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the expectation of mastery, and not planting fears …

Posted by on Jul 5, 2011 in Blog Posts | 11 comments

I remember reading books to M about going to the dentist, or the doctor. You know, the free book in the waiting room, or the one in the stack at the library. I was always a little puzzled about how the books were meant to be an introduction, meant to make the experience familiar and comfortable, yet every one talked about being afraid, with little Caillou cowering behind his mother’s skirt… I remember thinking. “Hmmm, M isn’t afraid of going to the dentist. She’s never been, she has no frame of reference. Why should I introduce that fear and skepticism?” (I skipped those books whenever possible.)

The expectation was that this was something to be afraid of, and that kids need encouragement, and explaining and hand-holding. Now, some kids may be afraid of the dentist, but others might just pop right up in the chair, and until they actually have a bad experience (if ever,) think it was the coolest thing in the world. We just don’t know.

The same goes for food. There are dozens of children’s books reinforcing that vegetables are bad, lots of adults explaining how healthy they are, and that kids have to eat them. Even told in entertaining ways, with lovely illustrations, the message is the same. Why plant the idea in a child’s head that they won’t like something, that it’s normal to be fearful of new foods or dislike entire food groups, because kids are supposed to not like veggies, they are supposed to be afraid of the dentist.

Look around for ways that we as parents plant fears, set the bar too low, or accept the common “wisdom.” Kids might surprise you! Have an expectation of mastery (even if you have to fake it) that it is not a given how a child will react in any given situation. That expectation of failure is almost a vicious circle. “I can’t serve shrimp to my kids, they won’t like it!” But how can they find out or learn to like it if they are never given the chance? (One mom assured me her three boys hated shrimp, and Dad chimed in with “We haven’t had shrimp for five years!” Two of her boys were under age 6.)

Sure, some kids are cautious, some are more adventurous, but if you tell them they can’t handle something in advance, if you doubt their abilities, they will too.

What do you think?

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  1. Jess

    It boggles my mind how many kids books, cartoons and commercials *introduce* negative concepts to kids under the guise of addressing them. This is especially true for food (kids don’t need special food, but boy does the food industry want to sell it to us), but it’s true for lots of other things as well. I once read an article that said kids actually learn how to bully from cartoons that have an anti-bullying storyline…turns out most of the airtime is typically dedicated to dramatizing the bullying and the 2 minute resolution at the end usually flies over their heads.

    My son has also noticed that the stuff on the “Kid’s Menu” is usually not as interesting as what’s on the rest of the menu– recently he told us, “I’ll just eat the same as you guys.”

  2. lyorn

    I usually start at everything with the expectation to like it (if it’s food) or not to mind (if it’s going to the doctor). Did this as a child, too. Even if I was told that it was normal to be afraid, I had no intention to be normal, much less afraid. And if it was horrible, I tried again.

    I still have not fully forgiven all the things that turned out beyond my ability to tolerate. Like dentists. Or large bugs. Or grapefruit.

  3. Elizabeth

    This is not on this topic, but I wanted to comment. I would love to see a post about feeding sweets. My daughter is four. We have always done the Division of Responsibility with her, plus baby-led weaning and nursing before that. She eats a wide variety of foods, not picky at all, very adventurous, not a typical American 4-year-old diet whatsoever. We eat mostly whole grains, lots of fresh produce, high quality meats, etc. but I’m honestly we’re pretty laid back and I don’t have anxiety about feeding her – meals and eating are very enjoyable for our family. I’m confident I’m doing a good job. However, the past 3-4 months it feels like her requests for sweets has increased and it is really getting to an annoying point. Like constant, multiple times a day. Without getting into a lot of detail, I am in recovery from an eating disorder (7 years now) and as part of that I do not eat refined sugar because it causes me a lot of problems. I don’t make a big deal about it but my daughter does know. I have been very careful to feed her sweet foods despite this, and make it clear that sweets are good things for most people, just Mama is allergic and they make me sick. We bake frequently, go out for ice cream, candy store, etc. Especially since the other foods we eat (cereal, dairy products, etc.) are usually completely unsweetened. Recently I’ve been letting her specifically have a sweet food (ice cream, piece of candy, etc.) once a day because it seems so important to her. Also 1-2 times a week made a sweet (like cookies) part of snack and let her have as much as she wants, as Ellyn Satter suggests. She eats a reasonable amount then stops, though she clearly loves those foods. Nothing is making her requests/begging/etc. get better and I am at a loss of what to do. Thoughts? What is reasonable for a four year old in terms of how many sweets to offer on a regular basis? Thank you.

  4. EngineerMom

    I’ve seen this overlap into adulthood when it comes to physical activity and math. I’m still trying to figure out why so many women think “math is hard”, then balance their checkbooks and run a household budget just fine. Or why so many high school AP Calculus classes have so few women when girls outstrip boys on math tests in early elementary school.

