Ask Amma

Pro-Choice (A Dialogue)

In How on 18 December 2012 at 3:47 am

Though I believe in giving choices I am concerned about how we offer choices with information and help children understand consequences that follow. So I come back to the basics to understand what choices actually are.

Is a choice:

– to offer a child two snacks and letting him pick on his own? (The snacks are decided by us.)
– or to let the child choose something from whole pantry itself.
– or, when a child wants sugar or desserts (too much of which we don’t want in their food) to offer apple, grapes etc instead of sugar or desserts.

– Amma of a 3 year-old in California

Before coming to the specific question on choice of snacks, let us look at the general question of offering choices.

I think you are saying that if we have more control over the information that is used as guidance in making a choice, then in effect, we are making the choice rather than giving the child the choice. For example, if we decide it is better to have a banana than a cookie or better for baby to sit on the floor than climb onto the table, we are making this decision based on information that we have and child does not. Now if we give a “choice” to sit on this side of the floor or that, but do not offer the choice of sitting on the table, are we really giving a choice? At what point would you leave the choice to the child as to whether to sit on the table or not?

Though this is the kind of theoretical question that makes our elders roll their eyes and say, “this generation thinks too much,” I find it quite useful to acknowledge the limits of choice, to ask where those limits come from, and to share the knowledge as much and as soon as possible. This will make a difference, for example, in how one communicates about the choices and limits. For example, if my daughter was climbing onto something that made me nervous that she might fall, I myself felt it more informative to say “that is unstable” than “no.” My word choice brought to fore the actual issue: that the stool or other object was not stable enough to support her. Then I was more likely to think of an alternative, than I would be if I simply said “No, don’t stand there.” This latter formulation suggests that the child must be corrected, whereas earlier the defect was with the object. If the stool really is unstable, can we not repair it or remove it from the area where it will attract the child?

Offering explanation, in contrast to saying “no,” employs more vocabulary and more variety in the tone and rhythm of one’s verbal and body language. Moreover it conveys a sense of accountability rather than authority.

Coming to the question of snacks, or food in general: I think it is healthy for children to have freedom to decide when and how much to eat, starting from infancy and early childhood when they need to eat frequently and are becoming familiar with their own body’s signals regarding hunger and fullness. Regarding what to eat, I think that in early childhood parents should make available only the foods that are acceptable to eat and allow children to take or leave them.

Practically speaking, what worked for me is what I recommend: do not introduce a child to a food that you will not allow the child to choose freely. In the first few years, introduce a wide variety of whole foods and let the child get familiar with their diverse textures and flavours, and how s/he feels after eating them. Let her express her preferences, and allow for them to change over the years as well.

When one builds a foundation of healthy eating habits, in tune with one’s body and mind, then one is prepared to be a conscious consumer of food options that are less healthy. In other words, if, as you say, you don’t want your son to eat “too much” sugar, then you should share information with your son regarding how much is too much. Not by saying “no more” whenever you deem it is too much, but letting him know how to figure this out. Until you can talk with him about this, keep added-sugar foods (or any food that you wish to restrict) off the table. This way, everything on the table is fair game.

You can’t put off talking about food values indefinitely. Desserts and snacks have a place in our lives, and we can figure out that place rather than take an all-or-nothing approach.   We started with a guideline of having deserts only after meals, and that works for us. Even without such a rule kids can find their own balance, especially when the meals are appetizing. If they aren’t – be aware that you are competing with “the flavorists” who, as reported on CBS 60 minutes, synthesize flavors that aim to make industrial and packaged foods more popular than fresh.

This brings us to another point – if like many young parents, you aren’t yet versed in the art of preparing a variety of fresh and wholesome meals and snacks, then now is the time to build up your repertoire.

By the time I went off to college I had learned to cook a fair amount, but I didn’t mind having the same dish for lunch and dinner, or repeating the same few vegetables week after week. However, not only is variety the spice of life, but diversity in our food improves our health, as Michael Pollan reminds us in every book he writes. He summarizes the point in Rule 29 of Food Rules.  Although packaged foods offer the illusion of diversity, most not only rely on the same few ingredients (corn, soy and wheat) but all of these are grain seeds – whereas we need to draw our diet from a variety of fresh, whole or lightly processed fruits, vegetables, leaves, fungi, microbes and other sources.

Variety of home-made foods will help keep the packaged food in its place. Without the industrial flavours skewing the taste buds, we can more readily trust our own appetite to tell us what we should eat and have free choice in foods for ourselves and our children.

With respect to food or any other sphere in life, share your ideas and offer information you think will help your child make healthy choices. Listen to his ideas as well, because he knows things you may not know or may not have considered. With mutual listening comes mutual trust. You will not need to act as a food police, drill sergeant, or security guard.

Follow-up questions:

Is offering choices ultimately to meet our requirements or the child requirements? Do we let them do what ever they want?

I think that we need to meet both our own and our child’s requirements and also recognize that having a choice, having one’s choices respected, is also something a child needs and values.

