Human Evolution, the Learning Brain, and Mac and Cheese.

Barbara Kingsolver has a great gardening analogy: feeding a garden only a steady diet of NPK fertilizer is like aliens trying to raise human children on a diet of only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I laughed when I read that, but also squirmed a bit. I can dump a ton of woodchips on my garden, import handfulls of whippy worms and turn in lovely half-rotted leaf mulch and the garden won't protest.

What do you do with a kid who won't eat anything but peanut butter and jelly? Or, in my case, Mac and Cheese, quesadillas, or milk?

Years ago I read about a lovely study done in 1939 by Dr. Clara Davis (this page  and this article give a tidy summary) about giving a group of orphans free food choice and tranforming them into healthy little specimens. The take home message is: give kids a wide range of healthy choices, and they will select the foods most necessary for their particular little bodies, at that time. I found it a wonderfully comforting guiding principle. So I've always let my kids just mush things around on their plates, announce for themselves when they're done, and refuse whatever they want.

Until this week.

My four year old got so hungry and dehydrated that she got a splitting headache and spent the night throwing up. The proper maternal reaction is probably supposed to be pity and compassion, but I was furious. What about my faith in her ability to regulate her own food? What about free choice? How could she betray my parental philosphy! This was an article of faith with my parenting-- no "two more bites!" or "finish your vegetables," just "ask your stomach if you are full, dear sweet darling. No? Then run free, little angel!"

So I've spent the week thinking deeply about all these transecting issues and ideas: food, nutrition, control, discipline. In the course of the week I've sounded like every evil sadistic food-psycho parent you've ever said 'Eek!' at : "you're not leaving until you clear your plate! Turn around! Sit up straight! I'LL decide how much is enough! Chew faster! That doesn't count as one bite! Your plate better be clear when the timer goes off!" Not pretty. But I was desperate-- she had made herself sick, she obviously couldn't be trusted to be in charge of her own food choices.

Two or three days of this hair-pulling power-struggle gagging negotiating weeping threatening, and suddenly, I had a sheepish little epiphany.

Here it is: kids learn stuff.

They learn to put their toys away when they're done-- you may have to sing the same little chant every time, but they learn it. They learn to sit on the potty. They learn to say sorry when they hit. They learn to get buckled in the car. They learn to write their letters left to right. I offer a bit of resistance-- a wall for them to lean up against, to learn against. Some age-appropriate parameters, some routines, some guidelines. And kids feel proud of themselves when they master stuff.

Why would food be different?

We think it should be because, well, isn't there an instinct for health? A wolf pup certainly isn't going to refuse rabbit or a baby whale krill, right? And don't humans have instincts? And of course we do-- but our instincts are uniquely human. We don't have the kind of indefatigable homing instinct that would allow us to swim upriver to the spot of our conception, or build a chrysalis. If there were such human instincts then we would all look and act the same, all over the globe.

We don't because the universal human instincts don't lead to one destination. What we have are instincts to learn a culture. Our instincts are to watch our parents, to imitate their language, their life patterns. To adapt to the specific unique location where we happen to be born. Without that, the impossibly fast and wide human migration out of Africa would have been impossible. In the course of a couple of generations, humans can move from arid deserts to arctic tundra and survive in both places because of our ability to adapt. And babies are born with a blank enough slate to learn to eat enough kudu or walrus to keep them alive.

So can I trust my kid to eat what she needs to keep herself healthy? Yes, and no. As long as I have taught her to eat all of those things that are, in my culture, appropriate. If I haven't, if I've never offered any resistance, any nudge to try some unfamiliar thing, then why would she be able to choose from things she has never been taught are actually food?

So we made a nutrition wheel out of construction paper-- three colored circles spliced into each other that can rotate to show different relative amounts of starch, protein, and vegetables. It is tacked above the dinner table, with goofy little drawings of cows, bok choy, and noodles. And I am resolved: I won't force her to eat, just like I won't force her to practice her ABCs. But I will show her what is correct, and encourage her to, next time, try again, and finish your vegetables. Or your fermented seal blubber, whichever you prefer.


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