Friday, December 31, 2010

Food as Love

Moms and food go together.  We imagine moms making chocolate chip cookies to go with the milk for the after school snack.  Jewish mothers, Italian mothers, and many others stereotypically encourage even their grown children to eat more.  Cooking food is how they show their love for you, eating more of what they cook is proof that you love them.  In some families dads and food go together, too.  Food is not just about calories and fuel for our bodies.  The messages that go into the bowl along with the soup are many and complex.

We have a particularly full figured cat.  He was large when we adopted him from the shelter and despite all efforts on my part he is still 20 pounds of food fixated feline.  Sometimes, when he is staring hopefully at me, while sitting attentively by his bowl, I sing him a song, 'Love is better than food, Love is better than food, Love is better than, Love is better than, Love is better than food."  But for him, and for many people, food is love.

I have watched people making my children food: special treats, family recipes, or something they are positive my children will not only like but love.  When my children do not like this food, specially prepared for them, the preparer takes it personally.  They are disappointed, but it is more than that, they feel rejected because their offering of food has been rejected.  Even if the person rejecting the food is three years old, even if the person rejecting the food does so politely.

Food is personal.  It is entangled with our culture, childhood, and our memories happy and sad.  In a world that can feel big and scary food can be a comfort.  We eat foods in hopes of preventing terrible diseases and we avoid foods because we believe they will cause us harm.  For some people food is the focus of their Fanaticism.  Food is also social, it brings people together and is shared at celebrations and holidays of all types.  For people who live with life threatening allergies or diseases like Celiac Disease, living a safe and healthy life among the other food eaters can be challenging and even dangerous.

No matter what our own relationship is with food, our children are born with their own particular set of taste buds, metabolism, sensitivities and tolerances.  Our children are born with their own preferences and those preferences expand as our children explore the world and try new things.  We can try and make our children eat according to our schedule and expectations, our own preferences and sensitivities.  We can try to brainwash our children so that they believe exactly the same things we do about food and nutrition and health.  We can try to control and manipulate our children's relationship with food.  On the other hand, we can accept our children for who they are.  We can respect that they are a different people than we are and what they eat, how and when they eat it, may be drastically different.  We can aim to be a Family of Connected Individuals in regards to food as well.  We can also remember that our children are going to be in the world, playing at friends' houses, going to school, visiting relatives, shopping in stores, and they are going to be exposed to a wide variety of foods, as well as a lot of different information and ideas about diet and nutrition.  They are going to have the opportunity to make choices about food, even if we never give them choices at home.

When we focus on our relationship with our children, instead of on their relationship with food; when we explore life, and food, along side of them as partners, we are available as a resource and a support system.  When we have a relationship built on trust and connection, our children know that they can come to us and discuss their thoughts and ideas without being judged, criticized or shamed.  When we can let go of our expectations our children are free to express what foods they like or do not like without fears of disappointing us or being forced to eat something.

As parents who love their children we want them to be healthy and we often jump right from that thought to food.  We are deeply invested in what they eat, how much they eat and when they eat.  Perhaps we are missing out on the importance of Why they eat.  Why do your kids eat what, how much and when they eat?  Do your kids eat because they are hungry?  Do your kids eat foods they enjoy?  Do your kids eat as much or as little as feels right to them at the time?  Or, do your kids eat because you have told them it is time to eat?  Do your kids eat foods because you told them that they have to, or because they want to please you?  Do your kids eat the amount you put on their plate because they know they have to eat it all?  Do your kids eat to please you?

When we focus on our relationship with our children, instead of on their relationship with food, we can share the joy and pleasure that food brings to our lives.  We can share our relationship with food with our children and they can share their relationship with food with us, an exchange of ideas and experiences.  Together we can learn and grow as a family with healthy relationships with food and with each other.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"What makes us fat is...."

