Tuesday, April 7th, 2020
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Copyright 2020, John K. Rosemond

More on Picky Eaters

Per the old Chinese saying, “May you live in interesting times,” it may be that the most interesting of times are those when people do not want to hear the truth – as in the present, or so it would seem.

I did not intend to write a follow-up to my recent column on Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder (ARFID), but the feedback has been some of the most reactionary I’ve received in forty-four years of writing this column. Ergo, a follow-up.

Several parents of kids diagnosed with ARFID pointed out that it’s a legitimate mental health diagnosis. Right, and like all mental health diagnoses, that means nothing. A diagnosis of brain cancer – a MEDICAL diagnosis –refers to a malignant tumor. A diagnosis of arteriosclerosis – a medical diagnosis – refers to thickening and hardening of arterial walls. Both conditions are objectively demonstrable and verifiable, as is the case with all medical diagnoses.

Ah, but a mental health diagnosis refers to nothing other than a set of behaviors. The behaviors can certainly be verified – as in, “my child refuses to eat anything but junk food” – but no underlying, physiological cause has ever been proven for any mental health diagnosis. They don’t refer to conditions that some people “have,” although that is what mental health professionals want you to believe. Without any tangible evidence, they claim that their diagnoses reflect such things as biochemical imbalances and brain differences. The FACT is that no one has ever proven that a mental health diagnosis represents something someone “has.”

ARFID, like all mental health diagnoses, is a construct, a fabrication. The problem – as reflected in the feedback in question – is that parents would much rather believe their picky eaters “have” something that’s causing their tongues to reject normal food, than believe they created the problem by catering and enabling. One explanation absolves the parent of responsibility; the other does not. Which is more palatable, pun intended? Bingo!

One parent wrote that her child “started controlling his eating at six months.” How, pray tell, does a six-month-old “control” his eating without parents who cooperate?

My daughter, when we introduced pureed foods, initially spit most of them out. She attempted, in other words, to control her eating. Most infants do. On a taste scale of 1 to 10, they want 9 and 10 only. We simply scooped up the rejected food and put it back in her mouth. She’d spit it out again. We calmly repeated the sequence until she figured out that’s all she was getting. Or, the designated feeder would simply walk away, occupy him - or herself for a while, and then try again. Eventually, Amy stopped attempting to control what we fed her. How does a person of any age accustom themselves to eating something that may initially taste somewhat, uh, “different”? They eat it, that’s what, and in short order, it no longer tastes different at all.

I can envision how our experience with Amy might have devolved into a full-blown battle of wills and eventually, as another reader put it, “dictate the entire life of our family.” We simply resolved not to allow either of our children to “dictate” anything to us.

Per the Chinese adage again: Picky eating does not have to become “interesting.” It can be, and should be, nipped in the bud.

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Keep Calm and Carry On

Vital to a child’s sense of well-being are parents who act competent to provide adequate provision and protection under any and all circumstances.

I often refer to that obligation as “acting like a superior being.” It requires, under the most trying circumstances, keeping one’s cool, projecting a sense of having it all together, not letting emotion (yours or your child’s) take over, being proactive, having and being able to communicate a plan. In short, embracing the legitimacy of one’s authority as a parent.

Some parents, perhaps most, think of authority simply in terms of the discipline of children. That is indeed one of the functions of a parent authority figure, to discipline with calm purpose. Equally if not more important, however, is to always broadcast an aura of competence. The popular World War Two British adage, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” expresses the nature of said aura in a proverbial nutshell.

When that quality is absent a parent’s demeanor, a child’s predictable reaction ranges over a finite list of malfunctions, from depression and anxiety to raging misbehavior. Intuitively, children know they can’t deal with the world, in all of its complexity and unpredictability, on their own. They need people who are BIG in every sense of the term to deal with it on their behalf. When those people fail to act up to the job of being BIG, twenty-four-seven, it throws children into a tizzy. The tizzies provide mental health professionals with a living, fodder for the justification of largely meaningless testing, diagnoses that have no scientific basis, and medications that don’t reliably outperform placebos. Unfortunately, the tizzies are a large part of yours truly’s raison d’etre.

America is facing a crisis at the moment. No one knows for sure where this is headed, how long it will last, or how much it’s going to change for the long term our collective way of life. For parents, the crisis requires keeping calm and carrying on. Calming a child’s potential emotional reactions is only possible if one’s own emotions are under complete control. It would be unfair to suggest that having emotions in a crisis is a sign of parental weakness. Go ahead, have emotions. Just keep them under opaque wraps when kids are around.

