On a recent weeknight, my 5-year-old daughter did not, in the slightest bit, like what I served for dinner. In particular, she wanted nothing to do with the chicken that was in the dish. She announced, with a very determined face, “Mommy, you always tell me I should listen to my body, and my body says, ‘No way eat that chicken,’ so I won’t eat it.”
Her older brothers burst into riotous laughter, and it was all I could do to keep a straight face. In fact, she was right. If her body was telling her not to eat that chicken, then she shouldn’t eat it. Did I prefer that she have a few bites? Of course I did. I had spent time on that meal, and she is growing like a weed and probably could use the nutrients from a healthy dinner. But I had to remind myself that a little less protein one night is better than encouraging her to ignore her body’s intuitive cues.
Long term, I want all of my children to listen to their bodies, whether it is how hungry or full they are, whether they feel instinctively safe in a situation or what is the right or wrong thing to do. Their gut cues are important, and I don’t want to confuse them.
The better children understand their bodies, the healthier they are going to be. Many adults are only now learning to listen to their internal cues, or perhaps finally choosing not to ignore them. Have any of you snubbed your body’s cues for sleep when you poured a second glass of wine or hit play on another Netflix episode on a work night? And how many adults have sworn off sugar or bread for life only to overdo it a few days later?
Along with listening to their bodies, I want my kids to understand that one size does not fit all. Just because their friends love cheese doesn’t mean they have to. Some people tolerate dairy and gluten well, and others do not. There are many people who tout a specific diet, claiming it is the only way to eat. It may be for them, but that doesn’t mean it is for everyone else. For instance, some of us need meat; others are better without it. Some, like me, were fine without it for decades, yet when I was pregnant and nursing, my body started demanding it again. I had to listen to my body and not allow the statement “I am a vegetarian” to trump my body’s concrete cues.
I have one child who has never been able to take an antihistamine. Baby Benadryl used to make his heart race and keep him up through his nap and bedtime. After more than a decade, I recently tried it again when his allergies escalated, and for the two days he took the medication, he was amped up, restless, quick to frustration and slow to sleep. When he stopped taking it, his normal temperament returned immediately. This is something I want my son to know about himself so he can be thoughtful about what he puts in his mouth and recognize negative side effects when they appear.
So when my daughter tells me she is listening to her body, even if it’s nothing more than a ploy to get out of eating dinner, I am going to respect it. Then perhaps one day, when she is older, she will have the intuitive sense to take deep breaths before an exam, or to eat when she is hungry and put down the fork when she is not. Maybe she will even listen to alarms in her gut when her friends are doing something that doesn’t feel smart, or follow her passion when settling on a career.
In the meantime, don’t think I won’t make that chicken dish again. Perhaps next time her body will say, “Yes way, eat that chicken.” I can only hope.
First published in The Washington Post on Thursday, June 23, 2016.