Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Food and Children's Behavior: Exhibit A, My Son

Many children are allergic to eggs, peanuts, milk, shellfish, and other food products. Others need to go gluten-free. Obesity is a nationwide epidemic, and more than half a million teenagers suffer from an eating disorder. Parents struggle with getting their kids to consume vegetables. Heck, books on the subject practically make up their own cottage industry! And then there are the kids with a limited palate. They only eat pizza, mac 'n cheese, chicken nuggets, and other fast or fried fare of questionable health value.

In the food realm, I consider myself very fortunate. My two sons have no allergies, are not overweight, do not have an eating disorder, happily eat vegetables (See "Ate Their Veggies," 10/3/13), and willingly down all sorts of exotic menu offerings. Last night, for example, they had sushi for dinner. Chicken and pork gyoza dumplings, shrimp shumai, and California rolls.

For the first time in a decade of motherhood, however, a food issue/habit/peculiarity (I don't know exactly what to call it) has arisen with one of my sons. Charlie, who turns eight in two weeks, is a grazer. For lack of a better word, I'm going to call it his eating style.

Discovering that my younger son eats differently from the rest of the family has made a huge impact on our household. It's only been a few weeks, but things have markedly improved in several areas already.

First, let me explain how we got to this place: A couple of times (maybe three, I'm not sure) in the past two school years, an employee at the school has asked me to provide more snacks for Charlie in his lunch box. Since I gave both of my boys the same collection of snacks every day (though it varied from day to day) or the same number of snacks every day, it seemed strange to me why I was getting complaints only about Charlie. Why wasn't Christopher -- a ten-year-old football player who is large for his age and not surprisingly has a big appetite -- asking for additional or different snacks? Why wasn't the school making it an issue with my older son?

Since Charlie has always been my challenging child, it was easy for me to relegate this discussion like so many others to the here-we-go-again pile. It's always something with that child! Anyway, I dutifully did what was asked of me, and we all moved on.

Then breakfast became a topic of discussion with the school. Just like with snacks, my boys are served the same breakfast as one another every day, though the meal varies from day to day.

On weekends, I cook eggs and bacon. The former are usually scrambled or fried -- and often placed atop a piece of buttered bread the way my father and I used to like them when I was a child. (When broken, the liquid yellow yolk tastes so yummy as it soaks into the bread.) On occasion, I make omelettes, pancakes, or waffles.

On weekdays, however, like most other mothers of school-age children, I am in a rush. A mad rush. Okay, a Mad Mom rush! Between 7 a.m., when we get up -- I am not an early riser by choice! -- and 8:25, when the boys are due at school, I juggle numerous tasks. I make breakfast for the three of us; eat my own; pack snack bags; put lunch money in labeled envelopes (or, if I do not have exact change, grudgingly make both lunches); watch a few minutes of news and weather on The Today Show; pick out clothes for each son to wear (yep, still doing that, but it sure beats arguing over their wardrobes); check over homework; quiz a child or two on spelling, science, or social studies for his/their test/s; load up the backpacks with all the items needed for the day including sneakers (because they wear snow boots to school), snow pants (in case they go out at recess), folders, notebooks, and books; and, finally, get them to school, either by car or on foot. With all of this running around, I usually only offered cereal for breakfast. It's also all I ate. Yet if a son asked for a second bowl, I was happy to oblige.

Well, unbeknownst to me, my younger son decided to partake in the school's hot breakfast. I'm not exactly sure how he managed to swing it, but I started getting mysterious charges from the Food Services Department (again).

Truth be told, I have had an issue with the FSD for several years. This is why I put exact change for each lunch in each envelope in each boys' backpack each day. The FSD continues to insist that I owe money for each of my boys when I have never once not provided them with lunch money or an actual lunch. Some days Charlie forgets to hand over his lunch-money envelope. I find it in his backpack that evening, write a date on it, and return it to school the next day with that day's envelope. In this way, I have accounted for every single day. Yet Charlie's "debt" is growing. Why?!