“When and how should I tell my children about the coronavirus?” is the question I am most frequently and urgently asked these days. I answer, “When they ask questions.” An unsolicited homily is likely to provoke rather than subdue anxiety.

When questions are asked, keep it short and sweet, as in, “Mom and I have this under control. We have plenty of food and we’re staying indoors or in our own back yard as much as possible to reduce the chance of getting sick, but even if one of us gets sick, it’s probably going to be nothing more than a runny nose, sneezing, and maybe a slight fever, like a bad cold. We’re all healthy people. In any case, we’re going to take care of you. You’re our first priority. Any other questions?”

At some point, one may need to say, “That’s enough questions. What are your plans for the day?” Knowing when to end a conversation of this sort is being a BIG person, the adult in the room.

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The Cure for Picky Eating Is Not Therapy

Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662) said there is no idea so bizarre that a philosopher has not advanced it. These days, the philosophers in question are psychologists and the bizarre ideas are their explanations of human behavior. Said explanations are bizarre because (trust me on this, I am one) psychologists wear, as a rule, ideological blinders that prevent them from accurately understanding what makes humans tick. Unable to see human behavior for what it truly represents, they justify their existence by inventing and marketing diagnoses as if giving something a name is equivalent to understanding and knowing what to do about it.

The latest manifestation of this fraud is Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, or ARFID, formerly known as picky eating. Lots of university health centers and independent practitioners offer therapy for people of all ages whose parents never taught them that not eating what someone else, including one’s mother, has taken the time to prepare and serve is rude.

One psychologist points out that most of the ARFID sufferers she sees eat the same stuff: macaroni and cheese, pizza, chicken nuggets, French fries, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Lots of folks will recognize those foods as the very ones they wanted their parents to serve at every meal. I know I did. Staring at several tablespoons of steamed broccoli for three hours before I decided I wanted to get up from the table was one of the most therapeutic experiences of my childhood. My next therapy session involved Brussels sprouts. That session lasted only minutes.

Now, instead of picky eating being narcissistic and just plain rude, it is a psychological disorder that some people “have.” This ARFID thing has become big business, mind you. Google ARFID therapy and you will discover just how big. Some of the therapy programs for picky eating children are residential and cost more than what most people earn in a good year.

One psychologist, quoted in an online article, claims that picky eaters have control issues. That’s right. They have control over whether they eat broccoli and Brussels sprouts or not. They choose to be rude because they seek constant affirmation that their almighty feelings represent universal truths to which everyone else should genuflect.

A true story: Once upon a time, a child became infested with ARFID demons at an early age. He would begin gagging and sobbing at the very sight of a food that caused his tongue to feel even slightly less than fully happy. His parents – bless their hearts – catered to the ARFID demons by feeding him only macaroni and cheese, French fries, and fried chicken nuggets. Sure enough, the ARFID demons grew increasingly clamorous.

By the time the parents sought my advice, the child was certifiably insufferable when it came to food. He was well on his way to becoming an adult whom no one wanted to be around if the event involved eating. I told the parents to (a) feed him only what they were eating, but in half-teaspoon portions, (b) set a timer for 15 minutes, (c) put him immediately to bed if he didn’t clean his plate before the time expired, and (d) let him have seconds of anything on his plate if he ate everything within the time allotted. Within a week, the ARFID demons had fled – demons cannot tolerate common sense – and said child was eating everything on his plate and asking for seconds.

My parents invented that therapy, by the way. It costs nothing.

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Proper Discipline of a Child Is an Act of Love for One’s Neighbor

I’ve learned a new word! My daughter informs me that according to some mothers I am guilty of “mom-shaming” and should be ashamed of myself. I am an unashamed mom-shamer because I happen to believe that just as there is one proper way to go about training a dog (of any species), there is one proper way to go about raising a human being to responsible adulthood. That one proper way consists of three fundamental rules:

Rule One: Love unconditionally.

Rule Two: Discipline with unequivocal, unwavering, calmly intolerant authority.

Rule Three: Keep love and authority in a state of reasonable balance.

The third rule is violated by parents who follow the advice of parenting expert John Lennon, who proposed that in the raising of a child, “love is all you need.” The real-world fact is that when love is not balanced by proper discipline, it mutates into enabling, a state of relationship that is damaging to both parties. On the other side of the parenting coin, when discipline is not properly balanced by love, it becomes abusive in one way or another.

Parenting expert Chrissy Teigen, who acts and models on the side, is sick and tired of mom-shaming. She maintains, “There’s no right way, and everybody turns out fine…we just need empathetic and loving people in this world…people who are going to be understanding of other people…As long as you teach them that, then who cares?”

