The Child’s Mealtime Contract

Photo: Mark Wragg

Photo: Mark Wragg

So, you thought feeding kids was simply about serving up tasty, nutritious meals? LOL! That’s a good one! If you want your kid to eat, you better get acquainted with the Mealtime Rules. By virtue of the fact that you gave birth, you entered into this Mealtime Contract, which is binding, absolute and, by the way, non-negotiable — for you. Beyond the “delicious” part, which goes without saying and is, naturally, subject to child approval, you should be acquainted with the contract’s other fine print:

1. Under no circumstances shall a child eat what the rest of the family — including her siblings — is eating. Special meals must be prepared per each child’s request.

2. A request for a specific food is no guarantee that said food will actually be consumed.

3. “Favorite” foods are subject to change without notice. Prior consumption is no guarantee the same food will be consumed again — ever.

4. No food may touch another food on the plate AT ANY TIME.

5. Minimum number of bites to be taken must be negotiated in advance. No exceptions.

6. Bite size to be determined solely at the child’s discretion. “Big” bites of cake and “tiny” bites of broccoli to both count as “one” bite.

7. Bribery — i.e., offering candy in exchange for tasting a new food — will not be tolerated. Any attempt will result in the immediate clamping shut of the mouth and refusal to eat anything else.

8. A fork must never be used when fingers will suffice.

9. A napkin must never be used when a shirt sleeve is more accessible. (And even in cases when it’s not.)

10. Boogers are a food group.

11. Healthy food should never be concealed behind cutesy names. Ants On A Log: Unacceptable. Jimmies On A Sundae: Acceptable.

12. Ketchup is to be used generously. Ditto ranch dressing.

13. All food must be “pure” and unadulterated. Any attempt to camouflage vegetables in mac-and-cheese, smoothies or cake will be met with projectile vomiting.

14. It is not a food “rut.” It is “consistency” in food selection.

15. New foods will be regarded with extreme prejudice. Requests to serve anything “new” must be submitted in advance. In triplicate.

16. Parent will not make “airplane” noises or attempt to trick the child into opening his mouth to accept food at any time. The child, however, may make farting, belching and “raspberry”-type noises at the table as he sees fit.

17. The ratio of French fries to green vegetables must always be 8:1.

18. Food must not be “weird” in any way. “Weirdness” to be determined at the child’s sole discretion.

19. Broken cookies/crackers are “tainted” and will be summarily refused.

20. There should be no expectation that any food eaten at Grandma’s house will be automatically eaten at home.

21. Food will only be eaten if served on the “right” plate. “Rightness” to be determined by the child as it may be linked to particular cartoon characters that may/may not be considered cool at the moment. “Rightness” may also be determined by the color of a child’s shirt or other yet-to-be determined random event. Parent has no say in “rightness.”

22. There is always room for dessert.

23. A parent is not permitted to eat anything on a child’s plate. A child, however, is permitted free access to everything on parents’ plates. A child may return any food to a parent’s plate … even after it’s been chewed.

24. Hurrying is not permitted. A child will be allowed to linger over his dinner long after everyone else’s dishes have been cleared and the leftovers put away. Mom must stay at the table with the child at all times.

25. A child who is “full” after three bites of dinner may still request a PBJ at bedtime because he is “starving.” If first choice of jelly is unavailable, parent must immediately procure said jelly from the nearest supermarket. Time of day is immaterial.

26. There is no crying over spilt milk. Screaming about spilled Skittles, however, is encouraged.

27. Chocolate is the only acceptable presentation for dessert. Concealing yellow cake with chocolate frosting is punishable by severe tantrum.

28. Use of knives is not permitted. Food will be shoved into mouth regardless of size.

29. Denial of dessert will not be tolerated. Any attempts to refuse dessert will be met with a severe tantrum.

30. “Mealtime” is relative. Any time a child is hungry is “meal time.” Even at 1 AM.

 

A version of this blog post was originally published on Lifescript’s Healthbistro blog March 15, 2013.

