My partner, who struggles with a severe mental illness, wasn’t having the very best mental health day. I was having a delayed reaction in grokking to this because of my own issues and that it was somewhat early in the day so I hadn’t been able to have much time to understand where he was.
We bought some Cream of Wheat cereal, and wouldn’t you know it, the box was deeply buried in our pantry (we are very fortunate to have a full pantry, I’m aware) and was hiding very well. Skippy (not his real name) was unwilling to give up the search for the Cream of Wheat and settle for some Bob’s Red Mill 10,000 grain hot cereal with apples and raisins that I offered to make instead. So he searched and searched. In the process, he found a lone piece of dark baking chocolate (sweetened) in a wrapper, and in an attempt to rid the pantry of this abandoned item, he gave it to our daughter.
Not the best thing in the world for her to eat first thing in the morning, before the breakfast we were planning on giving her, but that’s not what made me lose it. What made me lose it is what he said to her when he gave it to her, “Chocolate is bad for you.”
There were so many of my parenting precepts violated in that moment that my head just about exploded. Setting aside the chocolate before breakfast (and I objected more to it on the grounds of caffeine than sugar) — I would never, ever, hand my child something that she hadn’t asked me for and tell her it’s bad for you. The word “bad” is hardly ever used with children anymore, it’s reserved for really bad stuff, like harming another person. Great effort is taken for children not to be labeled as “bad” so as not to set up a cycle of badness connected with behavior and self-esteem. Even behaviors don’t get labeled as bad unless they involve harming self or others. Eating chocolate (that the child didn’t even ask for, mind you) does not, in my mind, qualify as bad.
My 5-year-old smoking cigarettes? Bad. Drinking alcohol? Bad. Drinking coffee? Bad. Drugs other than those needed to restore or maintain health? Bad. Hitting another person? Bad. Running with scissors? Bad. Engaging in risky behavior that could lead to serious injury? Bad. Driving a car? Bad. Engaging in age-inappropriate sexual exploration with another person of any age? Bad. The reason I slap the Bad on these things is because they cause harm and can lead to damage that can’t be repaired. There is nothing, to my knowledge, about eating an occasional piece of chocolate that causes damage that can’t be repaired.
When hashing over this with him later (at the time, I went batshit crazy*) he said that he is worried about her developing diabetes, since it runs in the family. If you believe that, I said, DON’T GIVE HER CHOCOLATE. The hardest thing here is that when he’s not in that bad mental health place, he really does get it. I needed to take a chill pill** but I hadn’t quite comprehended that it was a bad mental health morning all around.
We don’t usually fight like that in front of the kiddo — (fighting in front of the kiddo, really super fighting like that, is B-A-D) — and she got through it okay. I talked with her about it later. For me, it’s about the pattern. There’s a big difference between “once when I was 5 my parents had a big fight over a piece of chocolate” and the resigned “my parents fight all the time” — I’m aiming for the former.
Here’s the food policy in our house (influenced by Michelle Allison and others):
- Food contains nutrients.
- Nutrients are good. Because they sustain life. We like life around here.
- A variety of food gives us a variety of nutrients.
- It’s good to eat the things you like, and to like the things you eat.
- Don’t say “yuck.” Say “I don’t care for that” or “no thank you.”
- Some foods help us (children) grow more than others, so we eat those more often.
- Dessert comes after dinner so we’ll be sure to have room for grow foods — but it’s okay to ask for dessert with dinner and sometimes that happens, too.
- Snacking is okay.
- It’s good to ask if you can have something from the pantry or fridge, but if it’s in the house, unless it is being saved for a specific occasion, you can eat it.
- It’s best to eat at the table.
- Try it, you might like it.
- If someone says “no thank you” they don’t have to try it.
- It’s good to share meals with others — family, friends, people who might become friends. It’s also good to give food to the food bank or to share with someone asking for food because we’re really lucky to have enough food.
- Try to use silverware most of the time, unless it’s a food that is meant to be eaten with your hands, because it’s less messy and less likely to spread germs that way.
- It’s fun to cook and be part of preparing meals.
- Oh, and we sort of kind of keep somewhat kosher-ish. Kosher-style.
Wow, that does seem like a lot of rules. One rule for the grownups (there are three of us most of the time, and one over-attended 5-year-old) is that those foods we want her to eat less frequently come out only when she asks for them. So, we don’t follow the Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding in this way — we don’t decide when to serve her foods that are eaten more for fun that for nutritional value, she gets to decide if it’s something she wants. This is something we’ve come to as a sort of compromise with her. She doesn’t ask for sweets very often, she likes ice cream and things like cupcakes more than candy, which she rarely asks for, and if she does, it’s usually a lollipop that she takes 3 licks of and is done with. So, as long as teeth are brushed afterward, she can ask, and we can say “not right now” or “sure” or “let’s eat our grow food first” or “let’s wait until your friend comes over because he might want one too.”
Overall, she’s survived our minefield of rules around food***, and the ones she’s had at preschool/daycare (which has been great because she tries things there we don’t serve at home) to have what I would call a “good” attitude about food so far in her five-and-a-half years. She likes her body (very age appropriate) is curious about and accepting of other bodies.
Oh, and we make chocolate shampoo. The recipe is a little different each time, and it does make the tub water murky like a pond (we change the water and rinse, but she doesn’t take baths every day, so I don’t feel so guilty about the amount of water used). But it smells great.
* Yeah, I was in high school in the ’80s, what of it?
** Any tips on how to not go batshit crazy when your spouse is acting irrationally due to chronic mental illness would be greatly appreciated.
*** Ours is a relatively drama-free landscape when the grownups can be on the same page.