My son loves hot dogs. He loves hot dog buns. But be warned: If you put a hot dog in a bun and give it to him, he won’t be happy.
“The hot dog and the bread must not touch!” he explained not so long ago.
“What’s the big deal?” I asked, irritated.
“They can’t touch!” He screamed, started crying and then collapsed on the floor as if all the bones in his body had turned to mush.
If someone asked me to describe my parenting style, I might say “traditional.” When my children ask for something to happen in a certain way, I don’t always say yes. In fact, my instinct is to do it my way. And in my perfect world, we sit down like a family in a 1950s sitcom, with everyone eating the exact same thing. Quietly.
So the next few times we had hot dogs for lunch, I put the hot dog in the bun without thinking about it for more than a second. And each time, without fail, there were tears and yelling.
After about the fifth time, my wife took me aside, and we had a talk.
“I just don’t get why it’s such a big deal for him,” I said, “It’s just a hot dog.”
“Think about it this way. You like mustard, right?” she said.
“And ice cream?”
“What if I were to smother your ice cream in mustard?”
“For him, maybe the hot dog and the bread feel the same.”
My wife was probably right about my son’s eating issue. It’s not so much that he won’t eat anything. (Like many young kids, he doesn’t like his peas, but he’ll eat food like chicken, rice, and broccoli.) Rather, it’s about how his food is presented.
If something is cut in the “wrong” way or if two different items of food — hot dogs and bread — are touching, it sets him off. Lots of young kids have different challenges with food. So we don’t know whether it’s related to any particular issue, or if it’s just his age (he’s 6) or his particular way of doing things.
Either way, I faced a choice. Was I going to be stubborn about this and force him to eat food my way to satisfy my vision of a 1950s family meal? Or would I be a little flexible? What was the right balance?
“Here’s your lunch,” I said to him. “And your hot dog isn’t touching the bread.” I winked.
He sniffed the hot dog and regarded me cautiously. Then he munched away. When he was done, he said, “Next time, can I try to cut up my own hot dog with the plastic knife?”
“Buddy, as long as you eat, you can cut up your food any way you want. Just remember, the knife is going to end up touching both the hot dog and the bread.”
He looked at me like I was little crazy. I don’t think he got my joke.
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About the author
Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.