It seems that everyone has some theory about what foods make us fat, which foods are evil, and what foods will cure every known illness.  The list of what not to eat keeps growing, as does the list of what you absolutely must eat if you are going to be healthy.  Most parents want their children to be healthy and often that includes not wanting their children to be fat.  Because of this parents often enforce  rules and restrictions about food, convinced that it is in the best interest of their children.  Parents may be completely unconditional and uncontrolling in every other area, but remain rigid and restrictive when it comes to food.

Recently a friend was posting gluten free recipes on facebook, which makes sense since she lives with Celiac Disease, and one of her friends asked if it was the flour, the gluten or the carbohydrates that make us fat. Well guess what?  Baring any real health issues, none of those things "make us fat."

Before I go any further let me point out that how much someone weighs is no indication of their level of health, fitness or happiness.  It is entirely possible to be a well rounded person and to be happier and healthier than a person who wears a size 0.

What should matter to us is whether or not our children have a healthy relationship with food.  The question "What food makes us fat?" is not the question I want to ask in relation to my own body or the bodies of my family.  I would rather ask:  What makes us feel good?  How does food bring us joy?  How do we ensure that our children have a healthy relationship with food?  The answer to that last question is Trust.  We must trust that our children know what is best for their bodies.  When we trust our children, we give them the space they need to learn about their own bodies and what their bodies need.  Our children will create their own relationships with food.  When we try and control that process we get in the way of their ability to know what they really need.  We cause them to doubt their own wisdom, we pass along our own food issues, we get in the way.  We must accept that different bodies need different foods.  We must remember that people have all different shaped bodies, and not hold one up as ideal or healthiest. When we explore life with our children we can be a resource of information, but we must be careful that we are giving them accurate information.  When it comes to food it can be hard to know what the truth is.  The best way to find out the truth about food is to try different things and pay attention to our bodies.  It may be true that if I eat 2 Red Vines I feel sick, but my daughter may be able to eat a whole package without feeling any affect.  When I tell my daughter,"If you eat more of those you will feel sick," I am telling her my truth.  However, if she eats more and does not feel sick then she knows that my truth is not her truth, and I become less trust worthy when it comes to providing information about food and its affects on her body.  It is more helpful when I say, "If I eat more than two I feel sick, how do they make you feel?"

When it comes to food, what are you afraid of?  Are you afraid that your children will get some terrible disease?  Are you worried about what the grandparents will say if your child tends to be chubby?  Are you afraid your children will have the same issues around food that you have, even as you are creating new food issues that your children will be struggling with their entire lives?  Fear makes our world smaller.  We need to embrace food as we embrace life.  We need to celebrate the joy and pleasure that comes from sharing food with our families.  We need to let go of our fears.  Look around you and notice what people are eating.  You will see that there are people living joyful lives eating all kinds of foods.  You will also notice that people who eat "healthy foods" get sick some times and people who eat "junk food" can be healthy.  You may notice that in families where children make their own choices about food those choices are diverse, nutritious and as individual as the children.

Remember: nothing is more important than your relationship with your children, and that includes food.  Your relationship with your child can directly impact their relationship with food.  Some people who have an unhealthy relationship with food do so because they learned to use food to self-sooth.  The struggle some adults have with food and weight can be a mirror of the struggles they faced in their childhood for acceptance and love, a reaction to the controls or restrictions adults placed on foods, or a response to the messages they received about their body shape or size.  Children who grow up with unconditional love, in a family with strong connections and trusting relationships, are more likely to have a healthy relationship with their body and with food.  Children in these families have been able to explore a variety of foods and eating patterns, listen to their bodies, and figure out what they need to eat to feel healthy.

If food is creating conflict or power struggles in your family think about the messages you are sending to your children.  Do you use guilt, fear, bribes or threats to get your children to eat what you think they should eat?  Are your children learning to listen to their bodies?  Are you telling them how food can make them fat and unhealthy, or are you supporting them in becoming healthy individuals who enjoy food?   Unless your child has a severe allergy or a serious health issue nothing they choose to eat is going to hurt them as much as the disconnect in your relationship that is caused when you try to control what they are eating.

