Sean shows a great deal of restraint. When I gave him a snack to eat "while watching Sesame Street," he sat there staring at the TV, watching the end of the previous show.
me: Sean, do you like your snack?
Sean: huh? Oh, yeah.
me: Are you going to eat it?
Sean: (nodding his head, as if teaching me a point) Yes, Mama. I am just waiting to eat until Sesame Street comes on.
Five minutes later, when I hear the Sesame Street song start, I see Sean reach into his bowl to eat his snack. Clearly he's gotten this trait from the Bushlack side of the family. Similarly, just the other day, he showed amazing restraint concerning a napkin. After taking a bite of his PB&J, he looked down at his sticky hands, ran to the dining room, grabbed a napkin and brought it back to his stool-by-counter set up (some days there's no sitting for lunch. Don't ask me why). As he continued eating his sandwich, he chose to wipe his mouth with his sleeves - both of them, alternating left and right to equally mess each sleeve, I'm sure - thereby exercising restraint in using the very nice cloth napkin he had retrieved just moments before.
me: Oh, hey, that's a great idea: you got a napkin!
Sean: Yeah. Thanks.
me: Are you going to use it?
Sean: Yeah: my hands were sticky so I wiped them off.
Clearly, the napkin is only for wiping the sticky fingers and not the face. I am being schooled in the art of restraint.
His restraint reached all new heights in the past couple weeks in the form of a hunger strike. This is not just any hunger strike, but specifically a dinner hunger strike. We had pleaded with him and gave him incentives (like watching a movie or having ice cream for dessert, IF he ate dinner), but nothing seemed to work. We were apt to let this go on, but Sean started waking up in the middle of the night... multiple times. In my mind, I began to think that he was waking up because he was hungry. The hunger strike morphed into sleep-deprivation-torture enacted upon his parents. That's when we came out swinging. The waking at night needed to stop!
Wikipedia, the bastion of all knowledge, states that a hunger strike is "a method of non-violent resistance or pressure in which participants fast as an act of political protest, or to provoke feelings of guilt
in others, usually with the objective to achieve a specific goal, such
as a policy change. Most hunger strikers will take liquids but not solid
food. In cases where an entity (usually the state) has or is able to obtain custody of the hunger striker (such as a prisoner), the hunger strike is often terminated by the custodial entity through the use of force-feeding."
The other night, Sean's hunger strike was terminated. We, as his parents, instituted a force-feeding. It did not go as planned. After telling Sean that he had to eat his dinner, that he could not get up out of his chair, that he could not leave the table, until his meal was done, Sean cried, screamed, whimpered and did NOT eat. Then we struck a bargain with him: he could sit on Tom's lap and eat his food (this is usually a no-no. When Sean was a baby he only wanted to eat dinner on our laps, so we had to ease him into his high chair or his own chair for his eating. Since then, we've made a rule that there's no sitting in our laps while he is eating or while we are eating. But we were desperate!) So he eventually ate while sitting on Tom's lap. He stuffed some tofu in his mouth (tofu: he eats it all the time. He likes it. He likes to dip it in ketchup), and even choked down some Risotto (who doesn't like Risotto??). Within moments of the food going into his mouth (maybe 90 seconds?), Sean silently vomited all over his shirt, lap, plate, Tom's lap, the chair, the table, etc.
Tom: You've got to be kidding me.
silent vomit. silent vomit.
Tom: You've GOT to be KIDDING me!
The scene looked like this: Tom carried a pile of vomit-laden clothes and napkins down to the washer, I started a bath with Audrey seated next to me in the bathroom. Sean ran around naked screaming, "I want to watch a movie!" (because this was the lost incentive for the evening). After what felt like 5 seconds of looking away from Audrey, I drew my eyes back towards her to see toddler-sized Bob the Builder underwear in her mouth. She was chewing.
me: Yuck! Audrey! No, yuck, those are yucky!
Audrey begins crying as I steal the underwear away, and Sean takes a break from his tantrum long enough to see that Audrey was chewing on his underwear.
Sean: Noooo, Audrey!! Don't chew on my underwear!!
me: Sean, who is in charge of Audrey?
me: Who is in charge of Audrey? Me or you? (this question is a gamble, because I'm sure in his world there's more than one correct answer.)
me: That's right, so let me handle Audrey.
Sean: But it's my underwear!
We all went to bed disgruntled that night. Sean missed his chance to watch a movie, Tom and I felt that the force-feeding went terribly, terribly wrong, and poor Audrey was still teething with no clothy, dirty underwear in sight (disgusting).
