Today's Tip: Getting Kids To Eat Squash
In 1976, my family moved from the neighborhoods of Baltimore, MD, to the wilds of northern Baltimore County, a terrible shock for a boy accustomed to walking to the drugstore or the library by himself. The first time I stepped out of the car at our new house, I stepped on a rotten apple from the orchard and promptly got back into the car, refusing to leave it.
Somehow my folks cajoled me out, and I stayed, because this run-down Victorian farmhouse on three acres was their dream. They would restore the place, plant produce beds and put up preserves to sustain us through the long winters. Maybe I'll tell you another time about the restoration of that house (you can see it in the "Pictures" section of this website), and how I learned to swear while doing it, but that's another parenting tip.
Long story short, my parents succeeded--gradually, slowly--in achieving their ambitions, and they loved nothing so much as to cook the tomatoes, beans, lettuce, squash and what-have-you they had grown in their own garden.
Can you guess how young Jeb reacted to this bountiful harvest?
Like many children, I was a picky eater, although I didn't disdain all vegetables. I liked broccoli, asparagus and carrots. I hated brussels sprouts, eggplant, and yes, squash. So on the night in question, my mother prepared a dish that I remember as a medley of sauteed tomatoes, onions, and yellow squash. I'm sure it was lovely, but my pre-teen self was not impressed and said so. "I'm not gonna eat that," I said, with all the authority a child can muster.
My dad was having none of it. "I worked hard to grow that squash," he said, "And your mother worked hard to cook that squash, so you're gonna eat it." In my memory, his face wears a particular set expression that would brook no sass; not a frown so much as determination. It was a warning look, no doubt practiced a thousand times before thanks to my mouthiness. I saw it, and knew it meant trouble, but by God I was standing on principle!
"I'm not gonna eat that squash," I said, doing my best to replicate my Dad's forbidding stare. "I don't like squash."
I don't know how strict my grandparents were about diet and obedience. I know my Dad grew up during an era when kids did what they were told and often sat at the dinner table until they cleared their plates, come hell or high water. Maybe he went to bed hungry rather than eat something he didn't like. I don't know. But he wasn't ready to let me be disrespectful, especially to something he and my mother valued so much. He regarded me much like a general regards a battlefield, assessing the will of the enemy arrayed there. He had many weapons in his parenting arsenal: bribery, begging, reasoning, surrender. He surveyed his options and went straight to intimidation.
"You're going to eat that squash," he said, pointing across the table with the finger of doom, "Or I'm going to stuff it in your ear."
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, two nations stared each other down, daring the other to blink. The technique became known as "brinksmanship", a high-stakes game of chicken. I was prepared to play. Even as a child I sensed, rather than knew, that parents often make empty threats. If you don't behave, I'll turn this car right around. I folded my arms, confident in my superiority.
I said, "I'm not eating it."
Later, comma, as I washed squash and tomato sauce out of my ear, I resolved never to eat that nasty gourd again, and I held to that promise my entire life--until I married, and my wife began to plan her garden. Parents, your lessons will get through, I assure you. It just might take some time, is all.