Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why I Love Restraints (For Sophia. Not Me.)

As a culture, we tend to be very anxious to move our children onto the next stage…transitioning them to a bed, a booster seat, underpants, walking independently at our side…as soon as possible. I think it’s simply part of our independent American ethic. We want them to be self-sufficient, capable people.

For some kids, good sleepers, good eaters, go-with-the-flow, kids or I’ve-got-an-older-brother-or-sister-I-seek-to-emulate kids, it works. They easily and readily make the switch. Then, there are the parents who have to do it out of necessity, e.g., a new baby is coming and they need the crib for the soon-to-emerge infant. For these parents, the transition may be difficult, but the need outweighs the difficulties.

But for the other group of kids…the ones who don’t eat well, who don’t sleep well, who are in constant motion, and/or who don’t have a positive sibling model to look up to...these are kids who tend to not do well with early transitions. At least not without a period of teaching and gradually fading back supports. For example, a child who does not eat well and who seeks to escape mealtimes will GROSSLY take advantage of being placed in a booster seat without a seatbelt.

I know this from personal experience.

It was Sophie who told, “Mom, I don’t want a high chair. I want to sit in a BIG person’s chair like you and daddy.” I know, one would think that if she is capable of articulating this, it probably is time for her to stop sitting in a high chair. Well, that’s what I thought, too. So, Sophia and I went shopping for a booster seat. She selected a portable, hot pink one that suctioned nicely to our chairs. Have I mentioned it didn’t have a restraint? We tried it out that night.

It was an unmitigated disaster. She was up. She was down. We put her back up, She slid back down. Our dinners grew cold and our patience wore thin as she enjoyed the novelty of her freedom. The next night was no better. Nor the night after that. We gave it several weeks, but no degree of prompting her to stay in her chair, engineering the environment to keep her in her chair, or reinforcing her for staying in her chair was working.

Now, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal, if it wasn’t so important to me for all of us to sit together at the table for meals. But it is. That’s our sacred family time, when Kevin comes home from work, and we all share what’s happened that day. Some of my fondest memories of growing up are the conversations that took place over dinner—it was a place to pontificate, argue, discuss, and listen. Kevin’s family also valued the ritual of dinner together. We want to carry on the tradition.

And then there is the issue of eating. I know that we place too much of an emphasis on food in our culture. I know that Sophie’s picky eating is, in part, a result of the fact that I have made eating such a big deal in my home. Perhaps she would have eaten a variety of foods, however limited, had I not insisted from the get-go that she at least try a bite of everything I put before her. Perhaps, I could just let her go hungry every now and then, rather than wait out her stubbornness at the dinner table. But, I’m not convinced that I would have been successful at getting her to try kale and sushi, artichokes and shrimp, crabmeat and asparagus had I not been insistent. Had I not held her there (in that high chair) and withheld more desired foods until she took a bite. Had I not repeatedly introduced these foods time after time until she was eating them volitionally, with gusto. Had I not rewarded her with praise and an intermittent dessert for eating healthy food.

I’m not saying it’s the way. It’s just how I did it. And, quite frankly, this is how it is basically done in professional feeding clinics, successfully.

Sometimes, like when my mother says, “You still have her in the high chair?” I’m afraid keeping her in it appears to be cruel. That I’m strapping my kid down. Forcing her to sit, pushing food on her, laying the foundation for an eating disorder later in life. Or that others simply think I’m loony, still fretting over healthy, three-year-old Sophie, convinced she is still the underweight child she once was. When do my methods become overbearing?

I believe Sophia will tell me, herself.

It’s taken me a while to stop insisting she take “one more bite” and start listening to Sophia when she says me, “Mommy, I’m full,” or to let her go when, she has eaten her fill and asks, “May I please be excused from the table?” I’m not forcing her to finish, just to try. I’m not forcing her to sit interminably; just until dinner is over, just until she can sit on her own.

I’m hoping that it will go something like toilet training, which Sophie did when she was ready. And when she did, it wasn’t a gradual process. It was an all-at-once kind of thing: she put on underwear and never looked back. Maybe, one day, she’ll climb onto a chair and simply sit and eat.

Until that day, I am grateful that I’ve got a way to make her sit. Yes, to save me the aggravation of repeatedly fetching her and putting her back in her chair, but also to ensure that she sits long enough to understand what’s special about sharing a meal. And, it remains my hope that the thing that makes it special will one day be enough to keep her pinned to her seat.

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