The next day at the YMCA, I picked up a parenting magazine to skim while I worked out. I did not skim. Instead my eyes were drawn to an article about picky eaters and children who refuse to eat. The article went through tons of different scenarios of why children don't eat and what parents hypothesize might be the cause. I have restrained myself from reading a lot of books, magazines and articles about parenting. Why? Because reading all of these things actually increases my anxiety. The thought of all these different parents doing things differently frequently leaves me feeling like there's no path for me to take. I'm overwhelmed with so many options. I end up second guessing myself and doubting all of my choices as a parent. Yet, this day, after a frustrating evening, I pored over this article searching for a clue, an answer, to Sean's hunger strike.
What I found was something that increased my anxiety tenfold (go figure - did I not just write a whole paragraph about that above? What was I thinking?? Damn you, parenting magazines, and the ways you lure me in!). The article lightly said something to the effect of (and I paraphrase) "of course not all picky eaters have a diagnosable condition BUT [and this is what got me] parents should not take picky eating lightly."
me: (to myself, of course, I'm at the gym) I'm not taking this lightly - just tell me what to do. Tell me what's wrong with him? With me? With our parenting??
NEOPHOBIA - the fear of new things or new experiences. FOOD NEOPHOBIA - the fear of foods because of the potential of poisoning themselves. WHAT??? I HAD NO IDEA THIS EXISTED! THIS IS TERRIBLE! AWFUL! OH MY GOD! WHAT IS WRONG WITH MY SON? HE HATES EATING! HE HATES ME!
The article went on to suggest that some children - extreme cases, but nonetheless, SOME - need psychiatric attention. ARE YOU KIDDING ME???
Throughout the rest of my workout all I could think about was taking Sean to a frickin' psychiatrist and discussing these dinner-refusal-habits. I spiraled downward to thinking that perhaps he's underweight (he has a huge belly - he looks like he drinks beer for a living. The child is not underweight, but in my anxiety-ridden-parent-magazine-reading-mind, he was emaciated). When I went to pick up both kids from the childcare area, I was envisioning food therapy, and dreaming (or was it a nightmare?) of encouraging him to just take one bite of a vegetable or fruit.
I had to back myself out of this anxiety for the rest of the day, and because of this, I was incredibly nice to Sean. I went out of my way to give him lots of choices, allowed him to close the garage door on his own, taking his own sweet time. I took it easy on the potty training questions, allowed him to guide his own needs for the peeing, and if he pooped in his pants, so be it. Thinking my child might be neophobic, I treated him like he was just diagnosed with cancer: I appreciated the small moments with him, saw through his stubbornness and allowed his humor to come out. I re-thought how we would approach dinner that night, and if he didn't want to eat, well, I would just back off. No use cramming it down his throat - so to speak (pun intended).
Turns out: we had a great day. Sean guided his own lunch making and asked for a sandwich with protein, asked for vegetables on the side (he never does that) and even had some fruit. Right before my eyes, the boy who I'd written off as emaciated and neophobic had a well-balanced lunch. He had such a great meal that he asked for seconds, and then we washed it all down with some cookies and milk afterwards. Sean thought it was the best day of his life.
I'm not arguing that I should treat the kid like royalty or a dying cancer patient every day. However, the lesson I took from all this was restraint. Right? Isn't this what he's been teaching me all along? As I battled with him to instill (enforce?) my own values and structure onto his eating behaviors, he fought back with the only bit of control he had: he refused to eat. As I've seen displayed in so many other arenas, he has a strong will that can keep him from eating his snacks too soon (heaven forbid he eats it 5 minutes before Sesame Street), so why not keep himself from eating a meal if his parents are coming down too hard? I know as a parent there are times when I need to be stern. I realize there are times when I must enforce a code of conduct to keep him safe, to keep others safe, and to keep him aware of healthy boundaries and limits. But the other night, after the vomiting scene, we learned as parents that sometimes we need to exercise restraint. After discussing it with my mom, she gave me her usual, born-on-a-sunny-day advice.
mom: He's a great eater! I bet if you just back off and ignore it, it will resolve itself.
Way to go, Mom! You always have the best ideas. Most of the time, I find it more helpful to discuss parenting with my parents than reading parenting magazines. Not because my parents have all the answers or did everything right (let's not get carried away here), but because they are willing to dialogue with me. They are able to see the places where I need to give a little or practice restraint. The one-sided nature of the neophobe article kicked me into an anxious spot, but it also kick-started my restraint. As I've learned this past week, sometimes I need not battle against Sean and his actions while trying to impose my own. Sometimes, practicing the very same principles that he is espousing - non-action, hunger strike, political protest, restraint - is the best course of action for me, too.