Our kids need us. Most of our teenagers are not in danger of becoming violent jihadists like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; but unless we make a deliberate, consistent, sincere effort to live our faith and to make sure that our older kids are well connected with adults who can guide and educate them and answer their questions, and unless we give them many opportunities to practice their faith, then there is little hope that they will still be Catholics when they leave our homes.
Today, I’m making Zuppa Toscana. When I share recipes I’m trying, people often ask, “Will your kids really eat that?” The answer is: some of them, yeah. Some of them, no way. A few of them, maybe. And I am fine with that. I have two goals when I serve a meal: at least half the family should eat it, and mealtimes should be reasonably pleasant.
My policy is: I decide what to cook, and they decide whether or not to eat it.
We don’t have food battles (or food cold wars). We don’t save plates of untasted food and keep serving them, meal after meal, until the child consents to take just one bite. I know that other parents have done some variation of this, in hopes that a child will eventually begin to develop a taste for some nutritious or delicious food. But I’ve found that learning to eat new foods is a lot like learning to read or learning to use the toilet: you can either teach the kid when he’s ready, or you can teach and teach and teach and teach a kid until he’s ready — but either way, it ain’t gonna happen if he’s not ready.
I guess it’s possible that an especially serene parent would be able to patiently, consistently insist that a child try some despised food ten thousand times; but I do not possess that serenity, and things would get ugly fast. I’m already warping my kids enough over other issues. I don’t need to add “But WHY don’t you like kale?” to the list. The table is no place for guilt trips or power struggles.
So, I bring a dish to the table, and I ask each kid individually if he wants some. They have to say either “yes, please” or “no, thank you” — no retching noises or horrible faces allowed. If they want it, great. If they don’t want it, I just move along. With this approach, and with the passive peer pressure of older kids visibly enjoying different foods, I’ve had kids refuse a dish fifty times, and then gradually develop a taste for it, with no prodding or nagging from me.
If they don’t want what I’m serving, they are allowed to fill up on side dishes or fix themselves toast, eggs, a sandwich, cereal, or leftovers. A child as young as four or five can get himself a simple meal.
Wait, wait! Don’t I want them to be healthy? And don’t I want to avoid wasting time and money on cooking foods that no one will eat? Sure. This is why I aim for meals that at least some of them will eat. But I don’t worry about each kid having a balanced meal three times a day. I don’t even worry about having a balanced diet each day. I take the week-long view: as long as they have a reasonably nourishing, balanced diet over the course of the week, that is good enough.
And sometimes kids will just eat one food for a long, long time. This is common, and it is fine. Just keep offering a variety of foods and not making a big deal out of it. Give your kids daily vitamins to make up whatever deficits are in their diet, and don’t keep a lot of complete crap in the house for them to fill up on. They will survive, and there will be peace in your house. As long as your kids have energy and are growing normally, there is nothing to worry about.
There is (probably) something beyond picky eating called Selective Eating Disorder, where adults not only won’t but can’t get themselves to eat more than a few, bland, nutritionally questionable foods; but I’m 99% sure your kid is not developing this disorder. Keep this in mind: the eating disorder researcher in the article says “Kids are at greater risk of becoming picky adults ‘anytime the food environment is coercive or tense.’” So avoiding that situation should be your first focus if your child is a picky eater.
To sum up: offer variety. Don’t cater to them too much. Don’t make a big stinking deal out of it. Take the nutritional long view. And if they don’t like the tasty soup you made? More for you!
First, kudos for Erin of Bearing Blog for spurring me to reread the full transcript of the Pope’s recent in-flight remarks. He didn’t precisely say “Catholics shouldn’t be like rabbits” (and he never used the word “breed” at all). What happened was that the reporter asked him what he thought about the idea that so many in the Philippines are poor because of the Church’s ban on contraception. The Pope replied:
God gives you means to be responsible. Some think that — excuse the language — that in order to be good Catholics, we have to be like rabbits. No. Responsible parenthood. This is clear and that is why in the Church there are marriage groups, there are experts in this matter, there are pastors, one can search; and I know so many ways that are licit and that have helped this. You did well to ask me this.
Another curious thing in relation to this is that for the most poor people, a child is a treasure. It is true that you have to be prudent here too, but for them a child is a treasure. Some would say ‘God knows how to help me’ and perhaps some of them are not prudent, this is true. Responsible paternity, but let us also look at the generosity of that father and mother who see a treasure in every child.
So, yes, if you read the entire context, he wasn’t saying, “The Church thinks you shouldn’t be like rabbits.” He was saying, “Some people think the Church teaches this, but it doesn’t.” A subtle distinction, a fairly important one . . . and an unfortunately quotable phase that just screams to be misunderstood.
