One of my children really liked to make messes when she was small. You take a kid who is curious, who is sensory seeking and who is creative and you get a lot of messes. (Many of you are nodding and sighing and wringing out a sponge ready to clean up your own child’s brand new mess.) This child of mine used to find new and unusual ways to make already messy things even messier. She used to find a particularly sticky or wet or ooky thing and she had to take it to the next level, wondering how it felt or how it smelled or how it might look over here instead of over there or what might happen if she dipped a stuffed animal into it.
Now I have to give her some credit because even when she was small she would clean up her messes with the caveat that first she had to realize that they were messes. If she didn’t realize it then I would find it eventually and she was generally amenable to being handed a sponge and being told to go to work. Most of the time I could be pretty calm about it. I understood how it was for her — she often didn’t realize that the mess has begun until it was already pretty crazy. At the first part she would be in the moment. She would be humming and swishing her hands through the soapsuds for quite some time before she realized that the soapsuds have spilled out of the sink onto the book she brought into the bathroom with her or that the water was running out of the sink onto her shoes. She was very in that moment, focused, experiencing the mess. And when she did realize it, she was often dismayed. She did not want to be that messy girl all the time. She didn’t like having to come tell me what happened so I could help her figure out how to clean it up.
My way of dealing with it was to emphasize how responsible she was even before she knew what responsible was. So when I came into her bedroom and saw that she’d found a stray bottle of black tempera paint and that her resulting art projects had gotten out of control I would say, in a calm (but certainly sometimes simmering) voice, “I know you are a responsible person so I expect you to take responsibility for this.”
And she would as much as she could and I would help her the rest of the way.
Eventually when she spilled her soup after deciding to fix herself a little snack she would say, “Don’t worry, Mommy, I’m responsible. I’ll take care of it.”
I was thinking about this because we sometimes have to fight not to give a messy child a negative self concept because she happens to be a messy person. It’s hard, I know, because I’ve been there.
When things were NOT messy, I would sometimes talk about what a creative, curious person my messy child was (and remains) and how sometimes this makes for messes and then I would add, “But you are so responsible, you always clean them up. Even if you whine a little first, you take responsibility for it and you take care of it.”
Jean Luc Picard has faith that the messes will lessen. Trust him.
I said this before it was true. I said this when the only reason she took responsibility was because I stood over her and coached her through it. I said this even when her efforts made things worse as she toddled behind me imitating me cleaning it up. I said it to make it true. My husband and I gave her that self concept, “You are responsible” and we are still giving it to her because we are like Picard, we are saying, “Make it so.”
The other thing I would do is tell her that it’s OK to be a little kid and to be messy. I would say, “Yes, you are having trouble with X but that’s because you are X age and kids who are X age are learning about that.” So when my child was lamenting her propensity for messes, I would say, “You make messes because you are learning. You will get bigger and you will make fewer messes. Besides it doesn’t matter as long as you take responsibility for your messes, which you do.”
I’m not trying to pretend that I didn’t tear out my hair or stomp around or holler because I did those things, too; after all I’m human. When I saw yet another roll of toilet paper ruined or another bar of soap squished into wet oblivion I sometimes did not behave with an iota of grace or patience. But we worked on it together and I trusted that if I said it often enough and gave her the tools, she would get better. And happily she has. She’s still creative and she’s still messy but she’s also independently responsible about cleaning things up 99% (ok, maybe 96%) of the time.
So these are my parenting tips for loving our messy kids: Act like Picard (“Make it so”) and give them a little perspective (“It’s normal to do XYZ but my job is to help you grow out of it”). Not necessarily in that order.
We hear a lot about forgiveness and how good it is for you spiritually and emotionally and that’s all true but forgiveness is a thing that can’t be rushed. Selling people on the merits of forgiveness when they’re right in the middle of their struggle is a little like telling someone who has just had surgery on her knees that she needs to run a marathon. First she has to heal, then she has to begin stretching and moving and who’s to say that being a marathoner is the only way or the best way to be alive anyway?
In my twenties I worked at a women’s shelter where many of our clients were escaping domestic violence. I realized then that it’s possible to forgive too early and I’m not just talking about the women who forgave and returned to their abusers. I’m also talking about the women who looked like they were taking positive steps in their personal growth. I’m talking about the ones who wanted to understand their abusers so they could forgive them. I’m talking about the ones who took personal responsibility for entering into an abusive relationship in the first place.