Nothing is more important than your relationship with your children, and that includes food.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The gift we give our family

People are celebrating many different sacred days this time of year with diverse traditions.   Each family celebrating in their own way.  Through out the year we have different days that we hold sacred.  We create rituals that give those days special meaning and remind us of our blessings.  Birthdays, anniversaries of many different kinds, the passing of the seasons, and days that are holy or sacred give us times to reflect and remember, or rejoice and create new memories, with those we love.  In the end, a holiday is what you make of it, what meaning you give it, what traditions you choose to embrace and continue year after year.  Often the special days we celebrate involve giving and receiving gifts.

In my blog posts I often emphasize that everyone's needs are important and that the goal is to find ways to meet each person's needs.  Readers question if that is possible.  They ask if it's true that my own needs are met while I'm busy meeting the needs of everyone else.  There are two ways to answer the question, both feel equally true in my life.  The first answer is no, my needs are not always met.  I live with three children and a chronically ill husband who works a job he is good at, but a job that is exhausting and takes most of his functional energy.  It is a meaningful job, but not a high paying job, which means we have limited financial resources.  I live in a house populated with pets which are my responsibility.  There are times when my "what about me?!?" level starts to rise.  I begin to feel like all I do is meet the needs and expectations of my family.  From this perspective, no, my needs are not always met.  In fact, there are times when my needs don't even seem to matter.

The second answer is, meeting the needs of my family is meeting my needs.  I have chosen this life.  Every day I make the choice to get up and live a life of love with my family.  I can view meeting their needs as a gift, an expression of my love for them, a blessing to be shared with them, and a blessing that I am able to live this life with them each day.  I also know that while our needs are equally important, I have an ability to delay gratification, to know that my needs will get met eventually, that my children may still be developing.

Meeting the needs of my family can feel like a burden or a gift, it depends on my focus and perspective.  When The laundry and dishes and clutter start to pile up and feelings of resentment that I am the one responsible for doing everything start to build in my mind nothing has really changed but my mind state.  If I'm not paying attention, soon I am banging about in the kitchen, grumbling under my breath, snapping at whomever dares ask me for one more thing.  Then I feel angry with myself for being so hateful.  My emotional and mental state become increasingly volatile.  My family vanishes into various bedrooms and I am left alone to get myself back on track.  When I remember to pay attention I can catch myself before my mind state deteriorates.  When I'm paying attention, I have the ability to know when one of my needs cannot wait or when my mind is turning wants into needs.

As I wrote previously, "There's a kind of parental enlightenment that we can attain. It is easier for some people than for others, but for most of us it does take practice. When we reach this state of parental enlightenment our day to day life may be the same (though it will probably feel easier and may actually be easier) but our attitude changes. We still spend our days meeting our children's needs, making food, cleaning up messes. The difference is that we now do these same things from a place of joy, as a gift to our children, instead of from a place of resentment and frustration." (The Parental Practice)

Our family's life together is what we make of it, what meaning we give it, what traditions we choose to embrace and continue year after year.  We can built rituals and reminders into our days that help us stay focused on the gift we give our family when we meet their needs.  We can cultivate joy in the small gifts of love that we offer each day when we make our children a snack, read them a book or listen to them with our full attention.  We can remember that the years we have living together with our children are often a small portion of our lifetime, and in the future there will most likely by plenty of time for our own needs to be met.  We can remember that making our relationships with our children a priority is a gift we give them and ourselves; a gift that will affect our future, their future and generations not yet born.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Be Kind To Everyone

We were buying sneakers for our younger two girls.  We found cute pairs for each of them and we had a coupon that made them more affordable, but the reality was that buying anything right then felt like spending too much money.  When I handed the cashier the coupon she asked me to wait a minute, I smiled and said, "O.K." When she returned she had another coupon that gave me an additional 20% off.

This was not a random act of kindness on her part.  I know the main cashiers at the U-scan checkout at our grocery store by name.  They know my name, too.  One even calls my husband "Mr. Jenna."  I have seen pictures of their grand babies and I know about their tough times, and illnesses.  Because I have taken the time to cultivate a relationship with them, because I have been kind to them, they do what they can to be kind in return. 

