Tuesday, Jun 18, 2024

In Good Measure

 

My daughter is an O.T. who specializes in feeding therapy. She loves helping babies and toddlers who struggle with feeding issues figure out that food is not the enemy, and that normal eating can actually enhance their lives!

Unfortunately, some small children early on develop a mistrust of certain foods. She has met two-year-olds who refuse to eat anything solid and subsist solely on purees, others who turn their noses up at anything crispy or crunchy, and the like. In the course of her work, she comes across all kinds of babies and all kinds of parents. Some of her stories are heart-warming. Others border on horrific.

Since she’s there to help with feeding, she generally tries to schedule her appointments at mealtimes. Recently, she visited one home where a newly arrived immigrant demonstrated how she feeds her baby his breakfast. She placed him in his highchair, tipped it back to a convenient angle, and proceeded, in rapid fire motion, to shovel a series of huge spoonsful of food into the hapless child’s mouth.

Without giving him a chance to swallow, the woman kept on inserting food until the child was literally coughing and choking. My daughter had to teach a bit of human anatomy to this overzealous mother, explaining that allowing food to get down her son’s airway would carry food to the lungs rather than the stomach and put him at risk for pneumonia.

The mother obviously believed that she was doing things right. It was her job to get nutrition into her baby, and that’s exactly what she tried to do. Good intentions aside, though, would anyone be surprised if her child grew up viewing food with hostility rather than pleasure?

While many feeding problems are rooted in physical or medical sources, a good number stem from misguided feeding techniques. They can also arise from parents being rigid or inflexible in their ideas about food.

“There is no such thing as a bad food,” says Dr. Kay A. Toomey, who gives an iconic course in feeding that my daughter is learning a great deal from. Even foods that we traditionally consider “bad for you” can be useful at times: for instance, offering chocolate to a child who needs to gain weight.

Dr. Toomey points out that we can be rather hidebound in our views when it comes to what we serve and when. For example, scrambled eggs are considered a proper breakfast food but regarded askance if served for lunch or dinner. Add some veggies to the eggs, however, and voila! You now have quiche—a perfectly acceptable choice for either of those other two meals.

The point is that it is helpful to think out of the box about what we eat and how and when… especially when dealing with infants or toddlers whose earliest relationship with food is being established right there in your kitchen.

 

A Model for Middos

When I heard the feeding specialist claim that there is no such thing as in intrinsically bad food, it made me think of something I’ve often learned about character development: namely, that there’s no such thing as a bad middah. The word “middah” means “measure.” In a well-functioning personality, each character trait is carefully measured, every reaction precisely tailored to the situation. As the Rambam urges, our best bet is to walk the line of moderation. Going to either extreme runs the risk of carrying a person beyond the realm of good measure and into that of bad behavior.

To be sure, there are two middos that Chazal tell us are abhorrent to Hashem. One of them is arrogance. The other is anger. But even these traits perhaps can be useful at the right time and in tiny amounts. Every trait we were born with can be used for the betterment of our characters and of the world around us. The problem is that, like those babies with their mistrust of food, sometimes we find it hard to recognize a helpful middah or to value it as it deserves. Let me give you an example.

I know people who tend to think about just about everything in terms of dollars and cents. As soon as a purchase becomes necessary, they dive into the world of dollars and cents, bargains and connections, to figure out the best way to get the item at the best possible price. This group can be subdivided into those who enjoy saving money as a matter of principle or practicality, and those who simply love the thrill of the hunt.

Now, suppose a young lady from a fine home marries a young man from a different kind of fine home. In one of those childhood homes, money was a frequent topic of conversation; in the other, no one could care less. The one whose parents dwelled exhaustively on the price of things may feel that her spouse is irresponsible for not caring what things cost, while the one who was raised to view money talk as uncouth may consider his spouse’s conversation tedious and ill-bred. This can lead to resentment and a lack of respect.

The same applies to couples where one was brought up to be industrious while the other came from a home that values being “chilled.” The former can end up accused of being a workaholic while the latter runs the risk of being called lazy. It’s all a question of how you look at a specific middah: friend or foe? And of finally realizing that middos are neither. It’s the when-and-where that counts, and the quantity. A moderate amount of every middah is perfectly acceptable in its place. A healthy balance is optimum.

Like the child who’s had a negative early experience with food, our upbringing with regard to certain traits and values can violently color our views about them later in life. They can, and often do, impact our attitudes toward our spouses, in-laws, and neighbors. Like therapists trying to undo a baby’s unhealthy feeding habits, what we need to remember is that it’s not the middah that’s wrong, but possibly the frequency or intensity of its application.

 

Out of the Box

Here’s where it becomes useful to think out of the box. Mothers can reflect creatively about how to tempt their children to eat more healthily. I remember seeing a friend of mine greet her children after school each day with a platter of segmented oranges and apple slices, beautifully arranged on the plate. Such an offering attracts hungry kids in a way that simply handing them an orange or an apple does not. And taking the trouble to serve healthy snacks distracts the kids from their craving for unhealthy ones.

Creating a pleasant atmosphere at mealtimes is another way of turning feeding into a peaceful time instead of a source of discomfort and animosity. Force feeding, whether by physical means or verbal ones, is no fun for anyone at any age. It certainly does not make for a healthy relationship with food. Just as we should not shove food down our kids’ throats, we should encourage them to be open-minded about what they are willing to eat. The whole gamut of kosher food choices is their home turf. Some kids may need therapeutic intervention; most just need to be educated and encouraged.

In the same way, we should regard all character traits as potential friends or, at the very least, as a crew of “temps” standing by to serve when needed. It takes wisdom to know when to employ which middah, and to what degree. It takes understanding and respect to tolerate what feels like an alien middah in others.

The best starting point is, like the Rambam, to view the entire spectrum of middos as valid in moderation. It’s not a question of rejecting certain middos outright, but rather choosing the right one at the right time and in the right measure.

The process is not so very different from addressing feeding issues by keeping an open mind about various foods and the possibilities they represent. Like the simple egg, with its chameleonlike array of uses. Quiche, anyone?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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