I don’t create artificial choices like red toothbrush or blue one, which some suggest as a way to distract a child from the question of whether or not to brush the teeth at all. My intent is always to allow for choice, not to compel.

However, it still happens, just because it is so easy to do. When the playing field is not level, by default I call the shots. So the way I ensure that child has a chance to check and balance my authority is to allow her to question and to keep in mind that I must be answerable to her – to explain “why.” Just as I would want her to answer if I asked her why she wanted to do something.

In spite of all this there will be times when you are a gatekeeper. The more you aspire to offer choice and operate by consent, the more you will be aware of how often you call the shots by default. For example, I could tell when our daughter was a year old that keeping the front door of our house closed was not something for which she would have consented. Given the choice she would have preferred to keep it open, and to be able to go outside whenever she wanted, without having to depend on an adult’s willingness to accompany her – or, perhaps more accurately, to be able to go outside whenever she wanted, taking an adult along. How often she picked up her shoes and waited at the door for someone to open it. One could say that one closed the door for her safety. But that is just a shortcut – one could see to her safety by going outside with her. Even if we can’t go outside all the time, are we in fact going as often as we can? Or are we taking advantage of our upper hand and keeping control over when the door can be opened? At the social level – why is it unsafe for our little ones to go outside?

Limits on choice naturally raise questions – let these be occasions for learning, introspection and sharing.

We start to explain. “We need to do that because … ” or “We can’t do that because … ” Each why begets another.

Let the whys go all the way. Welcome children’s curiosity and skepticism, rather than being impatient with them for being contrary. This is very hard if you have not budgeted time for such questions and are rushing out the door or yearning to go to bed. But if you find some time to talk about these questions when the clock is not ticking, then you can have conversations that are deeply meaningful for both of you. All kinds of tangential topics may arise.   These may or may not readily connect back to the question at hand and will not get a chance to come out when you are under pressure to get a specific task accomplished.

Finally is it offering choices to lay out the information before the children, explain the consequences and let them proceed? What if their choice worries you? How do you accept and respect it?

Well, I know the correct answers to these questions:

a) Yes.
b) Trust them.
c) Recognize that mistakes are our teachers.

But in all honestly I can’t say that I would never worry. Many times in retrospect I have realized that I should not have worried, or that my child’s choice was right after all, or even that more was gained by going through the error and consequences. I think I am improving and trusting my child more but I can’t really say for sure where I am in this learning curve.

As a parent, must I keep my worries to myself? If you and your child can communicate with mutual trust and respect, then I think that as a parent, you can share with your child your feelings, including worry, without that coming across as your trying to change your child’s decision.

From a general perspective does letting a child have too many choices leave them confused? Like if a kid wants to play guitar for sometime then goes on to play violin and then later some other instrument and ends up not liking anything then later in life would he feel sad because of the choices he made and feel that he did not learn anything?

Thanks for this specific example. For the kid who flits from one instrument to another, this flitting may also have its value. I don’t think a child who does this will conclude that “he did not learn anything” unless this message comes from the outside. Learning how to make choices and learning from one’s mistakes are also valuable learning experiences.

Again, you can share your thoughts with your child – for example you can suggest trying guitar for another year or another month. I have found that sometimes a child might want to do something but have unspoken fears about doing so, and rather than share those fears, they simply say no. Some parents, getting an inkling of this, feel it is their place to encourage or push their children, as that will help them overcome their fears – once they try it, they will like it.

Indeed some cases when they try it, they may like it.  If we stop there and consider that success, then we leave unmet the child’s need to be able to share his fears and doubts, and to feel confident that he will be heard.  This too is a component of happiness, just as being able to play or not play an instrument may be.

There are many people who took lessons in piano or ballet for years at their parents insistence and celebrated the day they were finally allowed to quit. They too may feel sad that they could not listen to their own inner voice, or that they did not have the chance to do something else all those years.  On the other hand you will also meet people who are grateful for their parents’ insistence.

There is, however, insistence, and there is insistence. Insistence is also relative – one person’s encouragement may be another person’s insistence. My daughter just read this post and commented, “just like I am grateful that you insisted that I ________.” The funny thing is, I had not even thought I had insisted! I actually felt that I had let go! Granted, it was something I was hoping she would do (because I thought she would enjoy it) and in fact I had stopped singing its praises but merely informed her of the sign-up date. At least that is how I saw it.

*  *  *

As Gandhi said, “learn as if you would live forever.” When my daughter saw this quote she first said, “then you will just learn nothing!” Minutes later she added, “or you can learn one thing after another,” and listed a series of things she planned to learn.

Will giving children choices from a young age make them responsible individuals?

I think we should learn to see children as the active people. So instead of thinking of parents as the ones who are “giving choices” and “making” children into this or that, let us think of the child as the one doing things, choosing, learning, trying, erring, growing and gaining responsibility. Let us acknowledge that they are making choices, including the choice, when we say or do something disagreeable to them, to take us into confidence or not.

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