I’ll never forget the explosive temper tantrum my oldest son, at 12 years old, had only a couple of months after I adopted him and his younger brother. I innocently thought we’d skip lunch in favor of a quick snack and an early dinner out on the road. He wasn’t happy with this decision, and the language barrier between us proved detrimental, with his still having trouble beginning to learn English. Without being able to quickly communicate my thoughts and intentions that might have reassured him, his deepest, most suppressed fears took a life of their own. It wasn’t until a desperate drive through at a nearby McDonald’s, where he began to devour the contents of the Happy Meal he firmly held on his lap, did he begin to calm down.
In caring for a foster or adopted child, food seems to be an inevitable, all too often unrelenting issue for parents. Before and even more so since I adopted my two sons nearly five years ago, I have read about and reflected a great deal on how food seems inherently related to nurturing and emotional growth. To deny or restrict food of any kind, in any way, seems to risk the imposition of conditions being placed on love and nurturing. Having already experienced instability and/or mistreatment in their young lives, these memories lurking in the shadows of their reality can wreck havoc on any sense of security they might have.
About a year after the McDonald’s incident, when I was clearing space for some belongings to be put in my son’s bedroom closet, I opened what I had thought was an empty shoe box to find two bowls filled with his Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal, along with a spoon laid neatly alongside each bowl. I knew I had been missing two cereal bowls for at least two months, yet as had been typical, neither of the boys admitted to having known of their whereabouts. With his therapist, he would not, or was unable to, admit when he had done it, nor did he give up any clues as to why.
Although he also steadfastly denied it, I still like to believe that he purposely had reserved two bowls of cereal so he’d have one on hand for him and his brother if there should ever come a need. Only a few months before he had steadfastly denied having opened a roll of cookies and then expertly taping the top back into place after taking just one. Only after a prolonged, unexpected barrage of coincidental incidences about telling the truth was he able to soften his resolve and confess.
I started out like any conscientious parent, trying to maintain reasonable limits with our ever evolving food supply, so that they’d develop decent eating habits. I didn’t want them to ingest too much sugar, eat late at night so close to their bedtimes, eat the bagged chips when they were bought for their school lunches… as it turned out, I had a lot of rules.
I tried encouraging healthier choices rather than refuse their inclinations–“Have a fruit if you’re so hungry,” be it that dinner was fast in the works, or it was getting late at night. They’d usually agree, or not take anything at all, but when I wasn’t in sight to infuse a sense of structure, their need for immediate gratification all too often took over.
I felt as though I was in constant battle.
Alright, who ate all the granola bars? I’d ask just a few hours after purchasing them. What happened to the bag of chocolate chip morsels? I had bought on clearance and stowed away for my next baking adventure. Why is there a balled-up Klondike wrapper shoved in beneath the couch cushions? I told you these leftovers were saved for dinner tomorrow night. Did you really eat half this container of ice cream before school this morning?
Our struggles with food continued to stoke conflict. It was time to raise the white flag and surrender so that I could stay truer to what was most important: being regarded as a nurturer, not as some kind of fascist food dictator.
So one day, I simply sat them down and told them that there would be no more restrictions with the food in the house. If they wanted to chow down on ice cream or chug-a-lug a container of their favorite sugary juice five minutes before bed, so be it. I told them that I would still let them know what might be the more appropriate choice, or what to consider toward making a more informed choice as I felt might be needed. It would be up to them, otherwise, as I was not about to run to the store in the middle of the week if we ran out of something just because they had eaten it all, and there was “nothing to eat.”
I had done my job. I preached, counseled, informed, made available the right choices… I was at peace now. I left it up to them to start learning on their own, without the pressure of being controlled.
They still often pop over to casually announce their latest random food or beverage of choice, as if seeking my permission, or perhaps daring me to restrict them, or even just to get my approval. Just recently, I said in dismay to my younger son withdrawing from the freezer, “You’re going to have a Klondike bar now, after you told me about all the cake, ice cream, and soda you had at the party this afternoon? Do you remember you said you weren’t hungry for dinner? Don’t you think you could come up with something better?”
He would rather not have been subjected to my impromptu game of 20 questions as he promptly tossed it back into the freezer. Yet, I didn’t feel the kind of smug satisfaction I used to have whenever I got him to keep his need for immediate gratification at bay. It was his learning curve to experience now, not mine to force upon him.