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Leading by example

September 12, 2011

The other day I had lunch with a friend at one of our favorite mom-and-pop sandwich shops. Well, sort of. We did have lunch, but I only remember this lunch date in flashes of chaos and confusion created by two lively toddlers.

At the deli counter, between gentle directives of “Stay with Mommy, please” and “Please don’t touch that,” I ordered a roast beef special for myself and a cheese sandwich for my curious little one.

As we sat down, I began to feel self-conscious. My friend sat down with a sandwich and chips for herself, and then proceeded to unpack a homemade lunch for her toddler. I thought, “Uh-oh. Am I a terrible mother? Should I have packed a lunch?”

As I looked at each course of the homemade meal, I felt even worse. I let my child eat a cheese sandwich (on white bread at that) while her friend ate an organic peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat with a side of dried spinach. As I ate my greasy chips, I pictured my friend standing in her kitchen that morning, rolling each of these little pieces of spinach into tiny, bite-sized rolls. My mommy success meter was falling dramatically.

As my daughter ate her cheese sandwich and my friend and I attempted to carry on a conversation, her daughter became increasingly upset. She wanted some of Mommy’s chips, but she was not allowed. She was supposed to eat the balls of dried spinach instead. Well, she’s a smart girl, and she was not settling for spinach balls. She wanted chips. Her innate sense of justice told her that if Mommy can have chips then she could, too.

My friend is a wonderful mother, so she gently, but firmly, explained that her daughter must eat her spinach. And that’s when it happened. Flying spinach balls. Yes, spinach balls flew as a toddler fought against the injustice of being denied potato chips.

When I got home, I laughed at the scene we must have been at the deli. But it also got me thinking. I try to be the best mother I can be and provide the healthiest environment for my child. I immediately felt insecure when I thought that I had somehow failed my child by not providing a healthier lunch for her. In the end, though, the effort of making a healthy lunch was lost for my friend because her daughter wouldn’t eat it in the presence of more attractive alternatives.

Then, it hit me. Kids are like ducks. I’ve heard that somewhere before. They are little ducklings that fall in line behind Mama duck and follow her wherever she goes. They learn to swim when they imitate how she paddles her webbed feet, and they learn to quack in the same way she quacks at them. They develop their own distinct little waddle as Mama waddles in front of them.

I began to think that my failure was not so much in neglecting to pack the lunch, but in modeling a behavior for my child that I didn’t want her to mimic. I see so many parents that hold their children to a certain standard that they themselves do not meet. Should we then exercise our right as a parental authority to enforce these right things upon them? Sometimes, I suppose. But, I wonder if the battle might be easier won if we as parents were striving to meet the same goals that we set for our children.

This Mama wants her little duckling to be healthy. So, Mama is going to teach her how it’s done.