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An Inconvenient Truth

Credit: Ermin Gutenberger

Credit: Ermin Gutenberger

From our house in Orlando, we’re about 15 minutes from Disney World’s backdoor. Which makes the Magic Kingdom (and its satellite parks) a tempting fallback for those endless I-have-no freakin’-clue-how-to-entertain-my-kid-today weekend afternoons. The catch — natch — is that this fallback gets fairly pricey. Which is why folks around here look for ways — annual passes, resident discounts — to shave pennies here and there from the cost of enjoying all that magic.

For my part, I do whatever I can to avoid the parking fees. It’s not like I’m some scofflaw. I’ll feed the meter on a city street. But I get a leeetle cranky when Disney wants to nip another 12 bucks for parking when I’ve already ponied up close to $200 to spend the day with my six-year-old at the Happiest Place on Earth. At that price, you’d think parking would be a gimme.

But after attending a few Disney-based birthday parties, I discovered a teeny loophole I could squeeze my car through: party guests park for free! I didn’t even need a fake gift bag as proof of attendance. Merely announcing “We’re here for the birthday party at ________,” opened the gates for you. (Though after this posts, I’m sure they’ll be watching for me.)

Anyway … faking a birthday party was going to be the plan for the day Fletcher and I recently spent in the Magic Kingdom. There was no reason to think it wouldn’t go off without a hitch. But because Fletcher’s been known to unexpectedly chime in with his own two cents — especially when he sees a chance to correct me on a point of fact — and because I didn’t want him piping up at the gate with “But we’re not going to a birthday party …” I filled him in ahead of time.

Big mistake.

“Mommy!” he declared, his eyes widening with shock as I laid out the plan. “You’re going to lie?!? You can’t do that. Lying’s BAD!”

Don’tcha just love when your own sense of pragmatism runs smack into your kid’s inconvenient ethics? In that moment, I was reminded of a particular parenting tenet that had always resonated with me: When you teach kids to challenge authority, the first authority they’ll challenge is yours. And here I was experiencing that firsthand.

Now, I’ve yet to meet the parent who outright advocates lying. But fibbing … well, I’ll argue that that’s a lighter shade of untruth. Alas, six-year-olds don’t get this kind of … let’s say nuance. Their little black-n-white brains don’t get that sometimes it’s okay to fib. But how to explain that I held fibbing about a fictional birthday party at an over-priced theme park in the same category as, say, asking my husband, “Do these jeans make my ass look big?” and fully expecting him to come up with a bald-faced whopper … and sell it like he’s one of those shyster salesmen from the movie Glengarry Glenn Ross.

But here, I was torn. Fletcher clearly had the moral high ground. Plus, no matter what you tell them, kids follow what you do, not what you say to do. And it wasn’t like the parking fee would break the bank. I’d be forking out way more than $12 bucks in the course of our outing. But jeez! If I’m gonna get gauged, I’d rather it be on something  worthwhile, like chocolate ice cream at the Main Street USA ice cream parlor — not an 8 x 16-foot parking space.

So, faced with this kid conundrum, I did what any modern parent does: I  turned to Facebook.

“Help me, Parent Friends –” I typed. “Have you ever encouraged your kids to fib a little, say, to get into a theme park, etc?”

The response was so immediate, you’d have thought I was trading free iPads for the advice.

My friend Jennifer confessed that she’d slid her just-passed-the-cutoff-age kid into a theme park for free. “I didn’t lie,” she emphasized. “They assumed … and I let it go. I still feel guilty about it though.”

“For Jazz Fest purposes, where tickets are $50 for adults and $5 for kids, our children will be ‘under 10’ for as long as humanly possible,” wrote Erika, my college friend from New Orleans. “It is quite a point of pride.”

“My boys love when we “sneak” into a second movie or hide our own snacks in my huge purse,” my friend Robyn added. “But, yikes! I never thought of ethics and lying. I’m not about to stop, though.”

Seriously, what did we do before we could crowd-source our parenting decisions on Facebook?

Still the question remained: What should I do? I hemmed and hawed all the way to Disney. Bearing down on the entrance, it was the moment of, um … truth. I pleaded my case one last time. “Fletcher, I really don’t want to pay for parking. I want to say we’re going to a birthday party.”