That sounds really great and empowering in some ways, right? Taking responsibility, working towards understanding — those sound like terrific things but sometimes it’s a detour away from real healing and wholeness. Because here’s the thing — before we can take responsibility and before we can forgive, we have to confront the depth and breadth of the harm done to us.
Imagine that Snow White comes to therapy. She says, “My stepmom had problems with jealousy. I get it now, I get that it must have been hard to marry into a new family and to be confronting your mortality just as your stepdaughter is kinda coming into her own. I mean, I get that she had her own struggles.”
The therapist nods, wondering where this is going.
“Probably,” Snow White continues thoughtfully. “Probably she was reacting to her own troubled upbringing. It can’t have been easy, being raised to catch a man because your only value as a woman is the guy that you marry. It must have been threatening to her to have me growing up there.”
This is where her therapist might respond by saying, “Wait a second, she tried to poison you. She paid a hit man to take you out.”
“I know, I know,” says Snow White. “I’m not excusing her behavior or anything, I’m just saying I can kind of understand, you know, how it was hard for her, too.”
“Poison,” says the therapist. “Murder for hire.”
“Right,” says Snow White. “But she did the best she could…”
“POISON!” says the therapist. “MURDER!”
“Yeah, I know but I want to acknowledge that I never said directly to her, ‘Do not poison me.’ And I did take an apple from a stranger.”
Ok, you get what I’m saying here.
Snow White isn’t going to get to the core of her struggles if she keeps making excuses for The Evil Queen. She thinks she’s being loving and forgiving but really what she’s doing is joining with The Evil Queen against herself. She is unintentionally helping to perpetuate the abuse by excusing it.
I’m not arguing that Snow White needs to spend the rest of her life bitterly denouncing her stepmom but she might need to spend part of her life doing exactly that. She needs to acknowledge that however The Evil Queen was raised, whatever societal expectations she was up against, The Evil Queen did harm to Snow White. It doesn’t really matter what The Evil Queen meant to do — if she meant to just poison her a little bit, say, just long enough to win The Fairest of Them All contest or whatever — or why she did it. What matters is that Snow White was harmed by her actions and Snow White needs to give space to her grief, pain and anger. She needs lots and lots of space and understanding and then and only then will she be ready to think about forgiveness and taking responsibility (if there’s any to be taken).
The women at the shelter, yes, eventually they would need to look at their participation in the abusive relationship in order to recognize the beliefs, values and behaviors that created that perfect storm but they couldn’t really do that until they could acknowledge that whatever they did or did not do, they didn’t deserve the abuse and that abuse is always, always wrong.
Only when we give attention and validation to the very real harm that other people may have caused us, only then can we forgive. Snow White needs to be able to say, “You did me wrong, Evil Queen, through no fault of my own” without people telling her to “stop being so bitter, just let it go, life is too short to hold grudges” because it’s not petty to grieve your losses or to be angry when you have been harmed.
I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been thinking about how often we beat ourselves up — colluding with the people who harm us — for holding on to things. Sometimes we need to hold on to things for awhile or our healing will be incomplete. And without healing there can be no true forgiveness.
The other day I was headed to a meeting, listening to NPR in the radio. Fresh Air was on and Terry Gross was interviewing Sarah Polley about her new documentary, Stories We Tell, which is about Sarah examining the story she was told. Sarah’s mother died when she was eleven and she died without telling Sarah that her husband was not Sarah’s biological father. Sarah discovered this as an adult and she was the one who ultimately had to tell her dad that they’re not biologically related.
I stopped and listened because the parallels to closed adoption and parents who don’t tell their children when they are conceived donor gametes are so similar (except that in those cases one can assume that both parents know the secret).
In the featured quotes pulled out from the interview, Sarah says she doesn’t regret her mother choosing to keep this secret.
“To be honest, I don’t see what the point would have been [of] telling me when I was a child about this. I mean, I was growing up as a member of the Polley family and I was very much a part of that family, and I’m not sure what the point would have been in adding all this confusion.”
When I heard that I thought about the many parents who will take that and hold it tight to justify their own secret keeping. But note that her mother died when she was eleven. And note, too, that the story is complicated by the fact that Sarah was conceived during an adulterous affair.
I wonder if/when Sarah’s mother would have finally told her. By keeping the secret, Sarah’s mother gave away her opportunity to be the person to tell her daughter, to ask her for understanding, to explain herself. She also made the decision for Sarah to not know her own truth and the decision for her husband and Sarah’s biological father to not know either; she gave away their opportunities, too. And she saddled Sarah with the responsibility to keep the secret since Sarah knew for some time before she told her father (her hand was forced when a journalist confronted her with it).