Who cares? Me, for one. In the first place, there is a right way and the children of parents who deviate from the right way do not all turn out fine. Second, the world needs parents who get it that the proper discipline of a child is an act of love for one’s neighbor.

Full disclosure: My Hollywood agent is currently talking with Teigen’s agent about a proposed television show we’re calling “Battle of the Parenting Experts.” Negotiations have stalled because of her insistence that I never mom-shame her. Excuse me? That’s like asking Batman to give up his cape.

Teigen admits to being so much in love with her two children (with political pundit John Legend) that she is “insufferable.” Looking back, I’m so glad my mother was not insufferably in love with me. I was not an idol in her life. I looked up to her (she was a single parent for most of my first seven years). She did not look up to me. Her example taught me respect for women. Courtesy of Mom, I learned that women who are worthy of respect do not enable their children; rather, they insist upon right behavior. I also learned, as a child, that there are not endless, equally valid variations on the concept of right behavior. Instead, there is usually one and only one right way and endless variations on the wrong way. For example, “You’re welcome” is the right response to “Thank you”; “No problem” is wrong. So is “Uhhh” or a grunt of any other sort.

Children don’t deal well with idol-hood. Invariably, children whose parents make idols out of them become insufferable. They demand tribute and if they don’t get what they demand within five seconds of demanding it, they make everyone within earshot pay a terrible price.

Anyway, I accept that in the eyes of some mothers and parenting experts like Chrissy Teigen, I’m a mom-shamer. Personally, however, I think the comparison to Batman is much more apt.

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School Anti-Bullying Policies Are a Farce

Q: We homeschooled our son through the sixth grade. This past fall, per his wishes, we sent him to a public school for the seventh grade. Last week, he was attacked by the class bully. This other child pushed our son to the ground, called him vile names, and threatened him with further bullying. The principal has decided that both boys were equally at fault and suspended our son, along with the bully, for three days. Everyone knows this other boy is a bully and has been since he started school. When we pointed this out to the principal, it was like he was unwilling to even consider that our son was the victim and should not be suspended. Our son is very upset and we are considering legal action. We’ve followed your advice for a long time and are hoping you have some for us concerning this situation.

A: You obviously didn’t get the memo. In the new and glorious millennium, there are no bullies. Every altercation, despite facts to the contrary, involves two equally responsible kids. And so, as happened to your son, public schools punish both victims and bullies, and bullies live to be bullies again, and again, and again.

According to this completely irrational (and yes, irrational and insane are synonyms) policy, Germany didn’t invade Poland to start World War II. As every public-school principal knows, Poland was equally culpable. A Pole made faces at a German from across the border or something. In any event, Poland learned its lesson.

All sarcasm aside, you have learned, first-hand, that public school anti-bullying programs (and to be fair, the following comments apply to many if not most private schools as well) are a farce. A counselor talks to a class about healthy ways of resolving conflict and expressing anger as if bullies are only expressing anger inappropriately and any “conflict” is a two-way street.

I was always the youngest kid in my class and usually the smallest of the boys. I was also a nerd and a geek rolled into one – a neek, or something along those lines. It was like wearing a bright red bullseye on my back and sure enough, the neighborhood bully picked up on the signal. For several years, George (his real name) chased me home from school nearly every day. If he caught me, which was nearly always, he delighted in sitting on my chest and tickling me. Yes, tickling me. Forget waterboarding. I guarantee tickling works much more effectively and may even be legal to use on terrorists. My school could do nothing because the incidents always took place off school grounds. It would have been useless, furthermore, to talk to George’s parents. They believed that George – who was sent to juvenile prison at age sixteen – was never in the wrong about anything. Trust me on this: I was not equally responsible for George’s relentless attacks. I wasn’t traumatized for life, but I guarantee you, some victims are.

As was the case with George’s parents, nearly every bully has parents who refuse to acknowledge that their kid is a sociopath. That, I suspect, is what drives public school “student conflict” policy. School administrators absolutely know that if they pin blame on the bully, his parents will rise to his defense and the school may end up with a lawsuit on their hands. As one public school principal told me, “My primary job, John, is to keep the lawyers at bay.” And so, when the bully does his thing, both he and his victim have a meaningless talk with the counselor and get suspended. Neutrality must be maintained, at whatever cost to the victim.

This travesty of justice will continue until the parents of a victim file a high-profile lawsuit against a school system. I encourage you to do so. Make a lot of noise. Cause a scandal. There are plenty of lawyers out there who will take such as case on a fee-contingent basis. Just like employers, schools should be held accountable for creating unsafe environments. If you and your lawyer so desire, I will gladly testify.

The Georges of this world need to be stopped, and public schools will not stop them.

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