Sunday, June 12, 2011

Non-Violent Communication with a 7-Year-Old Picky Eater

My daughter Anna is a very picky eater and she is not shy about complaining about food that she does not like.  I usually try to have an assortment of foods for our evening meal in the hope that everyone will find something to fill their bellies.  But in a family with 4 kids who all prefer different foods, someone is usually disappointed.  Tonight's supper was not to Anna's liking AT ALL.  (And just so you know, the choices tonight were:  homemade vegetarian tomato sauce, wheat pasta, rice pasta, raw vegetables with dip, chickpea-jalepeno patties, stir-fried vegetables with ginger-soy sauce.)

Usually when Anna complains about food I get really annoyed.  I frequently ignore her complaining and offer her a piece of toast because I just can't always find the emotional connection that I need in order to listen to her.  I have to really work to keep my mouth shut because sometimes I want to say "OK.  Just be hungry.  No food for you."

But I've been re-reading Marshall Rosenberg's Non-Violent Communication and I knew that this would be a perfect opportunity to work through the suggested steps of listening and validating.
4 Steps of NVC
First, we listen with the goal of discovering the other person's observations, feelings, needs and requests.  Then we respond by offering our observations, feelings, needs and requests.

My conversation with Anna went like this:
(I will identify which parts of NVC I have used.)

ANNA:  Mom!  I hate this supper.  I can't eat anything tonight.
ME:  You don't like what I made for supper tonight. (observation)
ANNA:  You never make anything I like!
ME:  You wish I had made one of your favourite suppers. (observation)
ANNA:  I won't eat any of this.
ME:  You wish I made something else for you. (observation)
ANNA:  You know what I like.  Why do you make food I won't eat?
ME:  You feel sad when you see that I made food that you don't like. (feelings)
ANNA:  I can't eat anything!  (Starting to cry.)
ME:  You feel special when I make the foods that you like and you feel frustrated when I make food that I know aren't your favourites. (her feelings)
ANNA:  (still crying)  You never make my favourites.
ME:  You need me to make sure that there are always foods for supper that you want to eat. (her needs)
ANNA:  When can we have curry again?
ME:  Well, I don't have any of those ingredients but when we buy groceries this weekend I will make sure that we buy all the right things.  Would you like curry on Sunday night for supper? (her request)
ANNA:  Yes.  When is Sunday?
ME:  In three days.
ANNA:  You never buy the parmesan cheese that I like for spaghetti.
ME:  The parmesan cheese that Daddy bought last time was full of preservatives and other artificial ingredients that I don't want you to eat.  We aren't going to buy it anymore.
ANNA:  But I like it.
ME:  I know that you like it. (my observations) It's my responsibility to take care of your body by giving you healthy food to eat, and I wouldn't be fulfilling my responsibility if I gave you things to eat that are full of chemicals.  I wouldn't give you shampoo to eat and I won't give you that parmesan cheese either. (my needs)
ANNA:  (sniff)
ME:  When I make a healthy supper for my family I feel happy that I am giving food to the people that I love that will make them healthy and smart and strong. (my feelings) Even though you don't like this supper, when I made it for you my heart was full of love because I knew that it was healthy for you.  I like cooking and I like making lots of different foods for everyone in our family to enjoy.  Will you be able to find something on the table that you would like to eat?  (my request) If not, I would be happy to make you a piece of toast.
ANNA:  I'll try.
ME:  Thankyou Anna.  And I will be happy to make you some curry on Sunday.

And guess what?  She ate two helpings of wheat pasta with tomato sauce and she used hot sauce instead of parmesan cheese "to make it taste better".  Yay!  This mama ain't complaining!

But the real success in this use of Non-Violent Communication is not that Anna ended up eating the supper that I made.  The real success is that she knows that I really listened to her concerns and I know that she really listened to mine.  Both of us had our needs met and felt validated and understood.

Taking the time for these types of conversations is what Authentic Parenting is all about.  It is about maintaining the connection and developing the relationship.  It is about recognizing that our needs are equally authentic and important.

Non-Violent Communication ensures that the parent is The Leader and not The Boss.


  1. Beautifully put. This shows exactly why nvc in parenting is so vitally important for connection-and why it takes a lot of effort (well worth it!) to do it. I struggle with this, especially when I'm tired & have gone the extra effort like you mention in preparing something for everyone. Thank you for this extra reminder to be gentle with myself and my children

  2. I love this post, Patti! I often struggle with meal times and love your focus on providing a wide smorgasbord of choices for everyone. It makes me realize I shouldn't be so intent on singular food offerings, particularly for dinner. Thanks for the insights!