Francis Phillips of the Catholic Herald UK says pretty much what I thought when I read the stories about the Pope’s interivew: This is really nothing new, but yikes. Phillips:
[W]hile I knew exactly what Pope Francis was actually saying, I still groaned. … Those people who read and listen to the secular press and who already have their own prejudices against Church teaching, will remember and repeat the word “rabbits” like a mantra, while we Catholics will sigh and point out as patiently as possible that that the Church has always taught “responsible parenthood” – and indeed, the Pope mentioned this too, during that hour-long meeting with reporters on his flight home.
What the Holy Father implied was that “responsible parenthood” is what matters, not specific family size. This will be different in each family and with each couple; while the use of artificial contraceptives is intrinsically life-denying it can also be irresponsible to have children thoughtlessly, without regard to issues of health and family circumstances.
But the problem with these remarks, unless they are carefully developed and explained within the context of Catholic teaching, is that they might cause confusion, not only outside the Church but also inside, among faithful families. Yes – people can have large families from selfish motives, just as they can limit their families from selfish motives. But what about large Catholic families, struggling to do what is right in their circumstances and under the normal pressures and demands of family life? They might, wrongly, take the Pope’s remarks personally and worry that they are being profligate and irresponsible. They have taken the biblical words “Go forth and multiply” seriously, at great personal sacrifice. They have already, in our secular society, been dismissed as “breeding like rabbits”; the Pope’s remarks will seem to undermine them, however much this was not intended.
Yup. He wasn’t advocating contraception, and he wasn’t saying small families are better than big families. He said things that are true, but he said them in a way that gives ammunition to people who are sloppy thinkers, or who are unmotivated to find out what the Church really teaches, or who are looking for justification to hate the Pope. Which is just about everybody.
Look, this is our Pope. He’s kind of a blabbermouth, and sooner or later, he’s going to irritate just about everybody. And no, this isn’t the first time he’s said something that makes me go, “Oy.” All the more reason to pick your head up out of the constant stream of gabble in the media from time to time, take a deep breath, and focus on your own family and your own spiritual life, rather than diving headfirst into the outrage du jour. (And yes, that means you might end up reading my blog less. Go ahead, I can take it!)
Anyway, Phillips was nice enough to recommend my book as an antidote to some of the confusion over what the Church actually teaches about family size, and how to balance the seemingly contradictory ideas of responsibility and generosity. I do hope that it helps!
I guess if Catholics want the beautiful teaching of the Church to be better understood by a skeptical world, then it would behoove us to spend our energy, you know, using these dust-ups as an opportunity for sharing and explaining that teaching, rather than constantly bitching about the Pope.
It’s good and natural for parents to want to keep their kids safe, but it’s healthy for the entire family to acknowledge that our main job as parents is to prepare kids for the rest of their lives. A kid who has never learned to judge for himself when it’s safe to cross the street is a kid who is unsafe.
Christmas is the infancy of the Faith, and most people find it pretty easy to be happy about about their Faith at this time of year — at least in the good moments. Even when the season is stressful or exhausting, most of us at least occasionally taste those golden moments where the music is right, the candles are glowing, we’re finally holding a mug of something hot, finally hearing the happy murmurs of the baby in the manger. At the best moments, we love Christmas, baby Jesus loves us, and it is just plain nice. It’s simple to respond as we should, at least on the good days. A simple “Gloria!” and we’re doing it right.
But what about when the liturgical year grows up?
I’m putting together an article for Our Sunday Visitor about how marriages change after a baby is born — the good, the bad, and the things that need professional intervention (spiritual and otherwise). Dr. Greg Popcak gave me some wonderful information, and he has reprinted our entire interview on his blog. Here’s an excerpt:
Simcha: I assume you mostly work with Catholic couples. Is the strength of a couple’s faith a good predictor for how well they can work through their problems? This sounds like a softball question – like, “yes yes, of course when we are faithful, we will find life’s burdens light” – but I’m really curious, because I know that a strong religious faith doesn’t always translate easily or directly into good emotional health or strong relationships.
Dr. Greg: You’re right. In fact, many faithful couples who have more rigid role expectations may struggle more with birth than other couples. If you tend to be of the mindset the God made men to do X and women to do Y and never the twain shall meet, you may tend to fail to be there for each other, take on too much for yourself, and make excuses for behavior that would be otherwise inexcusable.
Faith tends to be helpful when it is expressed, not as “rules to live by” but rather as “a call to be generous and understanding regarding each other’s needs.” Babies have a way of stretching your comfort zones. If your faith helps you deal with that and respond accordingly, both your faith and relationships will become healthier as you grow as a person. But if your faith is mainly about having hard and fast rules to live by, you might not adapt as well to the unpredictability that comes with post-baby life.
Good stuff, with lots of practical advice — things we learned the hard way, and are still working on learning. Read the rest here.
I will post a link to the finished OSV article when it comes out; and also keep an eye out for Popcak’s newest book, written with his wife: Then Comes Baby: Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood (Ave Maria Press–Nov 2014).
Not a failure: “My daughter is pregnant.”
