If you’ve got more than one child, chances are you think one is a great, adventurous eater and the other? Not so much.

And if your younger child is the one who is adventurous, chances are you’re worried that the older child’s poor eating habits are going to rub off on the younger child, and before you know it, you’ll have two picky eaters sitting at the table.

Sound familiar? I hear this from parents all the time.

You’ve got different kids. They need different parenting. It’s time to dispel the myth that parents should strive to treat their kids the same.

I’ve written about fairness before. My point: Fair is getting what is right for you. Fair does not mean equal.

In my post Fair is Fair…Or Is It? I talked about the chocolate milk problem. Here is the problem in a nutshell:

You’ve got three kids and they each want exactly the same amount of chocolate milk. You might think of this as the cookie problem too. Or the ice cream problem. Or the problem that crops up anytime your kids think that fair means equal.

When it comes to food, fair isn’t eating what everyone else is eating — at the same time and in the same amounts. Fair is getting what is right for you in that moment. For instance, small children get less chocolate milk than big kids get because small is the right amount for small tummies. Similarly, kids who have had their treats might not get a cookie when their siblings do.

Are you thinking that your kids would never stand for such unequal treatment?

I sympathize. But giving kids the same treats at the same time and in the same amounts teaches kids the wrong habits.

By the way, when I was growing up, my mother would throw out a treat rather than get the measurements exactly right. She wasn’t trying to teach us anything about fairness or healthy eating habits. She just didn’t want to be saddled with the task of making sure that everything was even-steven. I’m not recommending this approach because it’s a little harsh. But drinking different amounts of chocolate milk didn’t kill us.

On the other hand, when my mother had a sexist rationale for her unequal lessons… Read One for Girls, Two for Boys.

Every parent I have ever met knows intuitively that individualizing how you parent your kids is a good thing. But we talk the language of equality.

I’m not advocating that you become a short-order chef and create individualized meals for each of your kids. That would be insane. But it’s also insane to think that all our kids need to learn the same lessons at the same pace.

Maybe you’re thinking: “It’s genetic. I feed my kids all the same. Some kids are simply great eaters. Others aren’t.”

While it is true that some children are naturally better eaters than others, and that some children are naturally more adventurous than others, the reason I balk at this line of reasoning is because it makes a lot of parents give up. Wait it out.

Of course, if you are worried that picky eating can be contagious, then you recognize that some of our kids’ eating habits are social. What can be learned, can be unlearned.

Kids can have peculiar eating habits. You’ve probably seen some funny posts making the Internet rounds.

Here’s one:

  • “Hello my name is Lexi and I will gag at the sight of sauce, unless you call it frosting. I love pasta frosting.”
  • “Hello my name is Luke and I like toast, but not the “brown parts” (which are the actual toasted areas). The bread must remain white, but have a slightly harder toasted exterior without actually changing color.”

I get the appeal. If we don’t laugh, we’re going cry. Accommodating a toddler’s food craziness can make you tear your hair out. And when you read the whole list it’s comforting to know that other people have crazy kids too.

The thing that irks me about these posts, however, is that it sends the message that, when it comes to eating, it’s normal for kids to make crazy demands and that there’s nothing parents can do about it. But every single one of these toddlers can be taught to eat differently.

Does it matter if Lexi calls sauce “pasta?” Not at all. But she can be taught not to gag. Similarly,

  • Luke can learn to eat brown toast – or to remove the brown bits himself.
  • Riley can learn to eat her meal even if there’s a pickle on the plate.
  • Chase can learn to eat corn whether it is on or off the cob.
  • And so on.

If you’ve tried to teach your kids another way of eating and it hasn’t worked, it doesn’t mean the problem is intractable.

It means you haven’t found the right strategy…yet. This isn’t a critique of your parenting skills. It’s a comment on our national dialogue. “Cook with your kids!” “Take your kids grocery shopping!” These strategies only work for some kids, some of the time because they are incomplete. And they don’t take into account how kids learn eating habits.

I have long advocated strategies such as The Rotation Rule and The Eating Zones Rule because they create a structure that teaches eating habits. Moreover, each of these strategies can be tailored to meet your kids wherever they are. Want ideas about how to introduce new foods? Click here.

Just because behavior is normal, it doesn’t mean we have to wait it out.

Yes it’s normal for kids to go through a separation anxiety stage, but we don’t assume that we’ll have to stay stuck to our kids’ sides until the stage is over. Similarly, when it comes to food, it is normal for kids to go through a controlling/crazy eating stage. We can teach our way through it. But we have to know the goal (proportion, variety and moderation are the three habits kids need to learn) and we have to tailor what specific skills we teach to what each of our kids needs to learn.

Here are some ways that same doesn’t work.

  • You give the kids the same amount of new food and ask them to taste it. Some kids are not ready for tasting. They need to explore using their other senses first.
  • You implement the Rotation Rule (congratulations!) and insist that everyone eats a different sandwich for lunch every day. That’s too much rotation for one child. That child needs the same sandwich cut into different shapes.

There are lots of other examples, but I think you get my point.

Eating right is a skill. Every child comes equipped with a different set of strengths and weaknesses and so the techniques we use to teach eating skills has to vary from child to child.

If you’re having trouble figuring out exactly what your kids need to learn right now, shoot me an email, or give me a call. (I give away free 30 minute consultations, just for the asking.)

It’s a challenge to balance feeding the whole family and teaching each of our chidlren the skills they need to learn.

It helps, though, to recongize that how kids eat is less about the food than it is about the lessons. And that the only thing kids really need to be the same is for parents to figure out a strategy for teaching them the skills they need to learn.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~