When it comes to eating, kids almost never say what they mean.

They’re not lying, per se—that would infer intent to deceive—they’re just using one set of words (and ideas) as stand-ins for another set of words (and ideas).

For instance, kids often say, “I don’t like it,” when they really mean, “I don’t feel like eating that right now,” or, “You don’t really expect me to put something that looks like a sheep’s brain into my mouth, do you?” or “I’ve been compliant for awhile, but I think it’s time to goose you.” Read “What I Don’t Like It” Really Means.

You can’t really blame your kids though.  They’re simply communicating with the tools you’ve taught them.  Not being hungry is one of the only acceptable reasons most parents give their kids for refusing food.  Teach your children better communication skills, and they’ll start eating better.

The problem isn’t simply that your kids will need to be excellent communicators if they ever hope to get into Harvard.

There’s a more pressing problem than that:

The way your kids communicate about food and eating sets in motion a parent-child dynamic.  If kids don’t say what they mean, then that dynamic is based on a false foundation.  Parents get frustrated (“But she liked it yesterday.), and the interaction goes nowhere fast.

Most parents know their kids use, “I’m not hungry,” as a stand-in for other thoughts and feelings.

That’s why it’s so tough to know when enough is enough and how we get caught in the two-more-bites tango.

But responding to what kids say, not to what they mean, or ignoring what they say, while trying to figure out what they mean, is a strategy that doesn’t work. Not only does it lead parents to treat the symptom, not the cause, but it requires parents to be psychics. (“Is she really not hungry? or is she just being ornery?”)

If you want your kids to eat better, you have to become a mind reader.

Or teach them to communicate better.

Think of “I’m not hungry” as a slightly more sophisticated version of “I don’t like it.” Sometimes kids really mean they’re not hungry, but just as often, they mean:

  • I don’t feel like eating anything right now because I’m busy playing.
  • I don’t want to eat what you’re serving because it looks weird.
  • I don’t want to eat chicken tonight.
  • I’ve already eaten more than enough chicken tonight, and I’m tired of it.  Can’t I have something else now?

Kids say “I don’t like it,” or “I’m not hungry,” when they mean something else because these are the only acceptable reasons most parents give their kids for refusing food.

  • “Just try it, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.”
  • “If you’re not hungry, you don’t have to eat it.”

Sound familiar?

You have to give kids both the vocabulary and the permission to turn food away for the range of possible reasons, otherwise they have no other option than to resort to “lying.”

Read Conscious Parenting.

It may seem crazy to think that your kids will eat better simply because they can tell you more precisely what they’re thinking, but it will.

Not just because speaking their truth will somehow magically free your kids up to explore new foods—although it does happen— but because learning to communicate better changes the entire parent-child dynamic.

  • How do you respond when your child says she’s not hungry after she’s taken 2 bites?
  • How would you respond if, instead, she said she didn’t feel like eating chicken tonight?

When kids tell the truth, parents have more accurate information to work with.

I’m definitely not saying you should run off to cook a different meal simply because your child doesn’t want to eat the chicken you’ve prepared.  I am saying, however, that once you know your child’s true objection, you can deal with it head on.   And then, instead of wondering why your child reports to be full a few minutes into dinner and then claims to be hungry 10 minutes later, you’ll know the answer.

You’ll also be able to come up with an appropriate solution.  One that works.

Next week I’ll write about how to teach kids to communicate more accurately.  In the meantime, read Why won’t my child eat dinner?.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~