That is a lot — A LOT — to put on your kid.
I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t know why Sarah’s mother made the decision she did although I am sure her intentions were good.
Parents keep secrets because they want to protect their children but the secret-keeping can do more harm than the secret itself ever could. Because when the child (or adult) finds out the truth they have to contend with this truth and also their feelings about having that truth kept from them.
If you’re trying to figure out how to talk to your child about his or her adoption or conception story, please think of giving me a call. Maybe I can help you sort through the muddle.
This is the third entry of a 5-part interview series with Dr. Katja Rowell whose consulting service, The Feeding Doctor, focuses on helping families learn about healthy, happy eating. Finding non-alarmist nutrition information for kids is a challenge and her commonsense, respectful approach has been a huge boon to me. Be sure to become a The Feeding Doctor fan on facebook and check out her new book, Love Me, Feed Me! now available at Amazon.
For parents struggling with their own disordered eating, what’s the first step to stopping this cycle before it’s passed on to their kids?
There are some great resources out there. I think the best is Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family by Ellyn Satter. Other pieces of the puzzle might be in intuitive eating books, or Gina Kolata’s book Rethinking Thin. Read Secrets and learn to provide for and love yourself. The beauty of working with kids’ feeding issues is that parents are highly motivated to do well by their children. I know I have been much kinder to myself since having a daughter. I would be upset if she wasted her time and energy hating herself if she weighed five pounds more than she wanted. I have to extend that same love to myself. Fake it in the beginning if you have to. Change those neural pathways. I have found that about half the moms I work with have histories of an eating disorder. What is so lovely is that watching the children eat and trust themselves can be an eye opener for the parent. Kids have the potential to be a part of the healing process, but the trust model of feeding is essential to that in my opinion. The current control model with its emphasis on restriction and worry about weight for even very small children is I think, very damaging and triggering for moms with a history of an eating disorder. I’d really love to see this model taught to more moms who are struggling or who have struggled with food or weight. There is also an adult model called Eating Competence that I can do with clients that really walks through the process of learning to tune in to hungry and full for adults. Find someone trained in that model that can work with you, or find a therapist who has worked in this area with mindfulness etc.
How can we tell if our kids ARE too heavy or too thin?
This is so important, and something that even many health care providers mess up. The focus now is on using BMI to “diagnose” a child as being overweight or obese. The problem is, it is inaccurate and was never intended to diagnose based on a single point. A child can be at the 90th% and be very healthy while that is officially “obese.” A child at the 50% may be sedentary and have a very poor diet. What is important is looking at the rate of growth. Is your child holding steady at roughly the same percentile? Is he falling off the growth chart, or is there rapid acceleration? Unfortunately right now a whole lot of healthy larger kids are being mislabeled as having a problem and this then starts the unnecessary and sometimes harmful interventions. Simply by labeling a kid as “overweight or obese” means they will feel flawed in every way, be less likely to be physically active and more likely to diet and thus gain weight. Words really matter. Also, small children who are growing steadily need to be fed with the Division of Responsibility. Too often these kids are labeled as having a problem, and docs say things like, “Do whatever you have to to get food into that kid.” I literally have clients who chase their kids around with sausage and Ensure in Sippy cups. Those kids grow less well. Life then revolves around getting more food into, or taking food away from children. It can be pretty miserable. And my heart really goes out to families who have a small and a large child who are being advised to feed one kid one way, and the sibling another. It’s hell and it doesn’t work. Imagine how two sisters will feel as one is getting food slapped out of her hands and the other one is getting milk shakes pushed on her? The trust model works for every body-big or small.
(Stay Tuned for Part 4 next week!)
This is the start of a 5-part interview series with Dr. Katja Rowell whose consulting service, The Feeding Doctor, focuses on helping families learn about healthy, happy eating. Finding non-alarmist nutrition information for kids is a challenge and her commonsense, respectful approach has been a huge boon to me. I asked her if she’d let me interview her and not only did she say yes but she gave me SO MUCH information back that I have enough to share across the next five weeks. Be sure to become a The Feeding Doctor fan on facebook and check out her new book, Love Me, Feed Me! now available at Amazon.
