Kids are born conservative

Like a lot of people with children, I find dinner to be a challenge. If my son ran our house, every single night of our lives we would have Kraft macaroni and cheese and a can of Coke for dinner. Then, after homework is finished and we watch TV, we would have powdered doughnuts and milk.

I try to be a mother. I say, No, we must have protein and vitamins. I say, If you eat carbohydrates all the time, you will become a large white doughnut, rolling down the street, and no one will let you on their hockey team. You need muscles. You need height. To make your bones and muscles grow, we will have baked chicken, a potato, and broccoli. This is, to him, not desirable, but acceptable food. So is spaghetti with clam sauce, spaghetti with meatballs, and hamburgers. Nothing else—at least nothing else that’s good for you. He cannot eat fish because once at school a bone got caught in his friend Andrew’s throat, and he had to be taken to a doctor. He cannot eat steak because it has blood or is tough. Carrots are too hard except when they’re too mushy, and peas taste funny going down.

If I say, Let’s eat out, he says, Oh, can’t we stay home?

I say, We haven’t eaten out in a month, let’s do it. He says, Okay, the hamburger place. If I say, No, let’s try something new, he says: But we like the hamburger place.

So naturally we go to the hamburger place. Where my son says, I’ll have number six: chicken fingers and fries. I say, Whenever we come here you have number six, wouldn’t you like to try something new? And here he blinks, uncomprehendingly, which translates to: Why try something new when you already know what you like? I say—helpfully, with false bonhomie—Don’t you want to experiment and try new things?

And he blinks again, with a kind of wonder: No. I really don’t. Why would I want to experiment?

I’ve been thinking about this, in terms of food and other things. And I’ve concluded that: Children are natural conservatives. And: They have reason to be.

You know what was in my son’s eyes as he blinked? This: I’m 10. All of life is a new experience. Everything’s new, and challenging, too, and sometimes scary. Chorus is scary because you have to remember all the words, and then when you stand up and sing, everyone stares at you. Teachers, coaches, tests, who’s popular, the way lightning hits in a big storm, the neighborhood bum on the street corner who sometimes smiles but sometimes howls—it’s all new to me. It’s all an experiment. So why would I experiment with dinner?

It’s actually a lot like the difference between an adult’s palate and a child’s. The adult, having sampled many different foods, is in search of subtle tastes and surprising combinations. But the child’s palate is inexperienced and requires nothing unusual; it’s very happy with vanilla ice cream and American cheese.

The world is old to me, and so I seek out stimulation and discovery. The world is new to him, and he has quite enough stimulation and discovery every day.

My friends and I, so eager to be good parents, read books that tell us to stimulate our children. And we do, with trips to museums and plays and the symphony and space camp . . . and these things are good. But the books should also tell us, Don’t forget to be boring and predictable. Because children like that. I read something a few years ago that so touched me, and only now do I truly understand it. A little boy was asked what upset him most about his parents’ divorce. And he said, “I miss walking down the street with my father.” The interviewer said, comfortingly, “But you can still walk down the street with your father.” And the little boy said, “We used to walk down the street every Saturday morning to get doughnuts.”

And suddenly that didn’t happen anymore—not the same street, the same doughnuts, the same way every Saturday. Children prize sameness the way grown-ups prize variety.

Which brings me back to food. It occurs to me that when I am stressed or burdened, I seek out comfort food, which for me is pasta with butter and Parmesan cheese. It makes me feel better. For kids, all food is comfort food. I’m going to keep this in mind as I continue to use every wile to help my son expand the definition of comfort, of sameness, to include, say, the stray pea or leaf of spinach. If I don’t, he will not grow, and I—for I eat what he eats—will become a large white doughnut, rolling down the street.