants for snack, and more like the kid who sometimes opens his backpack to find something really great.

The next day, as I congratulated myself on finding a solution that made us both comfortable, I was caught off guard when L.’s second request came.  “I want to make my own lunch.”

Gulp.  Sure, I told him.  Be my guest.  And watched for three days as he made his lunch…each day testing the boundaries of just HOW MANY “sometimes” foods I’d let him sneak in (answer: I bit my tongue hard), and each day, without comment from me, also adding things like pepper slices or unsweetened applesauce.  I didn’t care that he only packed four slices of peppers where I’d pack eight – I cared that he was in control and happy about what he packed.  Healthy foods in a lunch are a good model, it’s true, but they’re a better model if they get eaten.

After Day Three, he had Field Day at school.  His teacher said we could pack a lunch if he didn’t want to eat what was provided.  I asked him.  He opted for the hot dogs and cookies, and J. and I gave him extra hugs and a cheery “Enjoy it!” while we shriveled a bit inside, sending him out the door.  He came home starving and predictably moody after a day of junk food, and not enough food at that.  We hugged him and kissed him and fed him and put him to bed early in a storm of tears.

He woke up the next morning and asked me to pack his lunch.  I loaded up his box with veggies and grilled chicken and then slipped in a chocolate almond milk – and saw the dimple in his cheek as he tried to hide the fact that he’d been watching.  A minute later, he told me he didn’t think the cereal he’d had for breakfast was healthy enough, and he, my fruit-and-yogurt averse child, drank a peanut butter and jelly smoothie packed with yogurt and berries and bananas, hugged me hard, and ran out the door with a smile on his face.

I could have dug in this week and stayed resolute on Offering The Most Optimal Things for You to Eat, Always and Forever, Because I Am the Mommy and That’s Why.  But whether it’s food-related or not, honestly, one thing I’ve learned in parenting is that digging in for the sake of digging in rarely ends up giving you the result you want.  The result I wanted was not for L. to eat everything I expected him to eat, honestly; the result I really wanted, and I think the result most of us want, was for L. to make reasonably good choices when given the opportunity, and to have a positive association with healthy foods rather than a negative one.  I don’t want eating well to be some form of oppression to my kids, and if all it takes to keep ourselves on the right side of that line is to show them that I do understand there’s another side to life, another way of eating that vies for their attention every day when I’m not around…then I’ll show them gladly.  After all, it turns out that they’ve been listening to what we’re trying to teach them all along.  We owe them a little bit of listening, too.