A client recently wrote to me about a very troubling incident: her 8-year-old daughter had stolen a bathing suit from a fellow camper.  What was she to do?

From time-to-time I get questions that aren’t food-related, and though these typically fall outside my area of expertise, I always give answering these questions a shot.  It’s novel, fun—You know I have opinions! — and the parallels to parenting around food are usually instructive.

My advice was this:

  1. Have your daughter return the swimsuit to the camp director.
  2. If possible, have your daughter talk to the girl whose suit it was to apologize, and to find out how she had felt when she discovered her suit was missing.  Was she worried? Did she spend time looking for it?  Were her parents upset with her for losing a bathing suit? (This conversation should occur with parental guidance).
  3. Talk to your daughter about why she stole the bathing suit instead of asking you to buy her one.
  4. Work out a way for your daughter to earn a new suit either by doing chores or by using money from her piggy bank.

My client was onboard with the first three suggestions, but questioned the fourth one.  Wouldn’t buying her daughter a new bathing suit reward her for stealing?

I don’t think so.  Instead, I think of it as taking advantage of a teachable moment.

This young girl stole a bathing suit for a reason, but her mother doesn’t really know what that reason is.  To find out she has to ask her daughter.  But after the mother talks to her daughter, what will she do with the information? Say,

  • “Thanks for telling me that you didn’t think I would buy you a new suit.  See you later?” OR
  • “I’m glad to know you couldn’t think of any other way of getting a bathing suit.  You were right because I’m not going to get you one now?”

If my client just punishes her daughter (obviously with the goal of teaching her daughter that stealing is wrong) her daughter won’t learn how to get what she wants—the suit—in an acceptable (i.e. legal) way. Instead, she’ll probably just learn how important it is not to get caught.

On the other hand, if my client talks to her daughter about the right way to obtain a suit, and then allows her to earn one, she’ll:

  • Foster an open dialogue, encourage honesty and demonstrate to her daughter that they’re both on the same team.
  • Teach her daughter how to work towards a goal.
  • Remove the risk that the new suit will perceived as a reward.

It’s all too easy for parents to feel like they are their children’s adversaries, and not their allies.

It’s hard to find the middle ground, especially when you’re upset.  This is particularly true when it comes to food. And let’s face it, there are so many situations that can be upsetting: kids steal and/or hoard food, they refuse to eat the perfectly wonderful meal that you just spent hours cooking, they say they’re hungry or full when it suits them…

In my experience, parents frequently vacillate between being too lenient and being too punitive; they either follow their kids’ lead—“He won’t eat anything else”—or take a “my-way-or-the-highway” approach.  Neither one works.

It can be hard to find the middle ground.  But the key to teaching healthy eating habits—and to parenting in general— is to establish a clear set of boundaries and expectations while remaining empathetic and respectful of your children’s opinions.   Read The Goldilocks Approach.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~