Katja Rowell, M.D. is a graduate of the University of Michigan medical school and served as a family physician in urban and rural clinics and at a university student health service. She was struck by the prevalence of disordered eating and feeding and related health problems. Rowell believes establishing a healthy feeding relationship– in essence– the HOW children are fed is the missing piece in addressing disordered eating, childhood overweight and damaging dieting behaviors.
Without further ado, here’s the first part of the 5-part series speaking with a nutritionist who has no desire to scare the heck out of you, demonize food or force-feed you guilt in the guise of education.
Your blog was originally called Family Feeding Dynamics. Can you talk more about how you came up with this name and what it means?
Feeding dynamics is the name of Ellyn Satter‘s feeding model with children. It transformed first my own family’s experience around food, and then was the major impetus for my career shift from traditional family doctor to a childhood feeding specialist.
I wanted to celebrate that link with Satter’s feeding model, but also stress the family aspect. To stress that families teach kids how to eat. Family meals matter. The word dynamic also recognizes that feeding our families is a dynamic process, meaning it is flexible and changes with your family. For example, I had a hard time cooking the kinds of meals I thought I “should” during stressful times, whether we were moving, health reasons, or just being overwhelmed with the needs of an active infant and an over-worked partner. I relied more on take-out or pre-prepped meals at the time, but I “forgave” myself, meaning I let go of the guilt. I think that positive attitude helped me get back to feeling good about cooking more regularly again. So much changes with kids – their tastes, different feeding challenges depending in your child’s temperament and developmental stage, or your home situation with jobs, schedules etc. So you might eat dinner at 5:30 when your child is younger, but change to a seven p.m. dinner when your child starts after-school activities. It’s about being flexible, forgiving, fluid, and dynamic with your approach to doing your job with feeding.
What are the most significant barriers you see in the way of parents helping kids learn healthy eating?
Time is probably a major factor for most families I work with. Money and access to a variety of foods is an issue for too many Americans as well. I read somewhere that for a families in the “lower middle class” range, that eating the way the food pyramid recommends would take about 70% of their income. So, for many families, food insecurity, and money is an issue.
Another barrier I commonly see is picky eating and the power struggles around that issue- which in most cases is a result of feeding decisions in the past or feeding patterns. Fundamentally most parents (and health care providers) also don’t understand normal growth and normal eating habits. Parents of big kids worry that their children will be fat, parents of small kids feel judged or worry that their child is not healthy or will grow up to be small. Out of this concern and misunderstanding comes this urgent sense of “We have to do something!” and unfortunately that “something” usually means feeding with pressure-feeding to try to control size and that often backfires. That kid who gets pushed to eat more will eat less, that kid who is being restricted often then gets obsessed with food and you might start to see weight increase more rapidly. We have lost a sense of trusting that kids can and will grow to a body that is right for them if we do our job with feeding. Another barrier is that lots of parents I work with don’t know how to cook basic food and feel overwhelmed by shopping, meal planning and cooking. It’s part of why my blog focuses on meal-planning and recipes as well as research and topical subjects.
What do you mean by “jobs with feeding?”
It boils down to what is called the Division of Responsibility with feeding which is Satter’s main notion and recognized by the American Dietetic Association as “perhaps the best way to feed children.” The person feeding the child decides what, when and where the kid eats, the child decides if and how much. It sounds easy, but it is not the norm in how we feed kids as a culture. Think about the kid who is forced to eat two bites of meat before he earns dessert, or the child who has to finish a serving of vegetables before he can have more meat, or the child who is cut off after one serving of pasta. This is typical, and to many the badge of good parenting and feeding, but it is doing the child’s job-which is letting them tune in to their bodies and to decide how much of something to eat. As a mom, I plan the meals and snacks and I provide a variety of foods from the basic food groups, and I provide a pleasant setting, Then my job is done. My child’s job is to show up, be pleasant and decide how much or if she eats. It is hard work planning and providing snacks and meals with fat, protein and carb. It is not sexy, it is not easily sold or taught in a sound-bite format. But, it is pleasant. I don’t have fights or negotiations at my table, and the families I work with tell me things like, “I can look forward to dinner again,” or “I get to be a mom, not a food cop” and you know what? Their kids eat a better variety and get better nutrition too. It’s one thing to see the research on feeding, but it’s another to see it work in my home and with my clients. I love what I do. To me this is very powerful preventive medicine. If a kid can grow up with a healthy relationship to food and her body-what a gift, what a head start in terms of health.
(Stay Tuned for Part 2 next week!)