But I had to hand it to him. The kid was unwavering in his objection. So much so that he actually looked up from playing Race Or Die 2. When a kid pauses a video game, you know he means business. “Mommy, I don’t want you to lie,” he said, staring me down with his big, brown, disappointed doe eyes.

Oh, yeah, the kid knows how to work it. If a moment can both infuriate you and make you proud, that moment was it.

And so I smiled through gritted teeth as I handed the toll booth attendant my credit card. Sure, I could’ve just done things my way. But there’s having no shame … and there’s being shamed by a six-year-old.

In another decade or so, when I’m grilling this kid about the mysterious dents that I’m already anticipating pocking my car, I plan to remind my child just how unflinchingly honest he was on that particular Disney day.

But today, I’d say that 12 bucks was money well spent.

 

Have you ever encouraged your kid to um … fib? Leave a comment and tell me about it!

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A shorter version of this essay was published on Lifescript’s Healthbistro blog on February 15, 2013.

 

 

The End-of-Vacation Realization

 

Scene: It’s 7 am in the Dworkin-McDaniel household. An eager Fletcher emerges from the bedroom and makes a beeline for the living room … and the TV remote.

MOMMY: Uh-uh-uh. [Wags finger.] School today. Get dressed.

Fletcher stops, puzzled. Then, realization dawning that this means vacation is over, and there will be no TV this morning, he spins around.

FLETCHER: Actually, Mommy, I’m still tired. [Heads back to bed, disappears under covers.]

End scene.

Card Shark

photo: Rob Andrew

We recently marked a milestone of sorts in our house: We quietly … surreptitiously … finally… retired Candy Land.

I don’t say quietly and surreptitiously because I enjoy hiding toys from my kid. I just don’t want to do anything that might alert my little hoarder-in-training — a kid who’d stash away every plaything he’s ever had since babyhood if our house had enough closets — that the game’s gone missing. If you’ve ever attempted a toy purge in the presence of a child, you know that even if your kid never so much as touched the workbench you dropped 80 bucks on because he was enthralled with Daddy’s tools, the mere threat that it might leave the house forever will prompt him to cling to that molded plastic like an environmental activist chained to a tree, sobbing MOMMY! IT’S MY FAVORITE. DON’T TAKE IT AWAY. PLEASE!!! until you return it to the playroom — where it will sit untouched till the next purge.

Having learned that lesson with the plastic workbench … and the inflatable Elmo I bought for my son’s second birthday … and the tinny synthesizer keyboard we tried to replace with an actual piano, I now do my toy purging on the sly. It’s not that I’m that mean. It’s that Candy Land is that excrutiatingly dull. If you haven’t gotten to this particular stage of childhood yet, here’s a friendly heads up: Candy Land is the tranquilizer of board games. Go ahead, play a few rounds the next time you can’t fall asleep. Works better than valium. Mid-game, you could probably drill my teeth, and I wouldn’t flinch.

Yes, yes, I understand its developmental value for introducing tots to structured game play and how not to hurl the pieces at the wall and stomp on the board when you lose (though that particular lesson will take some time to sink in). But spend a few years pushing a plastic gingerbread man through a junk food forest, from red space to blue space to green space to orange space, and your brain will feel about as sharp as those beginner knives you find in toddler cutlery sets — the ones that couldn’t slice butter if it was left out in the sun. After a couple of hours on a rainy Saturday, you’ll beg to stop playing. You’ll barter a kidney to stop playing. But as anyone who’s ever gotten within striking distance of that promised land o’ sweets only to draw the dreaded Gingerbread Man card and been booted back to the beginning to start the maddening trek over again knows, the game … never … stops. It’s like pedaling a stationary bike. You can play forever and never get there. In fact, I think we were still in the middle of the first game we started when we opened the box three years ago. Deep-sixing this baby wasn’t mean. It was self-preservation.

