Bug Cooks a Healthy Dinner for the Family
I have been getting a ton of questions about toddler behavior, household chores, and picky eating lately. I have one answer for all three: Kids WANT to do what we do. But how does that work exactly? What on earth do I mean? How can doing what we do change the behavior of toddlers and children?
Let’s start at the beginning: I encourage babywearing right from the start. Not only because it facilitates successful breastfeeding, regulates infant body functions, provides neurological benefits, makes parents’ lives easier or because slings and wraps and mei tai’s are so beautiful and cool…but because it is the child’s first classroom.
So many parents spend their day doing little else but playing with the baby (or toddler, or both) We have been lead to believe that this sort of constant intellectual and educational stimulation provides myriad benefits for our kids and will make them smarter, more capable, and happier. And we have all been told that Play IS the Work of Childhood. I agree…but more on that later. Additionally, a great deal of effort is spent each day to get our little people down for a nap so that parents can finally get some work done. However, we do a great disservice to our children and ourselves when we scurry about during nap time doing the work of running a household. Instead, nap time (if you are fortunate enough to still have a napper!) should be spent resting or replenishing our own batteries; reading, writing, connecting with friends, stalking around on Pinterest, taking a shower, or (gasp) even snuggling up for a nap with our little ones! Or for those of us who have been fortunate enough to earn income while being at home with our children, perhaps we can make those last few phone calls in silence, finish up our online banking, or crank out a few more listings for our Etsy shop. Teaching our children (of any age) that magic fairies come in while they are asleep/out of the house and transform our homes and work spaces into clean, functional areas is not helping them to be engaged, aware, and responsible household members when they get older and we DO want their help. Additionally, we don’t do any them any favors when we constantly martyr ourselves and complain about our workload. Joyfully engaging in the work we participate in will encourage others to enthusiastically join in. I highly recommend checking out Radical Ideas About Chores to get some ideas of what I am aiming at here.
Instead, include your baby and toddler in the running of a household. They WANT to do what we do. Instead of setting up an Us vs Them situation in our households, we need to expose our children to what we do on a daily basis. Modeling the work of the day…whether that is household, school work, or earning income while at home… provides them with the connection they are craving from you. Talk to your child while you go about your routine. Explain what you are doing, why, how it makes you feel, how you learned to do it, what the alternatives are, what tools you need to do it, etc… *(see note below)
Jean Liedloff, Author of The Continuum Concept, sums up this idea succinctly in her article entitled Who’s In Control:
…because a toddler wants to learn what his people do, he expects to be able to center his attention on an adult who is centered on her own business. An adult who stops whatever she is doing and tries to ascertain what her child wants her to do is short-circuiting this expectation. Just as significantly, she appears to the tot not to know how to behave, to be lacking in confidence and, even more alarmingly, looking for guidance from him, a two or three year old who is relying on her to be calm, competent, and sure of herself. A toddler’s fairly predictable reaction to parental uncertainty is to push his parents even further off-balance, testing for a place where they will stand firm and thus allay his anxiety about who is in charge.
I certainly don’t want this to sound like it is direct conflict with Attachment Parenting principles–it is not. It is perfectly in line with AP and instills a great deal of trust and confidence in children. Liedloff is not advocating for ignoring the needs of a child in leui of completing adult work. In her work with the Yequana tribe of South America, she observes a lack of terrible twos, tantrums, selfishness, destructiveness, and recklessness that we call normal toddler behavior here in the Western world. Equally, she does not find the adults to be nagging, constantly disciplining, or creating endless boundaries for toddlers. There did not seem to be an adversarial relationship between parent and child. Her conclusion? That being held and worn frequently by an adult who was simply going about adult business taught children from the earliest of ages about how to act and behave confidently in the culture. Whatever your adult business of the day may be: including your baby and children in those activities is what will help them become happy, confident, adaptable and pleasant young people and members of society. It will reduce uncertainly, anxiety, and undesirable behviors without constantly relying on discipline techniques.
That might seem doable for a remote tribe of South American’s, but what about modern, busy Western families? How can we apply these ideals to our fast-paced and complex lives?
