Mealtime. Think about eating. At Abundant Life, meals are made up of the same components (protein, grain, fruit, veggie…) and we eat family style, meaning food is passed around the table and children serve what they want from the larger bowl. If an item arrives in front of them that they are not too keen on, they have the choice to pass it along. What? Pass it along? (I can virtually hear some of you grumbling.) Yes! We practice graciously declining a food, because it might hurt the feelings of friends who like the food or the person who spent time preparing the food, but “No, thank you.” is a perfectly acceptable response to, “Would you like some peas today?” The message? You are in charge of your body. No one can tell you what to put in your body except for you. We have some repeating scripts around the table that encourages an adventurous disposition towards food, and we maintain a very relaxed and supportive response towards accepting or declining food. Would you like to taste it to see if your tastes changed? I remember when you didn’t like broccoli, and now you do! If you want to try it, you can lick it, or you can spit it out onto your plate if you taste it and you don’t like it. The work of Ellyn Satter has been incredibly helpful to me in articulating best practices around feeding children. If a child chooses to pass an undesirable food, they can select from the other choices on their plate, or drink their milk. And at the end of the day, they have the choice not to eat. After all, snacks and meals are served about every two hours, so if a child leaves the table with a little room leftover in her tummy, she won’t have to wait long for another opportunity to eat! As I design our menu, I am mindful of what children like to eat, and I am careful to introduce new or undesirable foods alongside popular ones to make sure that everyone has someone they will favor. Ultimately children do learn to like new foods – it takes them time and experience, but they do learn. And kids who approach the table with confidence that their preferences will be respected are free to try new foods! Forcing children to “just try a bite” will often instigate a power struggle, since a child’s autonomy – at that moment – is under threat.
Be honest. How many of you came for the title? That’s what I thought. Nothing like a post about boogers to bring you all in. The very word boogers appeals to the inner twelve year old in all of us. In all honesty, however, nostrils and fingers are like magnets for children and in my realm, it illuminates a very real tension between enabling children to be in control of their bodies and teaching them social and hygienic expectations around managing their bodies. One of the primary dispositions I want to foster in the crew is the idea they are in control of their bodies and that no one can do anything to their bodies that makes them uncomfortable. Ever. Empowering children to set the boundaries for appropriate and welcomed physical touch from others is an idea that is almost universally accepted. I think of it as raising a bunch of self-advocates. But the how behind engendering this disposition is a little tricky, and the roots of self-advocacy is found in lots of our routine day-to-day interactions with young children.
Stop! How often do children use the word stop? And when? How do we respond? One of my family’s favorite after dinner activities is wrestling. Tekoa and Simone routinely start planning our after-dinner wrestling before we even sit down to eat. Rough and tumble physical play is a powerful way to reconnect with children after an absence or re-establish a connection after a period of emotional upset with one caveat. A child needs to learn from day one that stop will always mean stop, and will be instantly respected. Our phrase here is “Stop is an automatic stop.” Children need to learn that they have the power to stop something that feels unwelcome. When our kids ask us to stop, we must model prompt and responsive action.
This is one of the things I love about multi-age groupings. The crew has been watching Desmond grow since birth, and it takes everything within their little beings to help teach him that he is in control of his body. For example, because Desmond is non-verbal, he cannot use words to ask us to stop. So certain activities (like tickling) are off limits. If we tickle him, he might feel overwhelmed by someone else, yet unable to get away or ask us to stop. What a frightening and out of control feeling, even if he laughed! We also try to be respectful of his physical development. He likes to crawl and pull up on everything. If we hold him, he doesn’t get to do what his body is telling him to do. For the older ones in the bunch who carry their baby dolls around wherever they go, it takes some incredible impulse control to let Desmond crawl instead of picking him up. The process isn’t flawless – he has been carried or picked up more than once, but my response is always the same. Everyone is in control of their own bodies.
Rhinotillexomania. Or nose picking. (Fancy, huh?) Of course, the crew does not yet conceive of social constructions or hygienic sense around nostrils. Frankly, you might be surprised to learn that, while taboo in many cultures, nose picking is a perfectly appropriate activity in some places in the world! And for small bodies with poor fine motor control, it must be irritating to feel something in your nose and not know how to get it out or to be too busy with an experience to go find a tissue. Let me say, I am 100% in favor of teaching children to use tissues and encouraging proper hand-washing practice to reduce the spread of germs and disease. But I am also concerned with raising a group of self-advocates who feel empowered to take care of their physical needs in a way that feels respectful.
Here’s how it looks day to day. When I see a child who needs a tissue, I will say, “Tekoa, it looks like you have boogers. We put boogers in a tissue.” By responding frankly and reflectively, children receive the message I intend to send – that boogers go in tissues. I will also help a child find the soap and water to wash hands that have been hunting in the nostrils. Sometimes, a second reminder is needed, in which case I will often get the tissue and take it to the child. As early as possible, I allow the child to direct a supervised nose wipe instead of me swooping in from the edge of the room to steal the snot away from their upper lip. (Too graphic?)
Maintaining the same report with children around other physical needs activities (toileting/diapering or washing hands, for example) — that they direct the when and the how, and I stay close by to support newly developing motor skills — keeps the child in control and affirms the message that they are in control of their bodies.
And that’s what we want, right?