My 4.5-year-old has been jumping the baby gate at the top of our stairs before we are awake to sneak into the kitchen and eat treats. He has his fill and creeps back upstairs. Last week he used a stool to get in the freezer and eat ice cream sandwiches; we later found a half-eaten 16 oz. bag of marshmallows in his bed and some baking chocolate under his pillow.
But one thing agile, sneaky 4-year-olds don’t do well is cover their tracks. One morning I came downstairs to find that my son had used a GRILLING SPATULA to serve himself a piece of his little brother’s birthday cake onto a plate. There was a dirty plate and fork on the counter (because if you are going to sneak cake you MUST serve it to yourself on a plate and use a fork like a sophisticated criminal), an open Tupperware with sugar cookie crumb-trails and a half-eaten nectarine. He looked at me innocently and asked, “What’s for breakfast?”
My blood was boiling. Lying and sneakiness makes me bananapants crazy. But lectures, warnings, and punishment have gotten me nowhere (don’t even get me started about the positive parenting sticker chart and the bazillion “good behavior prizes” rotting in our closet). All I could think to myself was, “I give up.” And then I thought, GIVE UP. Just GIVE UP. And I replied, “You’re in luck! I know how much you like to eat treats so today you are having cake for breakfast!”
I served him a huge slice of cake and rummaged through the pantry for the box of snow cap candies I had been hiding. I dumped them on the plate next to the cake. He looked at the bounty with wide eyes and said, “Can I have M&Ms too??”
Sure! I found a bag of M&Ms and tossed those in too. He ate every last bit of it.
For lunch he had a chocolate pudding cup and the remainder of the snow caps.
For dinner he had a cupcake, two giant scoops of ice cream, and sugar cookies.
Throughout the day he would say, “How about yogurt? Is yogurt junk food?”
“Nope,” I replied, “guess that’s not on the menu for today.”
I’m the first one to admit I had no frakkkking clue what I was doing. I’ve read all the books, all the theories:
…don’t call treats, “treats.”
…don’t have sugar, period (carob chips?!)
…serve everything on the plate at once and it will no longer be a battle.
…don’t congratulate food intake or nitpick quantities of food.
I whisper the Ellyn Satter motto every morning as I dice up fruit and pour milk into a cup, “It is my job to provide him with healthy food and it is his job to eat it.” I understand my child’s brain is a hormonal train wreck. He’s smart, crafty, and trying to navigate emotions and find what he has control over in his life. He has always found that food, or lack thereof, feels powerful.
Even though my child barely breaks double digits on the weight standards, our pediatrician assures me I have nothing to worry about as long as he eats one good meal a day. But somehow Jewish-mother instinct sets in and feeding my child equals love and the amount of food he eats equates to the success of my parenting (I realize these convoluted summations are my issues, not his).
But on “Let him eat cake!” day I let go of all that stuff. I didn’t know what I hoped to accomplish but I did know that at the end of the day all of the junk food would be cleared out of the house and I was pretty sure, at the very least, he would have a tummy ache.
He watched with sad puppy eyes as his brother ate chicken, cucumbers, and cantaloupe for dinner. And at 7:45 p.m. he climbed into my lap and told me he wished all of the junk food in his belly would turn to healthy food. He told me that he still felt hungry and he was pretty sure his teeth were going to fall out. He PROMISED never to sneak food again and said he doesn’t even like treats anymore.
I explained to him why treats are a sometimes food and why our bodies need healthy food to grow big and strong (apples and carrots help clean our teeth too!). I made him a plate of healthy dinner and as he gobbled it up, I felt OK about what I did. I have no doubt he will sneak treats again, but I proved to him that I can stand by my word. He learned a lesson, at least for the day, that I can remind him of when he sneaks food again.
Being a mama is hard stuff and “the right answer” and “the right answer for my kid” aren’t always the same thing. My “mom of the year” crown is crooked, tarnished, and probably covered in chocolate–but we both survived the day. Unfortunately there’s no cake left in the house for me to eat in celebration.