You know this family. Maybe not this particular golden-haired family of four, seated across from me in an Italian restaurant one lunchtime last week, but you know them. Older kid sitting angelically eating everything that is put in front of him, mum only interfering to cut up the larger pieces of octopus. Younger kid giggling away at something funny dad is doing, everybody having a great time and just loving being togeth...SMASH!
Oh, sorry, my three-year-old just dropped a large rock glass on the floor and shattered it into a trillion pieces across. “Mind your feet Bruno, there’s a lot of glass here,” says Angelic Dad, looking in my direction. “Sorry,” I say, trying to comfort my kid, who is losing her s***. “These glasses are very badly made!” says the waitress, sweeping up like a maniac. “Are they?” asks Angelic Dad. It is rhetorical. We all know that the waitress is just trying to make me feel better, because she feels sorry for me. I’ve already made a scene by dragging a buggy, a balance bike and a screaming baby through the tiny restaurant, and demanding she bring me some bread right away. Then grabbing her after five minutes saying, “I don’t think you understand, I need something I can shove in this child’s mouth NOW”. Then getting irritable with the toddler, who won’t try any of the antipasti, and the baby, who is cheerfully chucking it all straight on to the floor. I can laugh about it now though *forced smile* because it turns out that the only difference between me and Mr and Mrs Angelic is… genes. Yes, fussy eating is genetic, aka, not down to “bad parenting”. Screaming battles at mealtimes? Kids who only eat white foods? A sinking feeling that the Ocado man judges you for buying fish fingers by the pallet? It’s not your fault!
From a study of identical and non-identical twins, UCL researchers reckon that some kids are just naturally more suspicious of food than others. In particular, neophobia, where the kid won’t try a new food, is only 22 per cent down to environment. Unfortunately, they still reckon that the home environment has a role to play. “Genes are not our destiny,” said the lead researcher, shattering my idea of locking the kids in a room with nothing but online games and simple carbs for company until they are old enough to vote. So if your kids are naturally fussy, how hard should you push them at mealtimes? This is one of the aspects of parenting that I feel least sure about. My instinct is to sit in front of my children at the dinner table shouting EAT THE GODDAMN FOOD - but if pickiness is somehow written in their DNA, I might just be traumatising them.
On the other hand, how can you let fussy eating go? Your first job as a parent is to keep your kids healthy and allowing them the sugar-based diet they’d naturally choose doesn’t seem a brilliant idea. (Which new foods did the researchers try, I wonder? Because I’m thinking they didn’t diagnose many cases of neophobia from kids going, “Oh no thank you, that’s a kind of Haribo I’ve never seen before and I couldn’t possibly try it.”) In practice, I opt for a kind of Pascal’s wager: because I can’t know how much effect I’m having on my children, I assume it’s a lot, just in case. Thus, the baby was offered porridge every single day for 63 days, spitting out every spoonful I managed to cram into her mouth, until she finally decided to like it on Day 64 and ate the lot. Did a part of me feel like a terrible mother for continuing to feed her something she so clearly hated? Of course. But now she eats a healthy breakfast.
Clearly I’m a bit extreme, but I reckon parents need to feel we can have some effect on how our kids behave, otherwise we’re basically redundant. The downside, of course, is that when you come across somebody who looks like they’re doing it so much better than you are, there’s nowhere to go but blaming yourself. So maybe I’ll adapt my policy. If my kids do something right, such as sleeping through the night, I’ll claim it as a great victory for me and my style of parenting. If they reach the age of 18 without ever knowingly consuming a green vegetable, I’ll blame it on genes. And maybe ask for a table a little further away from other families in future.