veggie toddler - a young child learning how to walk and eat vegetables, not necessarily a wobbly vegetarian.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dada at the Dinner Table

I always knew my art history classes would come in handy. Art imitates life, or is it life imitates art? However it goes, I have always thought that art helps me to understand the world I live in. But I never could have guessed it would shed light on the activity happening right at my own kitchen table.

When I was pregnant, and even after my newbie arrived, I imagined our family dinners to look something like an impressionist painting. The main course is recognizable as such and prominently featured like the figure in a Renoir or Degas. On close examination, the actual make up of the meal, like the color and brush strokes of an impressionist painting, may combine casually thrown together side dishes. However if I stand back and squint, like a good Monet, I can make out a well-balanced meal.

Then my baby becomes a toddler and my idealized image of family dinner vanishes like a popped balloon. All of a sudden my daughter won’t taste any food that is combined with any other food. She may love peas and pasta but only if they remain in their own confined spaces on her highchair tray.

So I quickly shift art movements to abstract expressionism. I think Mondrian where the red, blue, white and yellow are organized and kept from bleeding into each other with distinct black lines. “A purist,” another mom explains to me. I understand immediately as I watch my toddler gobble up rice and black beans that each sit in their own distinct bowl.

“It all goes to the same place,” I argue with my now 3 year-old.
“But it doesn’t taste good together,” my daughter responds.

Fast forward another year or so, sitting at the dinner table with my 5 year-old daughter and 3 year-old son. “Look mommy, I can stand the carrots up on their ends and make buildings,” says my son. Meanwhile my daughter is talking to a piece of steamed sweet potato who is asking to come over for a play date.

“Dada,” I think. You know, the art movement where Duchamp took a urinal, turned it upside down and called it a fountain? I am not a fan of playing with your food. When my kids start smearing and smashing their dinner, a la Jackson Pollock, I always bring out the “no dessert” threats.

“Should I let this continue,” I think to myself as my son builds a city of carrots and then eats each one. I look over and my daughter’s sweet potato chunk is now sharing toys with another piece on its way to her mouth.

“They ARE eating their dinner,” I reason as I sit back and enjoy a little Dada at the dinner table.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Imaginary Parenting

I don’t know if you are watching the new television series called, Parenthood. I mean, what a great idea for a show. They will never run out of material! I can imagine the un-made Seinfeld episode now. Seinfeld’s fellow comedian friend would become a parent in order to experience the endless supply of mishaps, unexpected dialog and humorous situations. “He did it for the jokes,” Seinfeld would complain.

All kidding aside, Parenthood is proving to be a great show. Last week one couple finds that their son has Aspergers, which is a form of autism. Throughout the episode the boy wants to wear a pirate costume, against his parents’ wishes. Eventually a doctor tells the parents that they need to join their son in his world. At the end of the show, during the instrumental emotional conclusion of the episode’s stories, the father is shown playing with his son in the backyard. Both father and son are dressed as pirates and run around the yard, on the look-out for other ships.

It is a beautiful moment, but it gets me thinking. Why does a father wait until his son is diagnosed with Aspergers before he joins him in his imaginary play? All kids, whether they are autistic or not, would benefit from their parent entering their imaginary world in order to play together.

I recently had to sell my green station wagon which is the only car my kids have known as our family car. I explain to my kids over and over again how a nice lady came and bought my green car and will give it a nice new home. We “adopt” a gray station wagon as our new family car and “welcome” it into our life. It doesn’t go over so well. For two weeks my 3 year old bursts into tears whenever riding in the new car, “I miss the green car!” Then my 5 year old joins in, “when is the lady going to give it back?” “Oh she’s going to keep it,” I try to explain. “WHAT? She is going to KEEP our car for ever and ever?” they chime in together. More tears.

I’m doomed, I think. So in order to stop the crying for the long gone, green car I say to my kids, “this car comes with a special feature that the old car didn’t have.” “It does? What?” they say between sniffles. “A Fly button.”

“Press it!” says my daughter. “We want to fly!” says my son. So I press the imaginary button and say, “Hold on tight, here we go up and up and up!” We rise up off the street, above the trees and say “Hi” to the birds. We look down at the tiny houses, cars and people below us. We take a ride on a cloud and reach our hands toward the sun. As we approach our preschool, we hold on tight and come in for a smooth landing in the parking lot.

“We flew here!” my daughter tells her teacher as we walk in the door. I chuckle and try to explain. “Oh, how fun,” the teacher responds but I’m not sure what she is thinking.

The next day we get in the car and my son asks where we are going. “To school,” I say for the tenth time that morning. “Can we fly there?” he asks. “Sure thing, hold on tight,” I say with smile. There’s no more talk of missing the green car. When we find ourselves in traffic or even when it’s raining, we just press the fly button and experience a whole new world above the clouds.

I can’t picture being a parent without embracing imaginary play. It helps me to understand my kids as well as assist them to work through tough issues like selling a family car. We should all strive to play pirates in the back yard. You never know when you will spot another ship on the horizon.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Peer Pressure Points

I have never been a fan of peer pressure. Usually it involves some sort of emotional stress, fear of being different and doing something you didn’t want to do. Nothing good comes of peer pressure, right? Well, a little bit might be just the thing to get your kid to taste a previously detested food.

