Parenting is a learned skill. Most of the time we are just winging it, aren’t we? To make things easier, today we live in a hyper-informed age, where we are just a book or website or whatsapp mommy group away from the answer to all our problems. While that can be enormously helpful, it often comes with its own pitfalls. Like when Debkanya Dhar Vyavaharkar decided to (unsuccessfully) follow the parenting advice of a mummy in another country. A few tears and white hair later, she has found inner peace by coming to terms with the fact that parenting is much easier when you follow your own instinct, even if it goes ‘against the book’
We’ve had a mini war in our house for the last few days.
It all began with me reading some blog about how your child should be self-feeding by the time she’s 2, how you should hand your 8-month-old a spoon and a bowl of porridge of her own at meal times so she can practice, how you are not equipping her with basic skills by not letting her eat on her own and telling me how I was failing to raise an independent child who will be a social disaster because, you know, she cannot eat by herself.
My heart twisted at the sight of my 4-year-old raking through her plate of food during lunch with both hands, asking for her usual meal time story. The same 4-year-old who can otherwise draw rainbows and unicorns, eat pasta with a fork and chocolate oatmeal with a spoon, who insists on using a two-tined fruit fork to eat her watermelon and can even button her shirt for goddess’s sake.
So, I decided that it was high time my older child started eating all her meals by herself. My anger at myself for ‘failing’ her translated into making her sit by herself for an hour and a half, sobbing into her plate, as I sat by and ignored her pleas for a story, for help.
We were miserable.
After the third meal went uneaten, I couldn’t take it anymore. I tried to introspect, to look back at my own childhood to see if there were answers there. That’s when I realized that this issue is one I have created in my mind, based on western concepts of parenting, or ‘best case practices’ as found oh-so-easily on the internet.
When my first child was a toddler, just starting solids, she hated food. She hated the bottle. She refused to suck her fingers. She wouldn’t put anything in her mouth, except for my breast. You could leave little marbles lying around on the floor, shiny gems, nails, anything edible or inedible and you could be sure that she would pick it up, look at it and put it right back down and move on. On one hand, it was wonderful that I didn’t have to worry about choking hazards, but on the other, it was frightening to see her weight graph on a steady plateau through every doctor’s visit.
So I tried it all in those gloomy days. I read then that ‘it’s your responsibility to put food in front of her and it’s her responsibility to eat it’. Now for someone who suffers from mild self-diagnosed OCD, this was a hard thing to do. To put food in front of a toddler and watch her fling it at your clean walls, rub it into her hair and all over her high chair was a painful experience. It took all my will to not intervene. And what was the point of it all? Nothing really! In spite of multiple attempts, not a grain went into that mouth.
Again, I was miserable.
And then finally at around 15 months, my super fussy child started eating. She ate broccoli, chicken, vegetable omelets, chapatti, rice, carrots, beetroot, muffins, dosa, parathas. She was eating almost everything I put in her mouth! But that was it. She was eating it when I put it in her mouth for her. Left to her own devices, she took a bite or two and then didn’t bother with it any more.
Mind you, this is around the same time that she started going to daycare. There all the kids sat around a table and ate their lunch by themselves, as did she. It was fantastic. But no matter how hard I tried. she just would not replicate it at home.
I have distinct memories of being fed as a child, both by my mother and my father. I was an incredibly fussy child too and drove my parents mad as they tried to figure out various ways to make me eat something, anything! What eventually worked was the games they started playing with me. I remember my dad always made food taste better. He boasted that it was because his fingers were yummier than my mother’s. For those of you from a non-Indian background, this might sound gross but this is how a majority of children from traditional Indian homes are fed.
I’m not writing this post to dismiss self-feeding or to belittle the achievements of those parents who have succeeded in getting their children to become good, independent eaters at an early age. I agree that it is an important skill that we must all teach our children. I’m writing this for those of us parents who are still feeding their pre-schoolers and secretly feeling ashamed. Ashamed of ourselves and of our dependent children.
Here are some reasons why I believe that the traditional Indian custom of feeding your child is perfectly legit and should be considered, even recommended, for those of you who have fussy children who will not eat.
Bonding time between parent and child
Imagine this. A parent sitting in front of his/her child, choosing a little bit of one vegetable and a little bit of another, some fish maybe, wrapping it all in a piece of chapatti or in a ball of rice and then lifting this mouthful of flavour to the child’s mouth. I’m no psychologist but there are very few things in the world that are as intimate as feeding another person. And this is what a parent shares with her child during meal time. Eye contact, skin-to-skin contact and add some conversation and it is nourishment for mind, body and soul.
If there is one thing I cannot stand, it is food wastage. As a kid, I remember watching a movie where when the child asked to be excused from the dinner table he was allowed to, and he left behind a plate full of green beans and steak. This was then unceremoniously scraped into the dustbin. I was horrified.
Growing up in a typical Bengali home, I was told stories about a great man who was known to sit down to eat his meals with a small bowl of water and a needle by the side of his plate. If he dropped any food on the floor, he would pierce it with the needle, wash it in the bowl and put it right back on his plate. Taking a cue from this, my father and I often competed with each other to see who could polish off dinner without leaving behind a single grain of rice. More often than not, it was a tie.
Growing up, my parents instilled in me a great respect for food and for the person who was putting it in front of me. And now I’m doing the exact same thing with my children.
Your child eats what you eat
My mother started us off on regular ‘adult’ food very early. And I did the same for my older one and have already introduced my 8 month old to the wonders of mutton curry and dal – with masala, salt, et al. Don’t panic all ye moms who’ve been told it’s sacrilege to give your infant salt. It’s only in teeny weeny quantities, picked from my own plate after she’s done eating her own bland fare. But my 4 year old eats what we eat, whether it’s steak, lauki, Thai curry or fried karela. Yes, as a family we’ve reduced the amount of spice and salt in our food, but the flavours are intact. If she really doesn’t like something then she eats it in small quantities, but taste it she must. And this automatically means, less work for you. Now if I left her to eat on her own, then it would take many threats or incentives to get her to eat the same thing. So instead, I choose to take matters into ‘my own hands.’
Shorter meal time
Mealtime lasts no longer than 30 minutes in our house. I tell her a story or we chat. She starts the meal on her own, and then when she’s losing interest, I take over and we finish the food on her plate. It’s stress free, mess free and efficient. And more importantly, she’s happy and I’m happy.
But what about independence?
I was fed by my parents till I was at least 5 or 6 years old. I don’t remember the last time my mother or father fed me. Sometimes when I’m sick and my taste-buds are dormant thanks to the antibiotics, I remember how my mother squeezed extra lime on my rice and dal so I could taste it. Or how my dad managed to get just the right fish curry to dal to potato ratio to make a perfect morsel. They fed me till I didn’t want to be fed anymore. And trust me, I have perfect table manners. I’ve been told by many that I’m a pleasure to cook for because I eat everything placed before me with such enthusiasm. I’m not fussy and I do not waste.
That is what I want for my daughters. So as long as they need me to, I will feed them, independence be damned. My older one already refuses to let me choose her clothes and pushes me away if I’m hugging her too much. She’s soaping herself during bath time and asks me to leave the room when she’s pretending to be Princess Celestia. Meal time and bed time are two things that she still wants me for and I’m going to be there for both my girls for as long as they need me.
Debkanya has been a working mom, work-from-home mom, part-time mom and is now a stay-at-home mom. Formerly a journalist and a communications and CSR professional, she’s led a marketing team in the wellness space in her most recent professional avatar. Her two precocious daughters inspire her to do more each day and show her that on some days, you really can have it all.