    My parents did two things that I intend to duplicate:

    1. Signed us up for many different sports until we found one we liked enough to do in depth. By the time I graduated high school, I had played soccer, basketball, ice skating, floor hockey, volleyball, threw shotput and discus, marched in the marching band, and done theater set construction. My one regret here was I never played a game that required a tool between me and the ball like tennis, golf, or softball, so I’m not quite skilled enough right now to play tennis with my husband or a game of golf in a fundraiser. I’d like to take tennis lessons when my kids are a bit older so DH and I can play together!

    2. They had an expectation of mastery in all subjects, regardless of gender. Just being girls did NOT excuse me and my sister from pushing ourselves as far as possible in math and science. My sister had a math teacher who was unwilling to pass her on to a honor’s level math class. She had struggled in his class, really only succeeding because of my dad’s almost-daily tutoring at home. Turned out the teacher was bad at HIS job, not that my sister was bad at math – she now has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and recently completed a very competitive engineering program at General Electric. So much for the teacher’s assertion she was “just bad at math”. I also have a BS in mechanical engineering, and frequently got very frustrated with the girls I tutored. They had an expectation of being bad at math just because they were girls, an expectation reinforced by their parents, teachers, and peers, yet many of them were actually very good when they stopped thinking of the problem they were solving as “math”.

  5. Twistie

    Books and commercials that tell us what kids – and even adults! – couldn’t possibly enjoy but must do anyway over our own objections drive me nuts! I hate those V-8 Fusion commercials that show how nobody really likes vegetables, so we have to drink a half fruit juice/half vegetable juice drink or we will never find a way to get our recommended vegetable servings for the day.

    I particularly loathe the one that talks about how vegetables would be okay if they ‘didn’t taste so… vegetably.’ Really? Like a cabbage and a bell pepper and a carrot and a mushroom all taste precisely the same!

    We all like different things and fear different things. I can understand giving one of those ‘little animal child cowboys up and discovers going to the doctor isn’t as scary as (s)he’d asssumed’ to a kid who has expressed fear or had a really bad experience that left him or her emotionally scarred, but why give them to kids who have never said anything about being afraid?

    And if we assume that kids can’t find a way to try new things, what reason do they have to try?

    I’m glad my parents assumed that I would be capable of trying out new things. I’m glad they went out of their way to expose me to a variety of cuisines and cultural standards from an early age so that I knew trying new things isn’t such a terrifying or crazy thing to do.

    Teaching children to be cautious in dangerous situations is fine. Teaching children to fear perfectly safe things only leads to irrational fear. Is that really what we want for our children?

    • katja

      Yes, I was lucky that way too. We recently had a new sitter who apparently is very picky. M reported that the sitter said she “had great taste buds and was lucky to like so many things.” I thought that it seemed like a nice exchange. M seemed to feel pride, and real concern for the sitter. She wanted us to invite her for dinner and make lots of delicious things! Maybe I will 🙂 Of course, if she only eats bread, that’s fine too…

      • Twistie

        How cool that the sitter found a way of expressing things that supported M without putting shame on someone who is less adventurous at the table! I think I like the way her mind works.

        Yes, do invite her to dinner! Whether or not she expands her gustatory repertoire, she sounds like a fun person to have around.

        I’ll even send a virtual pie. Pie is fun.

    • KellyK

      I hate those commercials too. Yes, crudite isn’t terribly exciting, especially without good dressing, but vegetables are awesome. That is, vegetables you like, preferably fresh, cooked well, are awesome. A few days ago for dinner, I grilled steak and veggies, and that was it. No fries, no macaroni salad or potatoes or rice, just steak, grilled peppers, and grilled zucchini. It was *fabulous.* And I think I’m going to pick up more sweet corn for dinner tonight.

      I’ve never tried V8 Fusion, partly because I desipse regular V8 with a deep passion. I like tomatoes all sorts of ways, but tomato juice, not so much. So I vaugely expect the Fusion to taste like a sweeter, less aggressive version of that, which still doesn’t appeal.

  6. Heidi

    I get frustrated with that too! I see SO many ads on TV telling you that “we all know kids hate vegetables!” and here is my five-year-old eating any vegetable we serve him, for the most part (he won’t try radishes yet, and that’s fine). He loves shrimp, crab, and any fish out there. My feeling is that a lot of this has to do with the fact that we offered him anything and everything as a baby (that’s one area where doing baby-led weaning really made me feel empowered as a parent) and have never implied that he shouldn’t like any food because “kids don’t like it.” When he asked for a sip of my wine at Christmas, he got it – he didn’t like it, but it wasn’t off-limits (although obviously I wouldn’t give him a glass of his own even if he had enjoyed it!).

    Those ads always seem like self-fulfilling prophecies – of course kids won’t like foods if you tell them they won’t like them.

    • katja

      it is frustrating. I often use the “imagine you are in a foreign country” bit. Seems like this could work too… “Hey, Americans usually hate X, but it’s really good for you, you should try at least two bites!” Wouldn’t make ME want to try it…