I am not advocating being kind because you might get something in return, though sometimes it does work out that way.  I am advocating being kind because we all have our struggles.  We may look at someone else and think that they have it so easy.  We may envy their supportive relatives, their income, their beautiful house, their above average children, or their marriage.  It is easy to think that other people have it better than we do, but in the end, we all have challenges in our lives.  I also advocate being kind because it is through our kindness that our children experience kindness.

Being kind to everyone includes being kind to our children, our partners, and ourselves.  Kindness begins at home.  When children live in a world of kindness they internalize being kind, they understand that when someone is kind to you it feels warm and fuzzy, and they understand that when you are kind to someone else you both feel blessed.  Children who experience kindness and respect in their homes are more likely treat others they meet with kindness and respect.

If we grew up without consistent kindness in our lives we may struggle with being kind to ourselves.  If we verbally berate ourselves in front of our children when we do something wrong this increases the chance that they will do the same thing.  If we are critical of the product of our own efforts, a craft project, the dinner we made or our ability to keep the house clean, our children may rightfully assume that we will be critical of their efforts as well.  If people in our own childhood did not regularly model kindness we may have to practice being kind until it becomes our first response.  

Metta is Buddhist loving-kindness meditation.  The practice involves first directing loving-kindness towards yourself and then gradually expanding outward until you are directing loving-kindness towards all living things.  Studies show that Metta practice actually changes your brainwaves.  It not only boosts positive emotions, it can also improve your health, decrease your pain and help you feel more connected to others.  If you are interested in learning more about Loving-kindness meditation Gregory Kramer's "Loving Kindness for Children" is a place to start.

In my life I try to be kind to everyone.  Sometimes I fall short, but that's my goal.  Be kind to everyone.  When we start with being kind to ourselves, we can then expand our kindness outward to our partner, our children, our extended family and eventually to all living things.  When we are kind to everyone we strengthen connections and relationships.  When we are kind to everyone the blessing of kindness is shared.  When I am kind to my children we both benefit, and so might other people who witness the kindness of our interactions. 

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”  
Dalai Lama

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Family Time

I've been hearing a lot about "family time" from my children lately.  Mostly along the lines of their friends not being able to play or hang out because families were having "family time."  I think families spending time together is great!  I love it when my husband and children are with me and we are enjoying time together.  Families who have activities that they all enjoy doing are fortunate in that they have a natural way to spend time together.  Creating family traditions, such as game or movie night, can be a lot of fun.  If you are big fan of "family time" I ask you to remember this: nothing is more important than your relationship with your children, not even family time.

Being respectful of our children involves respecting their individual preferences or needs for social interaction.  This includes time spent together as a family.  It also involves understanding that as our children are progressing on their path to adulthood there may be times when they need more time alone or with their friends.   Parents who do not employ manipulations such as praise, punishment, withdrawal of affection, shamming or guilt trips, are more likely to have a connection with their children that in turn makes their children more likely to choose to spend time with their family.

Family time that is designated as such by parents, with mandatory attendance, may be an effort by the parents to create connection and develop a pattern of spending time together that will last for generations.  However, family time of this variety often creates feelings of resentment and frustration.  Instead of strengthening the family connection it can instead cause conflict and become a trigger for yelling, threats and punishment.  For more on triggers, read Here.    When negative feelings build up about family time children end up looking forward to the day when they have control over their lives and can choose to spend as little time with the family as possible.  Your child may not be showing how they feel about mandatory time spent together.  It is possible that what your child is expressing on the outside is not really how they are feeling on the inside.  If you think your child doesn't mind family time, reread my blog post "My child doesn't mind."

Spending time together as a family can be fun, heart warming, cozy, silly, relaxing and wonderful.  However, when it becomes something our children are required to do, instead of something they are choosing to do, the possibility for negative effects on our family relationships increases dramatically.  When family time becomes more important than our children we have lost focus of our priorities.  What we should aim for is A Family of Connected Individuals.