Failure: “My daughter had an abortion because she knew darn well what would happen if we found out she was pregnant.”
Not a failure: “My child is severely depressed.” “My child has debilitating anxiety.” “My child is suicidal.”
Failure: “I have no idea how to help my child, but I’ll be damned if I let someone stranger into our personal lives. Professional help is for parents who can’t hack it, and I don’t belong in a waiting room with that trash.”
Not a failure: “We are totally crashing and burning in the home school/private school/religious school/public school we thought would be so perfect for our kind of family.”
Failure: “We are totally crashing and burning, but if we quit, we’ll be failures as parents/let down the community/have to admit we’re wrong/change our lives around. We better keep going, so everyone will know we care about our kids.”
Not a failure: “I don’t understand my kid very well, and it’s hard to talk.”
Failure: “My kid has a great relationship with my husband, or with her teacher, or with her friend’s mom. I can’t allow this. I’m the mom.”
Not a failure: “My kid is screwing up in exactly the same ways I did or do.”
Failure: “Boy, does this look familiar, and boy does it make me feel bad. I’ll punish her double, one for each of us.”
Not a failure: “Despite our best efforts to raise him right, my kid exercised his free will and is now a druggie, an alcoholic, a criminal.”
Failure: “His name is forbidden in my home.”
Not a failure: “We are too broke to give our kids everything their friends have.”
Failure: “I must do everything possible to get more money, so we can be happy.”
Not a failure: “My child is gay.”
Failure: “I refuse to have gay children, so either the kid or the gayness has got to go.”
Not a failure: “My child has left the Church.”
Failure: “I refuse to speak to my child who has left the Church. How could he betray Me this way?”
Not a failure: “I just said exactly the wrong thing to my kid.”
Failure: “We must never speak of this again.”
I’ll be speaking about parents as primary educators of their children on the Son Rise Morning Show this Friday morning. Seven of my children will be at school, and the other two will be watching Dinosaur Train. The baby will be yelling, ‘WHERE ‘DUC-TER????” every time the Conductor goes off the screen. The dog will be pawing frantically at the door of my bedroom, where I do radio interviews, because the only, only, only way he wants to spend his time these days is playing Lonely Dog Rodeo on top of my bed. He weighs 140 pounds and is not allowed on my bed, but he tries.
Catch the excitement here, Friday, around 8:50.
Take a squint at how you’re raising your kids. The general impression should be “up, up, up.”
Just because I have a lot of kids, people assume I have a lot of kid-managing skills. Not so. In the last twelve years, I have perfected really only two child-related talents: ignoring screams, and buying spaghetti in bulk. Other than that, I’m pretty much where I was at the beginning: terrified, stymied, trying not to let them corner me.
How, for instance, do I deal with lots and lots and lots and lots of time in the car with four small children who have lots and lots and lots and lots of desire to be out of the car? Haven’t figured that one out yet. The reason this comes up is that, as part of my nefarious plan to erase all traces of labor, hardship and inconvenience from my life when we decided to send our oldest four children to a charter school, I have been spending an awful lot of time in the car.
Emphasis on the awful.
The four youngest children always come for the ride in the afternoon, and sometimes in the morning, too. Sometimes they read or play with baby dolls during the ride; other times, they just sit there, quietly soaking their car seats. Of course I know all about portable toys, books, snacks, window stickers, soothing or amusing music, “I spy,” and so on. But some weeks, we spend so many hours in the car, it’s not a matter of passing the time. We’re just living our lives, but in the car, you know? We just do the things we always do, but we can’t get away from each other.
Here’s a little illustration. To comprehend the psychological freight inherent in the following drama, you have to know a few things: first, that the three-year-old
is completely nuts, and likes nothing better than to start arguments about nothing at all; and second, the 18-month-old thinks the three-year-old is a god.
And one more thing: it was raining.
3-year-old: “It’s not raining.”
Little sister, parroting: “Yainin’!”
3-year-old: “No, it’s not raining!”
Little sister, blissfully playing along: “Yeah, yainin’!”
3-year-old, in a rage: “NO, it’s NOT raining, it’s NOT raining, it’s NOT raining!”
Little sister, joyfully agreeing with her idol: “Yain-yain-yainin’!!!!!!!!!”
3-year-old, in a quivering ecstasy of fury: “IT! IS! NOT! RAI-AI-AI-AI-AI-AININNNNNNNNNNG!”
Little sister, transported with bliss at the wonderful camaraderie she was enjoying with her sister: “YAAAAAAAAAAAININ’!”
And so on.
There was nothing that anyone could do. The three-year-old had rocketed so far past the point of reason that she remained in her little orbit of hysteria for a good half hour; and when she came down, she was hungry. And guess what? I had forgotten to bring a snack.
Did I mention we were in the car for three hours that day? I’m just glad we belong a religion that believes in the value of suffering. Because, man, it’s only Tuesday . . .