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Zoe, right, is our strong-willed child

The battle lines were drawn at the Mabry Nauta family dinner table. Our youngest daughter, Zoe, who had for most of her short life been our good eater, refused to eat her dinner. “I don’t like this!” she whined. Eric and I had long agreed that our children must learn to eat a variety of foods, namely those that have nutritional value. This would be, however, the first time to apply our strategy. A look of edification shared between parents, a simultaneous deep breath…and we have lift off!

Eric and Me: Zoe, we understand that you don’t want to eat your dinner.  We won’t force you to eat it, but you will eat it. It’s important for your body to have different types of foods so you can be healthy and grow strong. If you don’t eat this tonight, it will be served to you for breakfast. If you don’t finish it at breakfast, it will be your after school snack. If some of this is still on your plate come dinner tomorrow night, you’ll be given it first. We’re happy to feed you additional food after you have eaten this.

Zoe: (Looking at us dismayed…bewildered…wanting to believe that Mommy and Daddy are once again being silly) NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!

She whined and fought at the dinner table a little more, and went to bed having eaten nothing. The next morning I greeted Zoe and Sophia, our oldest, with the usual amount of hugs, kisses and overall joy over their existence. All was progressing well until I served breakfast. Sophia got her favorite cereal and milk. Zoe got dinner from the night before, nuked and stirred.

Zoe: (Looking at me as if she can’t believe this is happening) NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! I want cereal and milk like Sister!

Me: Oh, you can have milk, Sweet Pea. You can also have some cereal…after you eat last night’s dinner. Daddy and I told you last night.

She ate a few bites, chugged her milk and asked to be excused from the table to get dressed for school. That’s fine, I said. You need to understand, though, that when you come home, this is what your afternoon snack will be. Sniff. Turned up nose. Whimper. Yes, ma’am.

Eric picked up our girls from school that afternoon while I was out. He served them their snacks without fanfare, and both of them ate without complaint. Zoe had chosen to eat her recurring food. Hallelujah!  “I DID IT, Mommy!” Zoe jumped up and down and excitedly declared when I returned home. “I ate my dinner and I like it! Can I please have it again?” All four of us joined Zoe’s celebration and did the happy dance together.

My first instinct was to give Eric and high-five and declare us parents “the winner.” But, having a winner necessarily means that someone lost, and my heart didn’t believe that anyone lost. Zoe won. She tried food new to her and liked it. Her palate was successfully expanded beyond chicken nuggets and mac and cheese. … Eric and my marriage won. We stuck together, honored our decision and avoided undermining one another by not playing good-parent, bad-parent. … Sophia won. She witnessed her parents proclaiming rules of our home and carrying them through. Consistency is the name of the game in healthy parenting. … I won. I experienced an unhealthy emotional pattern broken within myself when I noticed I was able to move on throughout Zoe’s stand off. In the past I’d have withheld my love from Zoe, pouted when she didn’t acquiesce to me and kept the tension and misery alive for everyone until she did. (I’m not thrilled with that, but it’s true.) This time, I let it go and went about my day and relationships lovingly and joyfully. … Our family won. Yes, Eric and I held firm; but never was a voice raised, a threat made, a person hurt or shamed nor basic human need and dignity denied. This was a generational pattern broken, and it was marvelous in Eric and my eyes. … Overarchingly, God won, for charity and love (i.e. God’s will), prevailed.

Every now and then Eric and I have good parenting moments. We give thanks and praise to God when they occur, for we know that God is the giver of all good gifts, including these. We place these good moments in safe places within our random access memories for easy access when we doubt ourselves. We also back up these memories, so to speak, as we bank strength for the teenage years. And then we thank God again (and again) that the ultimate war of wills has been won. God the victor generously shares the spoils.

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