To test the system, a couple of years ago I sent a bigger bill in to cover two days' worth of lunches, and I put it in writing what I was doing (not the test part). Well, much to my chagrin, the FSD didn't follow my plan because I had to then chase down an itemization of the so-called debts to match their dates against my record of the date I sent in the larger bill. Sure enough, I was charged on the second day even though I'd sent in the larger bill to cover it. To make matters even more confusing, my son had been home sick on the second day. He hadn't even been at school to eat a lunch! Another time, checking dates against a debt itemization, I discovered that Christopher was being charged for lunches during a week we were actually away! It was the only time we ever took a spring vacation not the regular vacation week but one week off to save on high-priced Easter airfare. Naturally, I protested those charges. The fact that another boy in my son's class had the same name threw yet another monkey wrench in the situation. I wondered if there'd been a mix-up.

Thus, once again receiving e-mails alerting me to increasing debt in a lunch account did not set off alarm bells. It was more like here-we-go-again all over again! Only this time it was concentrated in Charlie's account. With too much on my plate (pun intended), I ignored the messages -- viewing them as annoying and unjustified anyway. Then I got two calls from the school. I can't remember if they came from the classroom teacher, guidance counselor, nurse, or another staff member. But the gist of them was: I was being accused of sending my then-first-grader to school with no breakfast! Since that is not what I'd done, I vehemently denied the charge. It must have been either Charlie's claim or an assumption staff made to explain why my son was going to the cafeteria to order pancakes like he was at IHOP! The school will not turn away a child wanting food, so Charlie was served. I was charged, and I couldn't figure out why . . . until the phone calls came.

At that point, I made it clear to staff that I had most definitely not authorized my son to get hot breakfasts at school. I gave Charlie a talking-to and resolved to do better in regard to making sure he -- just like Christopher -- ate the breakfast I'd given him. That was the issue, I believed: Christopher was finishing his breakfast and other meals while Charlie was not. Very simple, indeed! The problem vanished for a period of time, but then Charlie found another way to obtain food at school. One employee kept a stash of tasty crackers. Like a few other children, my younger son started visiting this staff member, and he wasn't opposed to exaggerating his need!

One morning after dropoff I returned to the school for a completely unrelated reason. I was in a happy mood. Yet it quickly soured when an employee confronted me with: "YOU SENT YOUR SON TO SCHOOL WITH TWO CRACKERS!" NO, I most definitely had not, I assured her. Admittedly, that day's snack assortment was not the best I'd ever provided. I was at the end of my grocery week. Still, I had no doubt what was inside that lunch box: eight or nine Ritz crackers and a grapefruit fruit cup. Well, the employee acted as if she hadn't heard me. "Little Charlie?! Who is YAY HIGH?!" She held her hand up to her waist for dramatic effect. "Two crackers? You sent TWO CRACKERS!!!"

I corrected her underestimation of his height. Charlie is one of the tallest kids in the second grade. He is 4'5 1/2. And I repeated that she was wrong about the two crackers. "I KNOW what I sent to school for his snack! I packed the lunch box myself," I declared.

I then went to find the employee with the cracker stash, and I relayed the nasty exchange to her. She promptly turned beet red and sheepishly shook her head no. Obviously, she didn't expect me to show up at the school that morning. Obviously, she didn't expect to get BUSTED for spreading misinformation that made me look bad and resulted in me getting bullied!

After leaving the school in an irate mood, I headed to a grocery store to stock up on snacks. I showed them, including a small cup of applesauce, to the offending employee upon my return to the school and added: "Charlie won't need a spoon because he has his from the fruit cup!" It felt good to stick it to her just a little bit. After all, she had it coming.

Following that unpleasant episode, Charlie got another talking-to. I explained how his "I only got two crackers!" resulted in my humiliation, which I certainly did not appreciate. Shortly thereafter, I fired off an e-mail to the principal telling him about the unprofessional gossiping about my son's snack and how it was not even based in fact. His response assured me that such an incident would not happen again.

My son is willing to tell a little white lie and/or manipulate a situation to get what he wants. I am not calling him bad. Many children are capable of the same behavior. Moreover, if he's hungry, then he's hungry! Of course, I don't want him to be hungry.

