One of the hallmark developmental stages for any toddler is what Erikson call's the "autonomy versus shame and doubt" phase. In this critical time of his development, John is learning to do things on his own. He's gaining an understanding of his individual autonomy and confidence in his abilities to go out and explore the world. He's learning to dress himself and undress himself. He's learning to put on his shoes. He's learning to brush his teeth (with a lot of mommy's help and supervision), put away his toys, and make choices. We let him pick out his clothes by giving him two options. "Do you want the robot pajamas or the dinosaurs?" He's learning to use the potty, which is a huge deal for toddlers. If you've never seen a group of toddlers interact before, it's quite amusing. One of them needs to go to the bathroom and all the rest of them have to go "help."
So he's learning all these important skills, which he'll need as he becomes progressively more independent, but he still lives in a world with a lot of limits. Mommy determines when he gets up and when he goes to bed. Mommy decides when we go outside and when we come back in. Mommy decides where we go and what we do and who we see. Even though we give John a few choices and a few opportunities to make decisions for himself, he still lives in a world ruled strictly by Mom and Dad.
Many, if not most, toddlers will react to these limitations by asserting their authority in one way or another. For some, it's the common behavior of responding to all communication with, "No!" For others, it's controlling and manipulating parental behavior by throwing temper tantrums to get what the toddler wants. A friend of a friend's three-year-old willfully poops in his pants when he's frustrated or angry with his parents (yikes!!). Toddlers have very little control over their lives, so they will sometimes try to take control in any way that they can. For John, it's food. This is where Operation "Eat A Freaking Carrot" comes into the story.
John has always been a relatively good eater. He loves most fruits, especially bananas, and will happily eat them all day. He likes typical "toddler foods" like Goldfish crackers. He likes yogurt, applesauce, granola bars, cheese, and deli meat. He LOVES waffles and sausage. And we've recently discovered that he'll also eat BBQ chicken. Sometimes he'll eat pasta with tomato sauce (and some ninja vegetables that Mommy pureed and mixed into the sauce -- Mwahaha!) and he'll usually eat macaroni and cheese. Well, I should clarify... these are the things he'll eat at home. When he's at daycare, he'll eat just about anything. Peas, carrots, green beans, tuna salad, meatloaf, catfish, oatmeal, cereal, soup, sandwiches, plus all the things he eats at home.
When I first noticed this difference in what he was willing to eat, I went in to talk with the caregivers to find out what I was doing wrong... or at least, what they were doing differently. Judge me if you want, but I love our daycare. The caregivers there are VERY knowledgeable about early childhood development and they have been an amazing resource for me as John has grown and we've encountered new challenges. Plus they are incredibly patient and nurturing and loving toward my little man cub, so I know that he's spending his days in an environment that is healthy, caring, and promotes his growth and development. I just can't say enough good things about them.
So anyway, what I've discovered after many lengthy conversations with his caregivers is that John will eat the very same food at daycare that he rejects at home every time. This is due in part to the environment. John has always been a "monkey see, monkey do" kind of kid. That's how he learned to crawl and walk, and how he transitioned from bottle to sippy cup to open cup like a boss. So sitting down at the breakfast or lunch table with a bunch of other toddlers, he mimics their behaviors and eats the food on his plate like the rest of them. (How they get a room full of two-year-olds to all eat their food if a mystery to me... obviously some kind of black magic.) Well, we do this at home, too. We always eat every meal at the kitchen table together. We sit down, hold hands to say grace (my heart melts a little every time John says "amen"), and eat our meals as a family.... even though that means eating dinner at 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening. We do this not only because it's consistent with what John experiences at daycare, but also because we firmly believe in the importance of having actual family dinners. We don't eat on the couch in front of the TV because that's why we pay for DVR service. John eats when James and I eat, at the table where James and I eat, and we try to encourage him to eat what James and I eat. It's too much trouble to prepare a completely separate meal for him every night and I certainly wouldn't be making him a separate meal if he were 10 or 11. I modify his plate to make it easier for him and more palatable (ie, BBQ sauce instead of Buffalo sauce), but it's basically the same.
The other difference in John's eating habits at home versus at daycare have to do with the company he keeps. As kind and loving as his caregivers are, they aren't his Mommy. There are certain buttons he can push with me that simply don't work with anyone else... and he knows it. The best example I can give is what I call "the cling." You know what I'm talking about. Whenever I have to leave him somewhere, whether it's at daycare or in the church nursery (another topic altogether) or just leaving him at home with Daddy or a grandparent, John uses the ultimate break-your-mommy's-heart move and clings to my leg crying, "My Mommy! My Mommy! My Mommy!" He does it because he knows it will immediately stop me in my tracks. How could it not? My head knows that he's just manipulating me because he wants me to stay and that he'll be playing and laughing 45 seconds after I'm out the door. But my heart sees a precious and sad little boy with chunky little cheeks who desperately needs his mommy. It's cruel and it works. Every. Single. Time.
So when it's dinner time and he doesn't like the food on his plate, John will push it away and say he doesn't like it in the hopes that I will bring him something else. He sticks out his bottom lip sometimes even works up some convincing crocodile tears. What am I supposed to do? I can't send a toddler to bed without something to eat but I can't let him refuse every healthy thing we offer either. Just because he happily eats all his fruits and vegetables at daycare doesn't mean he can live on a diet of Goldfish crackers and Babybel cheese at home.
I know I promised to get to Operation "Eat A Freaking Carrot" five paragraphs ago. So here it is. After discussing a few strategies with other moms and the caregivers at daycare, I've decided to take it one vegetable at a time. The plan is twofold. First, I'm going to enlist John's help in preparing dinner every night. I've been told that kids are more likely to eat foods that they've helped to prepare. Since John is always asking to help me do things, I think he will enjoy the chance to help me cook. Secondly, I'm going to offer him one healthy food item along with one or two familiar foods. That way I can be assured that he will at least get a little something to eat, along with the full glass of milk he always finishes. If he refuses to eat the healthy food item, that's okay because he's going to see it again the next day... at the day after that... and the day after that until he finally decides to at least give it a try. I'm not looking for him to eat an entire plate of kale. What I want is for him to try these new foods and not spit them out.
I'm convinced that if I am patient and consistent, if I am creative and provide lots of positive reinforcement, John will eventually develop a love of healthy foods that will last him a lifetime. In the meantime, wish me luck and pray for me.... a lot.
And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.