Avoiding the Path to Helicopter Parenting Starts in the Highchair

Self-feeding is the first instance of children enforcing their autonomy. And so they do. Once they realize they can control what they swallow, or what they don’t, then according to their own individual personalities, they take that control.

Again, depending upon the individual personalities, attempts by parents (usually mothers) to control feedings are met with varying refusals, stalls, and manipulations. The child will not eat and the mother will look for some external reason for refusal…because she will not cede her assumption that she is in control.

This control is the root of helicopter parenting. It simply shows up early in the food battle, setting a mother’s habits and expectations of herself.

I’ll spare you the suspense, but whether a kid ends up eating only three things by kindergarten and/or chews on the sticks in the garden, the kids win this battle. We can frame the issues as we like to blame some outside force and maintain our aura of control, but the kid will eat only what the kid chooses to eat.

About 10 years ago, the frame of choice was picky eater genetics. Lately, sensory processing disorders share some blame. The American Academy of Pediatrics is not yet sold on the disorders. From a report on SPD in the Wall Street Journal:

Not all doctors accept the existence of SPD, which isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. SPD is often found in children who have autism, ADHD or another such disorder. The American Academy of Pediatrics said in a 2012 policy statement that it remains unclear whether children with sensory problems have a distinct condition, or whether such challenges are symptomatic of other developmental and behavioral disorders….

Adults can have SPD, though it is often less apparent because they have learned ways to compensate, Dr. Harpster says.

Note, neither the doctor interviewed by the WSJ, nor I, claim that SPD doesn’t exist, but that it need not dictate results. Adults have “learned ways to compensate.” Precisely. But when did they learn those ways? Who taught them to compensate?

In so many things, this is where we fail our children.  Modern mothers tend to accommodate their children rather than teach them. This dynamic is simply very easy to see in food.

No mom sets out to be a short order cook or to balloon her grocery budget on the specialty foods that churn through the health books, mommy advice sites, and grocery stores aisles. It happens slowly.

Generally, for a healthy, non-preemie baby, here’s how it goes:  Mommy starts baby on baby food following modern allergy avoidance recommendations. Over a few months, mommy moves to the thicker stages, although I challenge anyone to discern much difference in flavor or texture in any stage of commercial baby food. Soon mom adds a few finger foods, like those fruit puffs, for snacks.  But sometime before a year, the little one who used to happily eat anything she spooned into his mouth, suddenly spits everything out or throws it onto the floor.

Mom runs into the “The Rules” and “I’ll Do It Myself.” “I’ll Do It Myself” is well known: older babes would rather try 90 times and fail than watch you do it and succeed, whatever “it” is at the moment. Children spoonfed much past development of their thumb and pointy finger pincer grasp start to refuse adult foods on principle.

“The Rules” is a lesser known force and its influence depends a great deal on the baby’s personality. If mommy has been doing the bath and daddy has been reading the bedtime stories, then woe to you if you try and switch jobs one night, because this is The Way Things Are Done. Budding engineers tend to have more rules and get much more upset about them than budding painters do, but when “The Rules” hit, if the babe has had nothing but bland, mushy food, then the babe locks in that this is how food is supposed to taste. You can put a piece of chicken or hamburger or cheese on her plate, but she won’t eat it. And forget about anything with cumin.

When Mommy and Doctor start pushing for more regular food around a year, “The Rules” work in tandem with “I’ll Do It Myself” and baby digs in, refusing to eat, especially if mom is still trying to spoon feed. And here’s the kicker for all the genetic picky eaters and SPD children: the stronger the rules instinct, the longer and slower the learning curve of breast milk to beef jerky. They need more exposure to a variety of textures and flavors. And it all has to be on their terms. They will do it themselves, thank you very much.

All of this is exacerbated by mother worry over the lack of appetite that comes on after a year. I know it seems impossible to believe if you have a 9-month-old, but there will come days when the wee one eats 3 peas and a noodle and tells you she’s finished and means it. Learning how to swallow also complicates the transition. Swallowing can terrify moms, who often give up choosing to specially prepare baby meals for her picky little one, at least until he learns to swallow better, damn what the Doctor says. (I’ve seen moms mush bananas for 4-year-olds.)

The mushy and bland rules get repeatedly reinforced, and things go no better in six months when Mommy does another push for adult food. A few cycles of this, and you’re the featured family in the New York Times Lifestyle section article on the genetic origins of picky eaters.

(Next week: What to do?)