When our babies were small, they were included in the running of the household and wage-earning activities via babywearing. Snuggled under a chin, they were rocked to sleep by the rythyms of and sounds of vacuuming, running water, the tapping of computer keys and work-related activities. As they became more mobile, they were invited to help us do our work side by side at home and at the office when applicable. By two years old we expect that they will (with supervision and guidance as needed) voluntarily and enthusiastically pitch in for straightening up the house, making beds, folding laundry, mopping floors, wiping off surfaces, dusting, setting the table, feeding the pets, and loading and unloading the dishwasher. By 4 we see them cheerfully helping to use various tools to assist in minor household repairs, lawn maintenance, and yard clean up. After that, we really do not limit the types of activities that they can engage in with supervision: preparing meals, running the household appliances as needed, using household cleaners (all the more important to make sure you are only using safe, non-toxic cleaning alternatives in your home and office! For a green alternative cleaning service here in Erie contact Sarah at Mother Earth’s Keeper)
But what about forcing your kids to work all day long? The last time I checked, there were laws against child slavery, right? Obviously, we don’t use or treat our children as slaves who must do our bidding without question. However, we do not provide special rewards for doing work that is essential to the running of our household. If a family member chooses to take on a responsibility that is not expected, or is asked to help out in ways that are not required, but would be nice, we compensate them. When my 17 year old watches the younger siblings for a special event or a night out for Sir Hubby and I, we consider that to be above and beyond the normal work of the household. When our 8 year old offers to clean out the van as a special favor to us, we reward her with a special outing. The part that so many people forget though is that they WANT to do what we do! We don’t use chore charts or allowances or stickers or rewards. They clamor to get in on the action of unloading the dishwasher. The elbow each other out the way to be the one who gets to pull the comforter up on the bed. They turn the work of the home into the games they play. They set up obstacle courses, assembly lines, and elaborate fantasy scenarios to accompany the work they do. They run from imaginary crocodiles snapping at their heels on the way to feed the dog. They jump over dangerous lava flows to make it to the laundry room. They also take frequent breaks. Sometimes they even ask if we can handle a task on our own while they do something they want to do. They delegate and negotiate just like adults do sometimes. I often tell Sir Hubby that I am just not up to a specific task and would like to trade. Or we negotiate terms so that everyone gets their needs met. The expectation is that the work will get accomplished with team work and that we are all part of the team. We also have realistic expectations of what the needs of our household are. We do not live in splendor. We do not live a museum. We are happy to accept a less sparkling house in trade for eliminating the conflicts and battles that usually accompany “chores”.
But what about kids being kids? What about Play BEING the Work of Kids? Of course they still spend a great deal of time doing the more widely acceptable work of children: playing. They play outdoors, with toys, with one another, with other children. We go to the Children’s Museum, they ride bikes, they pick flowers, they dig in the dirt, they climb trees, they draw pictures, they read books, and they put on puppet shows. But the work of the adults is not cloistered away behind a private office door (unless we are on the phone, or at our respective out of the home offices) like Ward Cleaver (I mean, what they hell did he do all day? Who knows!) We strike a balance of meeting our adult-orientated work goals, allowing the children to engage in age appropriate activities that they create while also exposing them to the realities of daily work.
But how does this translate into other toddler and child behaviors like food wars and undesirable attitudes?
Food Wars: They have seen us preparing, eating, and enjoying healthy meals since their earliest of days as part of the work of our home. While they are still exclusively breastfeeding and all of their needs are being met with human milk, they observe us enjoying food and sometimes offering it to them without a lot of expectation about whether they eat it or not. This creates a low pressure situation for kids. Any food in the house that they choose to say yes to is a healthy food: we simply do not buy or make junk food to have to say no to. As for nutrition: no child has ever voluntarily starved themselves to death. They have no socially-driven body image hang-ups, nor do they have a political agenda to hunger strike about. And remember: they WANT to do what we do! They will eat food that they see trusted, reliable, loving adults sharing and enjoying in their presence. Offer very small portions, invite them to the table (not to eat, necessarily, just to sit with the family) and enjoy your meal and the wonderful company you are in. Allow them to eat or not without any comment, judgment or expectations. Dr Sears shares some tips here. Does this mean that my kids eat everything we put in front of them? Oh god, no. But we don’t sweat it and we don’t fight about it. My 23 year old and 17 year old eat JUST FINE. They can use a fork AND a knife. They can sit at a table for a whole meal. They even chew with their mouths closed. Forcing them to do it at 3 was not going to ensure that they grew up to do it: it would have only caused fights, stress, and power struggles about meal time. I have the long term goal in mind. Our kids will be just fine on whatever healthy food they manage to sneak in. Again, remember the key is to NOT have junk around for them to make a poor choice with when they do get around to eating.
Terrible Two’s: As for toddler behaviors like tantrums, saying *NO*, and not wanting to be cooperative: the key is not necessarily finding a way to handle the behaviors, but preventing them from starting as much as possible. When we keep our babies close, allow them into our world, show them that they are in the care of competent, engaged, aware, present, and happy adults, they feel little anxiety about our ability to care for them, meet their needs, and keep them safe. Check out Janet Lansbury’s article on toddler discipline for a glimpse into your toddlers brain and why this matters. As they get older and gain confidence by participating in the adult work around them, they feel proud of themselves and their own abilities WITHOUT having to hear it from us. I never say “Good Job!” to my children. Ever. I simply state facts: “You completed that task so quickly!” or “You were able to do that with no help!” or “Helping your sister with her work must have made her feel loved.” Then they own their proud feelings instead of looking to adults to confirm whether they should be proud of themselves or not. The most rewarding thing I ever get to see as a mom is my kids shouting with glee and clapping their hands with pride after they have done something…and they never even look at me to see if I saw them do it.
Be sure to pick up copies of The Continuum Concept, Connection Parenting, and Child Honouring to get a deeper look into the concepts I am talking about.
* I use the terms parent and family to also include hired or volunteer care-providers. Even if parents must earn wages outside of the home, loving, dedicated and competent care providers should be providing these valuable experiences for babies whenever possible. These techniques are not the privilege of families affluent enough to have a stay at home parent—this is a workable model for any person who cares for infants.