The topic came up in the comments section at CG's blog recently. I'd been meaning to write about this for some time, now seems to be a good one. Ill be accused of being a bad parent by more than one person by telling this story, but tell it I will.
Jalen was born with an intensity I was unprepared for. He was born with some sensitivities I couldn't understand. We did try the "you need to brush your teeth right now" tact a few times, though it always made me uncomfortable because after all it IS his body. Being the parent doesn't give you automatic rights over your child's body, though your longer experience on the earth often give you better foresight. Before he could talk (he didn't talk until around three years of age) we simply made attempts to brush his teeth, just like we had for the other children who were agreeable. Not him. So we kept them as clean as possible, while honoring his fierce denial of the brushing episodes. I could get them brushed about every third or fourth day if I was fast and distracting. Keep in mind, he chose his own toothbrushes and toothpastes, we made it as fun as possible. That only goes so far when you're a person that can throw up from coughing a bit too hard. He just hated the feel. So we didn't make a big deal about it. We trusted him.
Fast forward a few years (he's 7 now). He's been to the dentist and enjoyed the teeth cleaning. Had a rough time with the second visit that involved a much needed tooth-pulling, even throwing up and almost passing out (ya think he's still a bit sensitive?) but is still willing to go get the rest of the work done. He's developmentally more aware. A lot of his intense behaviors have changed dramatically over the last year.
I could have forced him. I could have had them tie him down and drug him up to get the work done. All along we talked about the options, about the possibilities, about my opinions and what he needed. All along his needs and thoughts were respected. I did not pull the "parenting trump card" (thank you Jon Kream for that phrase) and force anything against his will. Some will say that is our job as parents. I disagree. I believe that in spite of the childlike inability to see very far into the future, kids can and will make informed decisions about their bodies in a healthy home where they are respected.
I read the argument that if a toddler wanted beer and twinkies for breakfast every morning we would be remiss as parents to honor that choice. Seriously? I've NEVER met a small child that truly LIKED those foods for one. For two, even if those two options were always presented along with healthy choices, a small child will balance themselves out quite nicely. I've watched it happen. Beer and twinkies get OLD really fast I bet. Not that any of my children every liked beer. The few times they tasted a sip from an adult, they spit it out, wrinkled their nose and said "YUCK".
I think most German kids are raised on beer at mealtime and do just fine though. My babies and toddlers were mostly getting breastmilk anyway, which is preferable to most anything for them.:) Twinkies aren't very appealing when you have homebaked foods that taste better.
I think it's very natural for babies and toddlers to have limited choices by virtue of what is available within their homes or families. We always put out a variety of foods for them to snack on and they ate exactly what they needed at any given time. They also snacked off the adult plates during mealtimes, rather than sit and eat a plate of their own food. For the most part anyway. Small people graze. Give them some interesting, healthy choices and they'll graze right through it. As they get older, their worlds expand to include choices the parents didn't introduce. That's natural. They may want to try twinkies. So what?
The twinkies/beer argument just doesn't hold up in a home where the child is supported and given free choice. I've never known a human being to gorge on something for very long unless that item was limited to them. We quickly crave protein when eating too much sugar. Listening to our bodies is something even very young children can do. It's part of the learning process, just like everything else. I think those extreme arguments are used as a reason for parents to justify coercion. I don't think it shows much trust in a child's ability to choose well. If a parent is going to use coercion, then just go for it. I know of very loving and connected families where coercion is used, gently and judiciously and the children thrive. But to say that those of us who strive for non-coercion, are being negligent parents and that it's a damaging way to raise children...well, that'll get my hackles up every time.
I don't have beer drinking, twinkie eating, porn watching young children. Much to the dismay of parents that say "but they'll do ________(fill in the blank with every imaginable horror) if I don't force them not to" my children aren't fascinated with harmful things. They make choices that backfire occasionally...part of the learning process. They have a right to their own mistakes (called learning-takes by my dear friend Kelly Lovejoy), their own inner urgings that may be very different from what I think is "right" or "best".
They are themselves. They have a right to make their own choices. I am here to help make those choices available in a safe format and to explore the world alongside them without judgement of those choices. They can know my opinion without feeling the weight of judgment along with that opinion. It IS possible.
I think the question is, how far are we willing to extend trust? How much are we willing to be creative and get outside of the "I'm the parent so that's how it is" paradigm? How much CAN children be trusted?
More than most people believe. Enough to know that they wouldn't choose beer and twinkies over anything else in a healthy, connected home. Enough to know that non-coercion is not damaging or neglectful. It's the opposite.