During this time, he was having increasing difficulties at school. Not academically, athletically, artistically, or socially. Rather, every once in a while a scenario would set him off. A couple of times said scenario involved an activity in the classroom that for one reason or another hadn't gone his way. Charlie is very good at math and can even multiply, though he's not been taught how. So he took it especially hard when he had trouble following instructions for a math game. Another time a student accidentally answered a question wrong on an iPad program when it was Charlie's turn. There have been two incidents in which classmates have provoked my son by flinging something at him or hitting him with a piece of sports equipment. The conflict is then dealt with, apologies are obtained or at least requested, and the other child involved moves on. But Charlie has remained upset. He has trouble pulling himself together when someone else does something to him either by accident or on purpose.

The school started to notify me about these types of incidents for the first time last spring. There weren't many yet just enough to make me take notice. At the end of the first week of school this year, I received a call from Charlie's second-grade teacher. Many parents are accustomed to fielding calls from their children's teachers on a regular basis. Happily, I am not one of them. However, something about it being the first week of classes prompted me to make a preemptive strike. I contacted the school's brand-new guidance counselor and scheduled an appointment.

A little background: two years ago I spoke often to the then-guidance counselor. Then she got pregnant, had a baby, and took a year off work. After putting my trust in her, I have to admit that I was a little annoyed she was no longer available to me, though of course for a good reason. I didn't have the energy or motivation to get to know the next guidance counselor, so I didn't. As it turned out, I really didn't need her. Well, not until the end of the school year anyway.

Last September, I introduced myself to the third guidance counselor in three years (actually, her title is "adjustment counselor") -- by golly, I hope she stays a long while! -- and told her about our unique family and my/our challenges. I talked for probably an hour.

Fast-forward six months: she has been a wonderful comfort and resource to both Charlie and myself. Until about three weeks ago, I was being contacted by the school on average about once a week for one situation or another. Then one day Charlie's classroom teacher phoned me with different news.

"I think Charlie is a grazer," she said. As soon as she began speaking, I felt the pieces of the proverbial puzzle all coming together. It was a Eureka moment for me! It was fantastic. She told me that she believes my younger son is one of those people who needs to eat small meals throughout the day rather than larger meals three times a day. She told me that she believes my younger son needs protein in the morning before school and at various times throughout the day to keep his energy level up and his mood balanced. It made perfect sense to me!

It's one thing to learn about your child's eating style. That alone is terrific and so very helpful. Anything you can learn about your son or daughter will make both of your lives a lot easier because understanding will always lead to a better place. But it's a whole 'nother ball of wax altogether to realize that this new knowledge -- this honest-to-God breakthrough! -- can improve your child's behavior to a significant extent. And that is exactly what has happened with Charlie.

Since the classroom teacher called me roughly three weeks ago, I have not been contacted even once about any problem with Charlie at school. He is much happier, and so am I! That's because I now make packing his snack bag with a greater number of items (protein among them) and choosing his breakfast offerings a major priority. It's not that they weren't a priority per se before. It's that now I really get how my selections impact my son's experience at school. Now I send him off in the morning most days with an egg or two in his stomach. He prefers them soft-boiled. Some days I fry up several pieces of bacon for him as the accompaniment to his cereal. Or I mix it up with toast and jam, yogurt tubes, and fresh fruit.

At school, he tends to have trouble regulating his mood or coping with a challenge at times during the day when he is hungry. So the teacher now lets him go to his lunch box and nibble on a snack to satisfy his need. She suggests it to him, or he asks for permission. It might be a Slim Jim or two; ten silver-dollar-sized slices of Italian sausage; chunks of rotisserie chicken; or rolled-up ham, turkey, or bologna.

This strategy may not wind up as the be-all, end-all panacea every time my son has a difficulty. However, it has worked like a charm thus far in the school setting. Indeed, it has been a long, rough road with the school getting to this place with my son. But I am extremely grateful to his classroom teacher for her keen observations and willingness to pass them along to me. Hats off to you, Mrs. M!

Teacher-parent communication at its finest!


  1. Yay for the classroom teacher! Some of them are just amazing (my son's kindergarten teacher had the gift of observation too!) My younger son seems to be a grazer but only at home. Elsewhere he eats normally. Perfectly normally. Go figure.

    I enjoyed this post--it was such an honest snapshot of school/parent communcations.

    1. Thank you, Lara! It's so funny how they can be. My son never finishes his meals when we're out.

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