Family time may be held up as an ideal, something that good families have on a regular basis.  The reality may be that for your family having each parent spend time one on one with each child is a better way to build connection.  Spending time in different combinations of family members instead of all together is also a possibility.  Letting go of your own need for enforced family time may open the door to new and wonderful ways for your family to connect.  Your child will most likely feel more connected to you when you cheerfully kiss them goodbye, as they head out the door to hang out with friends, then they will spending several hours together during mandatory family time.  When you shift your focus from family time to the relationships in your family you will experience a greater love, joy and connection when you are together, and when you are apart.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Problem Behaviors"

Someone contacted my husband asking if he would be willing to help them with their child's problem behaviors.  When I mentioned this to my 14 year old daughter she laughed.  Then she said something like, "To us the solution is so obvious."  And what was the solution that was so obvious to a teenager?  The child had needs that weren't being met.  As I have written before, meeting the needs of children is the Easy Button of Parenting.

When parents seek help for their children's "problem behaviors" what they are really asking for is a way to make the behaviors stop.  When parents focus on the behavior, instead of on their children, the solution is often staring them in the face unnoticed.  On the other hand, some parents know what the solution is, but they are not willing to acknowledge it because meeting the needs of their children may seem daunting, inconvenient, or require them to make changes in their life.  We must remember that we chose to be parents and we made a commitment to our children.  When they are young, our children are completely dependent upon us to meet their needs.  While our needs are important, we have a greater number of resources, and that includes the ability to delay gratification.  Yes, our needs are equally important, but if we are not willing and able to occasionally put our children's needs ahead of our own then perhaps we should reconsider being a parent.

If you are struggling with "problem behaviors" start by asking yourself, "What does my child need and how can I meet those needs?"    Be honest about what needs are going unmet even if you are not sure how to meet them or it seems the only way to meet them will be drastic changes in your life.  If you need help identifying needs that need meeting reread this blog post.  Also ask yourself if you are truly accepting and embracing your child.  Notice if you say things like, "I love my kid, but I wish he wasn't so loud."  "She's a great kid but she won't sit still for school/church/meals."  "Why can't he be tidier, like his brother?"   Perhaps the problem is not with the behaviors.  Perhaps the problem with with your attitude about the behaviors.

Remember that there is a reason for your child's behavior.  Usually the behavior is an attempt to get their needs met to the best of their ability.  If you are proactively meeting your child's needs your child will not have to resort to "problem behaviors" in an effort to get your attention and get their needs met.  If you stop a behavior without meeting the underlying need you are creating an unhealthy situation for your child.  Your child may bottle up their emotions only to have them erupt in anger, depression, or physical illness later in their life.  Your child may find other people to meet their needs, not always in healthy ways.  Your child may develop learned helplessness: they know their needs aren't going to be met so they give up trying.  See "My child doesn't mind" for more on learned helplessness. 

When you find yourself thinking that your child has problem behaviors unhook yourself from the thought that you need to stop the behavior.  Try looking at life through your child's eyes.  Approach your child with unconditional love and compassion, and find ways to connect with your child.  Include your child in figuring out what their needs are and how their needs can be met.  Remind yourself that nothing is more important than your relationship with your child, and that includes stopping "problem behaviors."

Saturday, December 4, 2010

You'd better watch out...

It's the holiday season.  There are many special days celebrated this month by our friends and family.  Magic is in the air.  It is often with joy and excitement that friends and families get together to exchange gifts, eat food and share their traditions.  It is also a the season of increased financial stress, over stimulated children, and exhausted parents.  For many children their happiness and wonder is tempered by a subtle but ever present threat that they had better be good.  For some kids there is an increased harshness of parenting that darkens their month of December.

"If you don't stop that right now Santa is not going to bring you any presents!"
"Santa has spies everywhere and they know if you are being good or bad."
"Do that again and I'll take all your presents back to the store!"
"Santa only brings presents to good children, so you obviously aren't getting any presents this year."
"You don't deserve any presents."