With Candy Land hidden away on the top shelf in the back corner of my office closet, I was free to introduce Fletcher to games that I wouldn’t need a double Scotch to endure. Games like Othello, Sorry and Chinese Checkers. Eventually, I figured, we’d graduate to Mastermind, Scrabble, and, my personal favorite, Stratego. In my Perfect Parent daydreams, I envisioned our little family gathered, Norman Rockwell-style, round the table for family game nights with a big bowl of popcorn, our golden retriever happily resting at our feet, a nice cozy fire in the fireplace …

Okay, so we don’t have a fire place. Or a dog. I’m actually more of a cat person. But you get the picture of wholesome Hallmark Channel-kind of family fun I had in mind.

Know what my sweet, pink-cheeked li’l cherub wanted to play instead? Poker.

Yessir, that’s my baby … the budding card shark.

I’ve asked Fletcher repeatedly and still don’t know what put the idea in his head, where he even heard about poker. It’s not like my husband Stewart has a weekly poker game. No one we know plays poker. My parents occasionally talk about “bridge,” but as far as Fletcher’s concerned, they’re discussing crumbling infrastructure in London, not cards. I spent four years in Vegas and still can’t tell the difference between a straight and a flush. To me, a full house means having weekend guests. Or that inane sitcom with the Olsen twins.

Of course, I was grateful that he wasn’t clamoring for Candy Land. But, seriously, in what universe is poker an appropriate game for a 5-year-old? Was gambling really the best example to set for our child, I demanded, when Stewart agreed to teach Fletcher Texas Hold Em. What next? Blackjack, maybe? Showing him how to blow smoke rings? Mix martinis? I could already anticipate the summons from his Montessori teacher: Fletcher’s reading well and starting to master subtraction. But we are concerned that he’s hustling poker games on the playground. Please see me at your earliest convenience.

When they give out Debauched Parents of the Year awards, we’re shoe-ins for the Under Six category.

But Stewart shrugged off my concerns in the way that husbands the world over shrug off their wives’s concerns when they think we’re over-reacting. Then he helpfully pointed out that we’d already exposed Fletcher to gambling, playing dreidl during Chanukah. If you’ve never played, dreidl is like rudimentary craps, but rather than rolling dice, you spin a top with Hebrew letters on it, then put pennies in or take them out of a pot based on which letter comes up. It’s a children’s game. But there’s probably a bookie who takes odds on it somewhere.

And, of course, eight days of dreidl spinning had not spiraled Fletcher into juvenile delinquency.

“Hon, we’re not talking about roulette or throwing dice here,” Stewart said, still trying to win me over. “Poker’s a sophisticated game of skill.”

Yeah, yeah. You say po-TAH-toe … I say we’re thisclose to having DCFS banging on our door.

But caught between a child who’s raised relentless pleading to an art form (Please, please, please, Mommy! I want to play!! Please!) and a husband who’s logged his share of glassy-eyed hours on Candy Land duty and was equally desperate for more stimulating diversions, I knew I wasn’t gonna win this one.

“All right, all right. We’ll play. But no cash. We’ll use M&Ms.”

At least I’d drawn a line somewhere. Though on reflection I realized that years from now Fletcher would be able to tell his therapist how his parents set him up for gambling addiction and diabetes. It was too late to buy back on that one though. Fletcher was already rummaging in the pantry for his Halloween stash.

“Found the M&Ms, Mommy!”

Oh goody.

I wondered if maybe, between the anteing up, the calling and the raising, we could consider poker a “math exercise.” Oh yeah, I was grasping. That’s a whopper of a rationalization. But I figured it was my best defense if Social Services came calling.

So Family Game Night became Hold Em Night. Stewart outlined the basics of our sophisticated game of skill … er, math exercise. He explained the flop, the turn and the river. He detailed the different types of winning hands and what it meant to check, to call, to raise and match a bet to “make the pot right.” See — there’s some addition. Maybe “math exercise” wasn’t such a stretch.

We played cards up for practice so Fletcher would get the hang of putting together two-of-a kind, three-of-a-kind, four-of-a-kind, flushes and straights from the cards he held and those on the table.

“How’s that for some set theory?” Stewart said, pointedly. More math. Sweet.

Then we were ready to play for real.

We tossed some M&Ms into the pot, and Stewart dealt the cards. Two to each of us and three face down in the middle.

