Shyam’s trip to the Zoo

Here is a story of little Shyam who lives in Mysore with his parents Santhosh and Nidhi. Five year old Shyam has loved animals ever since he was a toddler and over the years accumulated many miniature figurines in his home. He recently watched the Jungle Book with his mother and was thoroughly spellbound by Mowgli and his life in the wild. Ever since, little Shyam has played Mowgli in his imaginary world with the miniature figurines as his friends.

Because of his love for animals, Santhosh decided to treat Shyam by taking him to the local zoo where he could see some real life animals. Little Shyam had excitedly planned his trip, interjecting many questions like “Will we see Baloo in the zoo?” and how he will scream and run when he sees “Kaa.” What Shyam did not fully comprehend was the meaning of the word Zoo! 

On the day of the much-anticipated trip, Shyam and Santhosh arrived at the zoo. The entire ride was spent in Shyam asking questions about what animals they will see and if he could play and swing with them. A worried Santhosh had clearly told Shyam that he cannot go near the animals and must hold appa’s hand at all times. At the zoo, Santhosh purchased two tickets and the duo excitedly entered together.

Soon, they reached the enclosure with the grey langurs.

Santhosh : See Shyama! Here are the Langurs. They are monkeys. Let us count how many monkeys are there in this cage.

Shyam : Appa! Look at that monkey’s tail. It is so long Appa.

Santhosh : Yes Shyama, monkeys have long tails.

Without a pause, Shyam immediately asked “Why?”

Santhosh : Monkeys need long tails to jump from one branch to another Shyama. The long tails give them balance so that they don’t fall down .

Santhosh was very pleased with his informative reply. Little did he know what was coming next.

Shyam : Appa, there are no branches here. Where will these monkeys jump?

Santhosh found the question bemusing yet innocent and couldn’t help but acknowledge a tinge of guilt creeping up as he looked at the enclosure packed with monkeys. He brushed the thought aside and proceeded to answer his curious son!

Santhosh : This is a zoo Shyama. The monkeys are here only for us to come and see them.

Thankfully, Shyam hadn’t fully paid attention to his father’s reply and was swiftly shooting out his next observation, “Appa, look at this monkey. It’s holding something and eating.”

Santhosh was relieved at the move on the subject and responded, “Yes yes, monkeys eat nuts and fruits.”

Shyam : Nuts? Like the nuts in my mechanical set?

Santhosh : No no, nuts like palm tree nuts, figs and bananas.

Shyam : But there are no trees here. Where will these monkeys find their nuts?

Santhosh : Look over there! That is the zookeeper, he will buy nuts and fruits for these monkeys from the supermarket.

The educative zoo trip was proving to be more educative for Santhosh than little Shyam. They finally made a move from the monkey enclosure to an enclosure with colourful parrots.

Santhosh : Look, Shyama, at these beautiful parrots and cockatiels. Look at the colour of their feather and their beak.

Shyam was meanwhile distractedly observing a particularly loud and large crow cawing from a big bin.

He immediately giggled and said “Appa, look at this crow and the way its saying kaa kaa.”

Santhosh : What is there in a crow Shyama? Look at these parrots. They are special and beautiful in colour.

Shyam : The crow is also beautiful in colour Appa.  

While Santhosh looked at his son amused and surprised, little Shyama continued to look at the crow, playing a game of caw-caw with very excited squeals and jumps in between. 

Share a Meal with your Child

What is a Meal? 

A meal is a coming together of a group of people, sharing their day with each other, valuing each other’s presence, being grateful for the food that they are eating and leaving everything else to just be there for one another! A meal is so much more than eating; a meal implies a family! 

In the book Cooked : A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan says, “The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilisation: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences and arguing without offending.

When a meal carries so much value, why is it that children, who are learning what it means to be a family, have little to no experience of eating as a family?

The Real Struggle behind Eating

With young children, eating is a continuous and isolated activity that is done at a different time from the rest of the family. It always begins with a parent taking a spoonful of food to the child’s mouth and ends with the child turning their face away. This is when desperation and impatience set in and to somehow navigate this trying time, we devise techniques and strategies to ‘trick’ our children into eating. 

The first is to try and distract them with a toy or two, or point to different things in the room and feed them without their conscious involvement. If this doesn’t work, we resort to the Ipad technique and while the child is completely engrossed in the visuals, we quickly sneak in one too many spoonfuls. If neither of these work, we resort to threats! Now, threats always come in varying degrees of intensity, from denying them access to their favourite toy to telling them that they will be left behind while the rest of the family goes to the park. The other technique is chasing them around the house while they distractedly run from one object to another with no recollection of having eaten. If none of these work, we resort to pleading, “Please have just one more spoonful for me” or “See, I am sad now that you are not eating.” After much coaxing, cajoling, tears and threats, our children finish one bowl of rice only for us to realise that the same techniques have to be tried again, in exactly a few hours!

While these techniques that we employ may temporarily do the trick and even seem harmless at the moment, they leave lasting impressions. If we want our children to value meal-time as family time, eat more consciously and develop a holistic relationship with food, we need to first have a place for them at the table and share our meals with them!

A family table with a one year old and two six-year olds.

Share a Meal with your Child – Why?

  • Being Valued 

Having a place at the table communicates to children that they are an integral part of the family and that their presence is valued. Families must make the effort to eat at least one meal a day together. Regardless of the age of the child, we can seek participation at the table. Even a six month old can nibble on a piece of fruit while being a part of the table. By having a place at the table, we communicate to the child that meal-time is family time.

  • An Opportunity to Imitate & Imbibe 

At the table, children get to watch how different members of their family (& friends) eat, how they pass around food, and take turns serving. Eating by themselves at the table also gives them the opportunity to watch other members and practice repeatedly. It is important to remember that children learn purely by observation and repetition! So, the more effort we take to eat together, the more opportunities for them to observe and learn.

  • Seeing Food as a Whole 

Children often eat without ever knowing what they are eating. In chasing and running from one room to the other and watching the Ipad whilst completely unaware of what is going into their mouth, children never get to actually see food on a plate. At the table, they get to see rice and beans, roti and dal, the various eating utensils and cutlery all come together as a whole. Meal-time is also when we can give them tiny tastes of the different dishes and let them experience the variety of our culture.

  • Learning the Art of Conversation 

It is important for children to be part of the conversations that happen at the table. While eating, we can show them how to acknowledge the effort and love that has gone into cooking. As children grow older, they will also begin to participate and contribute, thus becoming grateful for the food and each others contribution. At the table is also where we can draw attention to the different dishes and the ingredients that have gone into it. Involve them and acknowledge their response whether it is a coo, a babble, a nod or a phrase. This elevates the experience of eating and makes it joyful and something to look forward to. 

We must help children create a healthy association with food and cultivate a love for it. When eating comes with conversations, a place at the table, an opportunity to taste different dishes, it becomes much more than a dreaded affair that ends in tears. By sharing a meal with our children, we not only show them what it means to be a family, but also give them the freedom to take food to their mouth! We respect and value their presence and gradually, they begin to associate food with family time, conversations and an opportunity to feed themselves.