There’s a cultural trend I’ve noticed over the years living in China, and it’s recently come into sharper focus as a result of having my own children and interacting with more Chinese parents. It’s the family habit of letting the child decide the menu for meals, or, in the case of eating out, letting the child decide where to eat or what food to order for everyone. I’m not talking about an occasional thing; I’m talking about a habitual practice.
I probably first noticed this when I started dating my future wife. She lived with her parents, and would frequently communicate with her mom on the phone. I noticed that I would often hear her telling her mom what she wanted for dinner that night, and that’s what her mom would make. I thought this was kind of weird, but figured that was just her family, she was kind of a strong personality, she was good at choosing food everyone likes, etc.
Over the years I learned that this was quite common, and it starts early. Children of 4 or 5 years old frequently decide most of what’s on the menu for the evening, practically every day. In some homes, the child decides their own menu while the adults eat an entirely separate meal. It’s no wonder that so many kids in China are picky eaters!
When this started happening in my own home with my own kids, I quickly put a stop to it. “Kids don’t get to decide what’s for dinner,” I said. “They eat what they’re given.” Fortunately my mother-in-law and wife were cool with that, but they had already started falling into what seems to be the “default mode” of letting the children (usually the youngest) decide what’s for dinner in a Chinese household.
One awkward thing about comparing this aspect of Chinese and American families is that I really only have my own “American cultural experiences” to compare to, and those are not at all recent! I don’t have regular contact with many American families, so if this same habit is now super common in American families too, I wouldn’t know. I suspect that it exists as well, but is nowhere near as widespread as it is in China, where the One Child Policy has set off a cascade of new family dynamics, often resulting in spoiled sibling-less children.
Talking to other parents in Shanghai, what I usually hear is, “my kid often doesn’t want to eat, and is already so skinny. So I’d rather let him decide what to eat and eat something rather than eat nothing.” My reply to this, of course, is, “he’ll be pretty hungry and less picky the next day after he eats nothing for dinner. He won’t starve. 4-year-olds don’t go on hunger strikes.” This works in my family (I’ve let my kids go hungry when they decide they’re going to be picky eaters), but I get the definite impression that Chinese parents think this won’t work in their families (or they’re just not willing to let their kids miss a single meal).
We’re working on a new discussion course for intermediate learners at AllSet Learning focused on various topics related to raising children. It’s really a very, very rich vein for discussion, and it’s the reason this “picky eater” and “kids ordering food” topic resurfaced for me recently. If your experience (American, Chinese, or whatever) is different, please share!