“I dealt, so it’s your bet, Fletcher,” Stewart nodded at him.

Fletcher knocked his little fist on the table. “Check,” he said. “I wanna see it for free.” One lesson, and he’s already got the lingo down.

I checked. Stewart checked. Then he flipped the table cards over: Ace of hearts. 5 of spades. 10 of clubs. That did nothing for the cards in my hand. But Fletcher gave a little yelp, then pushed a bunch of M&MS into the pot, with a big grin.

“Ooooh, Maaaah-meee,” he taunted, through a mouthful of chocolate. “I’m gonna beat you. I’m gonna beat you.”

“Okay, Poker Face,” I tousled his hair. “Try to save some chocolate for the game.”

“Here comes the turn –” Stewart dealt the fourth card, the 10 of diamonds. “Okay, everyone’s got a pair of 10s. Fletcher, your bet.”

Fletcher pushed more of his candy into the pot. “I’ve got the best hand! I’m gonna beat you. I’ve got the best hand. I’m gonna beat you,” he chanted, dancing excitedly in his seat. “I’m gonna take you to the laundry.”

“To the cleaners, baby,” I laughed. “You’re going to take us to the cleaners.” Okay, so he didn’t have all the lingo down yet.

“Uh huh … Can I show you? Can I show you?”

“Not yet. Let’s wait for the last card,” I said. I had squat but tossed more M&Ms into the pot anyway.

“And the river –” Stewart laid down the last card, the queen of hearts. “Okay, Fletcher. Whaddya wanna do?”

“All in!” Fletcher pushed the rest of his M&Ms into the center of the table. “Can I show you now? Can I show you now?”

We’d noticed during practice play that Fletcher loved to bet heavy, more, we figured, because he liked to see a big pile of candy on the table, than any real understanding of how to bluff. So wagering his sizeable pile of M&Ms could mean he had pocket aces … or nothing at all. And I didn’t want game night to end with him sulking, face down in the couch cushions because he lost all his chocolate.

“You really want to bet all your M&Ms?” I asked gently. He nodded, fiercely.

“All right.” We added the rest of our M&Ms to the pile too. “Turn ‘em over,” Stewart said.

Fletcher gleefully laid out his cards. It took a moment to register. Then Stewart and I looked at each other in disbelief. There on the table, between the community cards and his own, was a pair of aces and three 10s.

The kid had a full house.

Seriously. What are the odds?

“I told you I would win, Mommy and Daddy,” Fletcher said, all confidence and melted chocolate.

We looked at the cards, then back at each other, sharing a bewildered and bemused How the fuck did that happen?!? look.

Score one for poker math, I thought with chuckle. Then we brushed the chocolate off our little card shark’s teeth and tucked him into bed.

Circumcision Decision

You know how you take certain things for granted and just assume that your worldview on a particular subject is universally shared by all … or at least by the man you married and who supplied the other half of your kidlet’s DNA? And then you find out that that’s totally not the case … that in fact, said DNA-Contributor has a completely different take on something that’s so diametrically opposed to yours that you can’t even believe anyone would think that way.

That pretty much sums up my pre-baby discussion about circumcision with Stewart. I had taken it as a given, in the way that I take it as given that the sky is blue, the grass (when we remember to water it) is green and that Paris Hilton will eventually do something even more crass and unbecoming than flash her hoo-ha at the paparazzi. In other words, we’re having a boy, so, duh, he’ll be circumcised.

Stewart apparently, was of a different mind altogether.

Here’s me: So after the baby’s born, we’ll get him circumcised in the hospital.

Here’s Stewart: Um …I don’t think we should.

What?????

Now that was a head-spinning conversation stopper. I haven’t been stunned so speechless since The Usual Suspects when you find out at the end that KEVIN SPACEY IS KEYSER SOZE! I mean, I just didn’t see that coming! Same here. You have a boy, you circumcise him. Just like you have a bag of double-fudge-chocolate-chip cookies, you eat them. You have a 10 and a face card, you sit tight at the blackjack table. There’s no discussion. You just do it. And frankly, it never occurred to me that we wouldn’t do it. But Stewart was weighing the anti-circumcision point of view. His rationale went something along the lines of: “Foreskin comes standard equipment; why should we make after-market changes?”

