Over 100 years ago Maria Montessori observed that rewards and punishments meant very little to young children.
“The child in the armchair looked indifferently at the (punishment) badge and then gazed calmly about the room, quite oblivious to any sense of shame” (Montessori, The Secret of Childhood)
Indeed, rewards and punishments have no place in the Montessori classroom because it is important for children to work from their own self-motivation. If children work in order to get a gold star, some other prize or to avoid the disapproval of an adult it is impossible for a teacher to see what the child’s true interests are.
Therefore, when my daughter displayed all the signs of being a “fussy eater” I was surprised to find that a lot of advice could be summarized as either a reward or punishment:
“If the child eats their main course ,then allow him/her to have dessert.” (Reward)
“Only cook one thing. Your child will eat it or go hungry.” (Punishment)
“I give my child a gummy bear for every piece of broccoli that they finish.”(Reward)
These approaches may give a temporary appearance of control. However, I was concerned that they weren’t laying down strong foundation for healthy eating nor would they reduce the daily battles over food.
So, a year ago my husband and I decided to look for a solution that did not resort to rewards or punishments. For us, the answer came in a lesson I learnt on an Outward Bound Course. The lesson went like this, when you lose your way hiking, you should:
- Work out where you are.
- Work out where you want to be.
- Find a way from where you are to where you want to be at a pace the whole group can cope with.
Emotions were already raw so we jumped to stage two. I cooked my daughter’s favourite meal and we had a family meeting. We listed the meals that she was happy to eat (there were 5 meals at the time) and she happily told us all about the Canadian Good Food Guide that she had studied at school. We talked about the need for variety in our diets and let her tell us how she felt when faced with food she didn’t like.
Gradually, we have worked together to expand the repertoire of meals that are acceptable to my daughter by:
- Looking through cookbooks together and deciding what recipe to try next.
- My daughter chooses what to cook and cooks that menu with an adult once a week
- Having taste tests. Take a favourite food like carrot or potato and prepare it 5 or 6 different ways e.g. carrot sticks, grated carrot (cold and hot), steamed carrot, stir fried, roasted, barbequed. Place samples into small bowls, taste, compare and talk about the differences.
- When trying something new, offer a tried and tested favourite at the same time.
- Enjoy potluck dinners with friends, a great way for children to try new dishes. They see what other people eat whilst having something familiar on offer.
Our meal list now has 17 dishes on it and growing all the time. But more importantly we have learnt how to work together as a family, problem solve and communicate better. There have been no quick fixes. However, finding the solution to the problem has been a rewarding and educational experience for us all. Indeed, in the words of Maria Montessori:
“Education cannot be effective unless it helps a child to open up himself to life.” (Montessori, The Discovery of the Child)