I'll admit to having been one of those parents who sang "He sees you when you're sleeping, he knows when you're awake, he knows if you've been bad or good....." under my breath as a not so subtle reminder to my small children that they were not behaving in a way worthy of Santa's gifts.

"Worthy of gifts."  My perspective and my parenting have changed a lot since then.  Being worthy of gifts is not a concept that fits with unconditional parenting.  My children are worthy just the way they are.  My children do not have to earn gifts through good behavior anymore than they have to earn my love.  Gifts are given because the giving brings all of us joy.

When I go back and reread my blog post "How we live at our house" I am reminded that the idea of using Santa to guilt trip our children into behaving the way we want them to is completely counter to our principles: "We do not control our children. We do not use rewards or punishment, we do not threaten or bribe. We do not use love, praise, negative attention, disapproval, or the withdrawal of love and positive attention, to manipulate our children's behavior."

When parents choose to use Santa as the bully who keeps their kids inline they are missing out on the joy of the holiday season.  And sadly some children who have been bullied this way will grow up and decide to avoid having Santa in the lives of their children because of the painful memories he evokes.  Some parents will also tell you that they don't "do Santa" because they don't lie to their children.  If you have read my blog for a while you know that I do not in any way advocate lying to children.  I believe that families should be built on trust, honesty and respect.  However, I do feel that it is possible to keep the magic of the holiday season alive without ending up with children who feel betrayed.*

In our house we believe in Santa.  We also believe in fairies and dragons.  Actually, I think we may believe in fairies and dragons to a greater degree than we believe in Santa.  My children enjoy sharing these beliefs and the magic involved.  If my children ask me if I believe in Santa I explain that I do believe in Santa, but that I don't think Santa is actually like he is portrayed in movies or commercials.  I talk about the spirit of the holidays versus an actual person.  My oldest daughter loves to help create the magic for her younger sisters.  I am also open to changing our approach to Santa's role in our holiday celebrations if that becomes necessary.

Each family must have holiday traditions that meet the needs of their family members.  No matter what your spiritual path, examining the traditions that have been passed down for generations is valuable and necessary.  Just because "it has always been done this way" does not mean that you have to keep doing it that way.  Traditions are not more important than your relationship with your children.

This season watch out for traditions that are causing tension in your family.  Be aware of how the extra activities and stimulation affect you and your children.  Be prepared to meet the needs of your children and to put their needs above everything else, including the expectations you or your extended family may have regarding holiday traditions and the behavior of children.  Embrace the joy of the season.  Look at the holidays through the eyes of your children.  Find new ways to celebrate that make room for energy and excitement instead of smothering them in the name of tradition.

*Update 2013:  As a parent you learn a lot along the way. Sometimes the ideas that you feel confident about, the things you Know, end up in the graveyard of Truths Proven Wrong. My statement in this post, "However, I do feel that it is possible to keep the magic of the holiday season alive without ending up with children who feel betrayed" is among those ideas in my life.

I did end up with a child who was devastated the year that she came back down stairs, after we thought she was in bed for the night, while we were hanging up stockings. She loved the magic of Santa Claus and had a special relationship with the Tooth Fairy, and if one wasn't real the other wasn't either. My desire to keep the magic alive for her back fired, and she still has sad and angry feelings about it a couple years later. It is my hope that as the years pass she'll see that my intentions were good and she'll feel better about stockings and filling them with the spirit of the holidays. Perhaps I should have been more straight forward when she asked tentative questions about mythical/fictional characters, even though I could tell she wasn't sure she wanted to hear the truth. She was going to be sad at some point, finding out that the stories she loved were made up, not real, and she enjoyed the years of believing, which makes me think that I wouldn't do much differently if I could do it all again.

Parenting is like that, a lot. You do the best you can, you learn from your mistakes, and you realize that there isn't always a way to avoid heartache and sadness. And when heartache and sadness arrive you respond with compassion and understanding, apologizing for any part you played in the situation, and validate the feelings of everyone involved.