He pointed out that foreskin retention was gaining traction. Who knows. For guys, maybe it’s the new black. Actually, it’s thought that 90 percent of guys around the world are unshorn . Even in the U.S., it’s guesstimated that there’s about a 50-50 split between cut and uncut. Of course, I understand man’s natural desire — even pre-Lorena Bobbitt — to avoid sharp objects in that region at all costs. I don’t even have a penis (well, if you don’t count the one I keep in my bag for “emergencies”), and I wince and squeeze my legs together when even imagining this. But damn! Squeamish or no, I was going to do right by our son.

But clipping was clearly going to be a tough sell. You’d think this would be a no brainer since I’m Jewish. But you can hardly play the whole “Covenant between God and Abraham” card when you’ve been a confirmed atheist since … oh, about age 9. And it certainly wasn’t like I was campaigning for a bris. (For those not In The Tribe, that’s when you throw a fabulous party where the baby gets trimmed as the guests eat canapés.) As if. Now I love, love, love to throw parties. You can ask my sister; I’ve been campaigning for Ground Hog Day to be a black tie-worthy event for years! But it had to have been a guy who came up with the brilliantly sadistic idea to throw a major catered affair at your house, a scant eight days after you’ve squeezed a basketball out of your vagina … or been sliced stem to stern and had it removed. Either way, you hardly feel like putting on your party shoes.

Still, it’s not like you can skimp, right? On Junior’s first public outing? Hell no! You’re going to pull out all the stops. And that’s hardly trays of crudite from Costco. So no, I was looking for any way out of the bris. If we were going to do a whole shindig for Junior, we’d wait till his first birthday when I’d be back in my skinny jeans.

But if not religious tradition, I was hard-pressed to figure out what else I could possibly stand on. The standard argument — So That He’ll Look Like His Daddy Down There– held no truck with Stewart. Neither did my point that he wouldn’t look like his peers when he stripped down in the locker room after gym class either. Or that guys also have major body image issues and carry plenty of self-doubt that their peckers are “up to par.” I’m sure even Ron Jeremy had days when he wondered if his alter ego was “sponge worthy.” In the face of all that, did we really need to give our son one more reason to worry that his penis wasn’t good enough?

I even tried to appeal to my husband’s inner rational scientist and broke out the medical research. Studies do show that circumcised boys and men have fewer urinary tract infections, a lower risk for penile cancer and for STDS, including HIV compared to intact guys. Okay, so the risk for UTIs and penile cancer is miniscule to begin with, and you can probably do more to protect against HIV and other STDs with good, consistent condom use. But shouldn’t we set our boy up to have every single advantage possible?

Then Stewart placed his ace. There must be a reason the package came wrapped, he argued. He’d heard that uncut guys reported much greater sensitivity and pleasure during sex. Actually I don’t know how you measure that. Ask uncut guys to have lots of sex, then clip them and have them rate the difference? Frankly, I don’t see a lot of volunteers lining up for that study. But Stewart admitted he sort of wished he’d had more of a say in his own circumcision. “I might,” he argued, working himself into a Clarence Darrow lather, “enjoy sex even more if I had it au naturel.” He floated this idea: By clipping Fletcher at this tender age, maybe we would be shortchanging his sex life … forever. Dangling a little Jewish guilt in front of me — proof positive that he’d been taking notes from my mother! — he deftly pulled this one out: “You don’t want to be responsible for ruining our son’s sex life, do you?”

Ruin our son’s sex life? YES! THAT WAS IT!

And that’s when the most persuasive argument I could possibly muster came to me … the sure-fire way to finally persuade Stewart that in the “snip or not to snip” debate, circumcising would be the kindest cut of all.

“My love,” I said to my husband, sweetly, pragmatically. “If you ever want your son to get a blow job — circumcise him.”

Four weeks after our son came into the world, we did just that. In the pediatrician’s office, with little fanfare, no mini quiches and a whole lotta wincing.

To Fletcher’s future girlfriends: You’re welcome.