"I try to get my child to eat something different, but every time I ask her what she wants to eat, she chooses the same thing."
Sound familiar? I hear this a lot: "I try..."
Especially when parents decide to implement The Rotation Rule.
"I try..." is usually a sign that parents are using choices incorrectly.
Parents typically have to change what their children eat in order to implement proportion and variety, two of the three habits that translate everything you need to know about nutrition into behavior. (Moderation is the third habit.) And, as most people know, it's good to give children choices.
Here's the problem:
Unstructured choices are ineffective.
- An unstructured choice: What do you want for breakfast?
- A structured choice: Would you like eggs or cereal for breakfast?
Here's why unstructure choices don't work.
- Your kids choose the same thing every single time, usually because that's the only choice they can think of. Then...
- You try to convince them to make another choice.
- They stick to their guns.
- You feel lousy. Then...
- You either fight with your child, impose your will, or give up.
This dynamic reinforces an arbitrary eating environment. Arbitrary encourages fighting. Read You Can't Make Me Eat It!
To understand the problem of unstructured choices take this little test:
- What's wrong with giving children choices?
- Is it better to give children an open-ended choice or a choice between two options?
Isn't it more difficult to answer question #1 than it is to answer question #2?
- With Question #1 you have to dream up an answer. What popped into your head?
- Question #2 directs your attention to the set of issues I want you to consider.
The same thing happens when you give children choices about what to eat.
Structured choices set the parameters of acceptable answers.
Any choice your child makes is acceptable. Happy days!
Authoritative Parenting—the style that has been shown to be most effective—is a combination of structure and compassion.
- Setting the parameters of the choices is the structure.
- Allowing your child to make the actual choice is the compassion.
Do children sometimes choose a "third" choice?
Absolutely. Especially if they're unfamiliar with structured choices. The "third" choice is an opportunity for parents to reinforce the structure.
- "Do you want eggs or cereal for breakfast?"
- "I want pancakes."
- "You can have pancakes tomorrow. But today you can choose between choices eggs and cereal."
When children insist on the third choice they are testing the strength of the structure. You can't let the structure crumble. Children accept solid structures and fight weak ones.
Testing that turns into a tantrum is a sign that the situation has changed from a food issue to a behavioral issue. Respond the way you would to any behavioral problem.
For more on adopting an authoritative parenting style read:
I discuss all these ideas in It's Not About the Broccoli.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~