Updated: Jun 11, 2020
“There is candy in tomatoes.” This is something my father told me on a regular basis when I was very young. I didn’t like tomatoes, but in our household, you ate what you were served, whether you liked it or not. The idea was, of course, that if a child was left to his own tastes, he would only eat ice cream and candy.
My parents recognized, as did most parents in those days, that they had a responsibility to see that we ate nourishing food, that we wore our jackets and mittens on cold days, that we went to bed at 8:00, and that we went to church every Sunday. Their main concern was not that we were happy, necessarily, but that we grew to be good, hardworking citizens; understanding well that this would not come naturally to us, they took it upon themselves to train us by making us do, on a regular basis, the things that were good for us, trusting that we would develop the habit of doing them ourselves and maybe even grow to like them. That’s why my dad told me there was candy in tomatoes. He insisted that if I kept eating them I’d find the candy.
My dad didn’t realize it, but he was participating in classical education. Aristotle once said,” Education is nothing if not a training of the affections.” As wonderful as our children are, they usually don’t naturally enjoy most of what is good for them, so it's our job, as parents, to train them to love what is good.
I remember reading once that children naturally crave the foods that are best for them, and should be allowed to eat whatever they want. Another common idea is that, if you force children to “clean their plates” or eat things they don’t prefer, they’ll adopt unhealthy attitudes about food, either becoming overweight or developing an eating disorder.
Both of these ideas have led to moms being relegated to the role of short-order cooks, with kids running the show when it comes to mealtime, and rather than healthier eaters, we've seen a surge in childhood obesity.
My concern here isn’t really food (although I do believe that parents should insist that their children eat what is good for them, like it or not). What I’m getting at is the training of the affections, of taste, which is kind of a foreign concept to us. We usually think in terms of restricting things that are inappropriate or dangerous in some way. The idea of intentionally cultivating a taste for something just because it is of value is too often avoided because it takes work.
A few years ago I told some parents that, in addition to actually reading to their children, we parents should let our children see us reading for enjoyment. One of the moms said, “Well, my husband and I don’t really like reading all that much—we just never got into reading.” They never learned to love reading as children, and now their children were going to miss out on something that just about everybody recognizes as being really important because of their own distaste for it.
Learning to love what is really true, really good, and really beautiful is a process that takes time. Our world is filled with "mental snacks"--streaming tv, smart phones, electronic games, and social media; we don't have to think much to enjoy them. They are like chips and fast food for our minds--they satisfy our hunger and taste great, but they aren't nourishing.
Our children's minds and souls need to be nourished just as their bodies do. Just as we know they need their veggies to have a healthy body, we have to make sure we give them good food for their minds and souls. And just like my dad insisted I eat the tomatoes because he knew they were good for me, we often have to insist our children consume the good brain and soul food, and skip the electronic snacks.
Feed them the good stuff--really good books, classical music, beautiful art--tell them there is candy in it, but they won't find it unless they keep eating it! They will discover something much sweeter than candy, and the nourishment they receive will be the nourishment of the mind and the soul.