More than nourishment
The memory of sitting on the terrace with your mother while she lovingly fed you and your sibling warm balls of rice with dollops of ghee from the same bowl is precious to say the least. An image of a time when you and your cousins huddled together as your grandmother fed each of you from one large plate, narrating a gripping story makes you yearn for those days. Being fed is one of the many joys of childhood because you receive love in every mouthful, in every morsel. It is an experience unlike any other. Those treasurable moments remain etched in our memories. That a simple rice and dal can be made extraordinarily tasty just by being offered by a loving adult is proof enough that நிலா சோறு (to be fed in the moonlight) will remain a unique experience.
We now realise that to be fed is all about experiencing love in every bite and has nothing to do with filling your stomach.
When does feeding become a hindrance?
Yet, somewhere, this joyful experience of being fed, of tasting love in every morsel, ends up becoming a battle. Somewhere, being fed goes from a relaxed experience to a dreaded chore. Somewhere, it goes from a luxury to a necessity. Somewhere, it goes from, “Come, let me tell you the story of Krishna and Sudama while feeding you this payasam” to chasing our children around the house with a bowlful of dal rice, “Come here now and have one more spoon of rice or I will turn off the TV.” Somewhere, being fed becomes a negotiation, a battle of wills, a bribe. Somewhere, we lose the plot.
It is the same adults who have made this joyful experience into a battle. We have turned this cherishable connection into one filled with exhaustion and tears. Our reasons, as practical as they are- from lack of time to fatigue over cleaning up after a child or the disappearance of the family meal to disbelief that a child can feed themselves – have been enough to convert being fed into one of the most long-drawn out experiences of parenthood.
Being fed is NOT the most natural way to eat
When we think of eating itself, the most natural way to eat is when we feed ourselves. As uncoordinated or more rightly, less-coordinated as young children are, it is incredibly important that they learn to feed themselves. The fact that a child learns they can satiate their hunger by taking a spoonful of food to their mouth cannot be dismissed as ordinary. Feeding oneself is about choice. We never give this idea much thought. We rarely think of feeding ourselves as having any significance. Yet, with each mouthful of food, we are making a choice to nourish ourselves.
So, self-feeding needs to be woven into the rhythm of the child’s everyday life. Thankfully, life as it happens rhythmically weaves in plenty of repetition. We do the same things over and over each day and when we extend children the opportunity to feed themselves, they can start to gain more coordination. They can start to make sense of what it means to eat. Simply having a place at the table for them, giving them the opportunity to eat with a real plate like ours, using spoons, forks, serving ladles and all the nice touches of the adult world will give them a chance to practice and refine their coordination.
Finding a Balance
Children need to see us eat. Social eating is a learned art. To take food to your mouth and chew, to learn how to tear a piece of dosa and dunk it in some sambar, to crack the boiled groundnut to get the seed from within, to twirl the long strands of spaghetti round your fork well enough to get it into your mouth is simply learned. No amount of watching or being fed is ever going to replace the simplicity of just becoming hands-on and trying these on their own.
Where else can children learn how to eat than by watching the adults in their lives? Where else can children peacefully practice and hone these unique eating habits than by being seated with their family?
“But we haven’t paid anything like enough attention to another consequence of being omnivores, which is that eating is not something we are born instinctively knowing how to do, like breathing. It is something we learn.”Bee Wilson First Bite : How we learn to eat
As you can see, being fed does not offer any of these opportunities. Whereas eating together by feeding yourself lets you belong and blend into a culture, being fed is a culture by itself, a tradition of its own accord. That you know a dosa is respectfully eaten by hand while a crepe is tactfully eaten using a fork and knife is proof that you have watched others do this and have also eaten in this same manner. It is a separate experience – a lot less to do with food and a lot more to do with bonding. And, it ought to remain so. We feed children not as a way to stop or distract children from learning to eat by themselves but always as a way to bond with them. There are also those days when children simply cannot meet expectations of sitting at the table long enough to feed themselves -you get delayed in traffic, they are incredibly irritable and need to eat before sleeping, they are unwell and need to eat. These are moments when we do choose to feed them. And, we need feel no guilt over this. The food that we lovingly feed them in those moments is deeply emotional. We feed the child every mouthful by wishing nothing but health and nourishment for them. There are layers of love to this feeding and we mustn’t deny children (or ourselves) this experience.
While self-feeding is simply the real deal when it comes to eating as social beings, we mustn’t forget the simplistic joy of being fed. In our quest to honor independent feeding, in our quest to vocalise the importance of respecting the child’s boundaries, we have squashed the cultural warmth of feeding a child. These are indeed unique to childhood and we do not want to deny them for children. It is important that we understand self-feeding to be the most natural way for a child to eat, as it is for us to eat. But, feeding a child is beyond eating. It is simply granting our children the joys of childhood.
Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world and about expressing our identity. As long as humans have been taking meals together, eating has been as much about culture as it has been about biology.Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food