‘No Chicken Nuggets!’ – The Picky Eater & Decision Making

‘Would you like chicken nuggets for lunch?’ ‘No, I hate chicken nuggets!'

‘Really? I thought you loved them!’

This interaction (or something similar) has likely happened in nearly every household with young children for decades. One minute a toddler can’t get enough of a certain food, and then before you know it, even just a suggestion of that food is repulsive to them. It can be frustrating for parents when their child is a picky eater, but it’s important to understand that underneath the rejection of chicken nuggets is a future adult’s decision-making in development.

Learning how to make healthy and constructive decisions is something that grows and develops throughout childhood. At each stage in a child’s life, from toddlerhood through adolescence and into adulthood, new situations and opportunities arise to practice and strengthen their decision-making. What is hard for children, especially young children, is that the opportunities for them to make decisions are limited. For example, young children would likely much prefer to have mom and dad remain at home with them every day and play with their favorite toys, but that choice is usually not an option. They may also prefer to stay in the toy aisle on a shopping trip, but again, they don’t get to make that decision either. Throughout their day children must do things that they would likely not choose if given a choice. This is, of course, normal. While parents cannot govern their days based solely on the desires of their child, it does not make it any less frustrating or challenging for their young children.

So why is this all too common scenario important?

When people, regardless of age, feel like they don’t have a say in their lives, they can feel powerless or defeated - emotions nobody wants to feel. But to learn how to make decisions that enhance their life and happiness, children need the time, space and opportunity to practice. Not only does this experience provide the positive feelings that surround making decisions for themselves, but for young children it alleviates some of the frustrations that comes from not having complete control over their days and decisions.

When parents are able to allow their young child to make age-appropriate decisions as much as possible, from what color sippy cup to use, to which shoes to wear, or what meal they’d like to eat, it not only provides opportunities for them to practice decision-making, but it also offers them some agency over their lives. Providing manageable options (‘Would you like to wear your red or blue shoes?’) makes it easier for your child to make a decision, instead of just asking open ended questions (‘What shoes do you want to wear?’), which can be overwhelming or confusing.

As Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D. note in Smart Love, “Try to endorse your child’s developing need to govern his own life when appropriate and to the extent possible.”*

When young children do not get opportunities to make so