Steak. My 5 year-old daughter has never tasted steak. I love steak. But she prefers to get her protein from black beans and lentils. Okay, that’s fine. Not everyone has to love steak or even eat it. If she grows up to be a vegetarian, I will support her, no question. But it would be nice if she could, just once, humor me and taste a piece of steak. At the dinner table, I never pressure her but always offer a tiny taste of my steak. The answer is always “NO! Steak, Yuck!” accompanied by a turned head and scrunched up face to complete her point. “Okay, maybe next time,” I say brushing it off as no big deal.

The other night we had an impromptu 5 year-old dinner party: my 5 year-old daughter, two 5 year-old neighbors, my 3 year-old son, and I. Everyone is seated at the table together, excited for whatever food is to come “Who wants rice?” I ask with the pot of rice in my hands. “Me!” “Me!” “Me!” “Me!” “Okay,” I continue, “Who wants broccoli?” “Me!” “Me!” “Oh, okay.” “No thanks.” “Okay,” I continue, “you can have steak or you can have black beans or both.” “Beans,” says my daughter. “Beans,” says my son. “Steak,” says one neighbor. “Steak,” says the other neighbor.

As we eat our dinner together, sounds of “Yum, Steak!” keep coming from the two neighbors. I see my daughter starts to notice. “Can I have a bite?” she asks, wanting to join the steak-loving club. “Sure,” I say nonchalantly as I cut her a tiny piece. “Mmmmm, yum, more steak please!” she says to me with a smile and her fork in the air. I happily serve her and her friends more bite-sized pieces of steak.

“Wow,” I think to myself. “We may have found a peer pressure point tonight.” Don’t get too excited. Peer pressure can have the opposite effect on your child at the dinner table as well. During this same dinner I offer spinach salad, something my daughter usually gobbles up. But tonight, after both of her friends turn their noses with a “yuck,” my daughter follows suit and passes on the spinach.

The uneaten spinach doesn’t bother me. I know spinach is a food my daughter likes so not eating it one night is no big deal. But to get my daughter to taste a food that she usually refuses to even so much as lick? Now that’s exciting.

My 3 year-old, on the other hand, remains oblivious to any peer pressure in the air. He happily goes about his own meal eating two portions of rice, broccoli, black beans, and yes, spinach salad. His peer pressure point to taste steak will be pressed on another night, I’m sure.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Mamsaurus Rex, the Carnivore

Dinosaur Train, a relatively new addition to the morning PBS Kids television line-up, is a cartoon about a Pteranodon family with an adopted Tyrannosaurus Rex. This motley crew takes family trips on the Dinosaur Train to learn about other dinosaurs and visit them in their prehistoric habitat. The Time Tunnel marks the train’s passage through time, acknowledging the different periods in which dinosaurs lived. Dinosaur Train combines children’s love of dinosaurs, trains and sense of adventure into a fun, 30-minute show for kids.

Both my 3 year old boy and 5 year old girl love to run around the house re-enacting the preschool-age, dinosaur characters, Tiny, Shiny and Buddy. They jump on and off the train. “All aboard!” they shout as they pull their arms down blowing the pretend whistle in the air. They go on fishing adventures and flying escapades. They learn about which dinosaurs swim, fly, walk on four legs, run on two legs, or have spikes or long tails.

My kids also learn about what dinosaurs eat for lunch. To my surprise, this ancient reptile insider scoop is my children’s favorite obsession. Both my kids from the time they could pick up food with their fingers, loved to eat vegetables. They can relate to the herbivores munching on leaves and plants. But what about the Pteranodon family fishing for their supper? Ever since Dinosaur Train hit PBS my kids have been questioning the fish on my dinner plate. “Really, that’s fish?” my 5 year old exclaims. “It doesn’t look like fish.” “You eat fish?” “How did you catch it?” asks my 3 year old. And so the string of tough questions begin; how fish goes from alive in the water to lifeless on our kitchen table. I don’t mind the inquisition. I am sure my children’s curiosity is age-appropriate. I just won’t expect them to taste my fish any time soon.

My real concern is when my kids find out what Buddy, the preschool-age T-Rex, eats for lunch. I haven’t watched every episode with my kids but, so far, I haven’t heard any mention of what’s in T-Rex’s lunchbox. “Meat,” my kids say. “Buddy eats meat and fish.” They know fish and have seen the dinosaurs catch and eat them. But meat – what is that exactly? The show teaches kids about our similarities and differences, yet skirts around a basic fact of life. T-Rex is a carnivore. He eats other dinosaurs.

I have only recently gotten my daughter to eat a hamburger. Meat has never rated high on either of my kids’ yummy list. I strive to teach by example so I always hope that if they see me eating meat, one day they too will want some. However, since Dinosaur Train, I get the feeling that my days are numbered. If seeing Pteranodons swooping in to make a kill for their fish dinner sends them into a flurry of questions about what I am eating, what will she think of my steak?

Don’t get me wrong. I love the show. It has catchy music, adorable animation and everyone learns to play together. I simply dread the day Buddy, the adopted T-Rex, realizes who he is and what he eats. Maybe my fears are for nothing. Maybe PBS has it all under control and, like a good soap opera, will keep up the search for Buddy’s true nature, throughout its broadcast run, without resolution.