…or how NOT to create a monster.
At a friend’s house the other day, my 5 year old pointed at the family’s breakfast table, her eyebrows raised. “Mama, look!” she gasped, pointing at a half-eaten bowl of kids cereal. It was the kind Michael Pollan ruled against. You know, the cereal that changes the color of the milk. Hoping no one had heard her, I was torn inside. My daughter just wanted to show me that she had listened, that she was being a “good girl.” She anxiously waited for me to agree with her. I had done something right. She had learned that her friend’s cereal was less healthy than the cereal we eat at home. But I also had missed something, big time.
At ZisBoomBah, we don’t criminalize against foods. Instead, we help parents empower their children to make healthier choices. As parents, we want to raise healthy eaters without making them judgmental. The bigger picture? We teach our children what’s right and wrong, not just with food. We instill values. But at the same time, we want to teach them tolerance and understanding why other families have different values and different rules we want to respect.
ZisBoomBah’s psychology expert, Beth Lonergan, PsyD, has great parenting tips on how to help kids become discerning without being judgmental. “We all make judgments about things, relative to whether they are good or bad for us. That’s discernment,” Dr. Lonergan differentiates. That’s what you’re trying to instill in your kids when you’re promoting healthy eating. At the same time you are teaching your kids how to make healthy choices for themselves, you are also teaching them tolerance. When teaching kids something new, we might start out more rigid – this is right and this is wrong. Our goal as parents then becomes to have discussions, to mold our children’s behavior, to help them think in ways that are not black and white. Because that’s what leads to judgment – we are right and you are wrong.
I would want my kid to look at her friend’s cereal simply as a choice she would not make for herself. It’s not right for HER. My daughter had been on the receiving end of judgment herself too lately. At preschool, two girls who are being raised vegetarian have asked her which animal had to die for the sliced turkey she was snacking on. “As parents, our challenge is to watch the things we say overtly,” Dr. Lonergan says. In the case of those vegetarian preschoolers, “They are probably getting a pretty direct judgment handed to them along with the eating habit,” Dr. Lonergan surmises. Talking about a healthy food doesn’t have to come with a value attached to it. Other families have different ways of seeing things and that’s valid. “Be aware of the messages you are sending on a much more subtle level,” Dr. Lonergan encourages parents. Nowadays, with so many children having food-related issues – food intolerances or allergies, celiac, type 1 diabetes etc. – there are eating “rules” that are applicable to one child that another wouldn’t even have to worry about. “This gives you an avenue to talk to kids about what’s right for us. You’re helping them to make decisions,” says our psychologist.
Think about what you are already doing right
What might also help you in figuring out how NOT to create a monster, is to think about the things you are already doing right! There are other areas where you are already teaching your kids how to be discerning without being judgmental. Religion comes to mind, or the style of clothing we wear. On the other hand, “not everybody is interested in tolerance,” Dr. Lonergan reminds us. It’s about what comes back at you. There will be kids who are going to say, my eating habits are right and yours are wrong. “Help inoculate your kids against that. Whatever the topic is, whether it’s eating, dressing or religion, there will be people who think they have the answer and may be critical of you. How you deal with that is a good thing to help your kids prepare for.” Help them bolster their resilience in face of critical comments. If you want to teach your kids tolerance, be mindful of the things you make a big deal out of. The things we sometimes make too value laden. Other people believe in different things that are just as valid, and it’s important for us to be tolerant of that. Think about the conversations you already have with your kids in that regard. Talking to them about healthy eating is not much different. “Don’t be too rigid, if you don’t have to,” recommends Dr. Lonergan. It’s obviously different if your child has a nut allergy and adhering to the rule not to eat anything that contains nuts can become a matter of life and death. That is black and white. It’s very rigid. But barring that, relax.
Talking tolerance: Match your child’s developmental age
It’s a little ambiguous. You’re trying to reinforce the usual, the rules your family follows. “You can push kids into the dichotomies that lead to rigidness or judgment about the way other people are,” Dr. Lonergan warns. Instead, “help your kid develop guidelines for themselves as opposed to rules that they have to follow. And again, that would apply to eating, or dressing or social behavior or ethical behavior…” Match their developmental age in terms of how sophisticated you want to make it. Kids go through stages of moral development. That’s the foundation we all use to make decisions on. Little kids start off in a more concrete, black and white place. As they get older, “they develop the cognitive ability to be more and more complex and to be more shades of gray,” according to our expert. “You’re trying to support that normal developmental process that allows them to become more and more autonomous and to be able to deal with more, things that seem in conflict or that aren’t so black and white.”
It’s not arbitrary that you’re trying to reinforce good eating habits and limits on junk food. There’s a reason for it and that’s what you focus on, the underlying rational.” But also let your kids know that it’s not the end of the world if they eat junk food, something they wouldn’t eat at home.