“Mum, am I going to get the vibrus?”

I felt like we’d been darting around the Coronavirus conversation with Lenny, and when Bill brought it up with him I felt a bit protective. I thought “He’s only four, he doesn’t need to worry about this stuff.” And while I am right, he doesn’t need to worry, he deserves to have the right information.

I have great respect for Simone Emery, who owns the business Play With Food and spoke in The Back Room a couple of years ago. We did a quick little Q & A and I love her simple take on sharing news with kids. This has helped me enormously – not just talking about the vibrus but anything that comes up in our day (last night it was about jail – we were talking about Harvey Weinstein getting locked up.)

The gorgeous Simone Emery

Hey Simone thanks for your time, so straight off the bat – how much is enough info for kids? I don’t want him feeling overwhelmed or anxious, but I know those feelings might be his to have. What are the basics they need to know?

This obviously depends on their age and the sort of questions they are asking.  Your reply can be succinct like “Yes, some people are getting sick with a cold / flu called Coronavirus. The actions people are taking aim to stop the virus from spreading to more people. We have to make sure people try not to spread germs.” You can then include them in the conversation by talking about all the things that stop spreading germs.

Great – so keep it short and sweet and see where we go from there…

There is one HUGE thing that I’ve learned about anxiety in children over the years, it is important to sweat the small stuff with them. This is real to them so dismissing it, causes greater concern. Children will appreciate a timely and calm approach to their questions. If they are put on the back burner, they are left to simmer. When the topic of the virus comes up, you should answer them succinctly and at a level that suits them.

Righto then, well this leads nicely to my next question – four year old Lenny is talking a lot about death… “So will they die?” is asked regularly when I speak about people and sickness. How do I navigate this?

When this is a genuine concern for children, you can say, “Some people are at risk of getting much sicker than others maybe because they are older or they have another illness. Some people have passed away and that is very sad. Everyone is trying to stop germs from spreading from one person to another.” 

I love that idea of doing being able to do our little bit…I feel like it’s something practical to focus on. How do you encourage looking after ourselves – through good health, food and play in particular – without sounding like a broken record?

You can make looking after ourselves really interesting by turning your language from being “DIRECTIVE” to “NON-DIRECTIVE”. For example, this takes your broken record rendition of “You have to wash your hands now” to “I’m wondering how many times I’ve washed my hands today because I always do it after I use the toilet as well as before and after I eat, oh and every time I do something messy?”  They may then race to wash their hands and tell you about how often they’ve been washing your hands. When you aren’t giving them a direction, you teach them to self-enact the behaviour they want with a sly prompt. My favourite non-directive sentence starters include – “I’m wondering..”, “Tell me more about…”, “I notice that…”, “I am loving that you…”  You can also sing a hand washing song too.

Ooh I like this Simone, so doing rather than telling (reminds me of a school teaching practice I used to be familiar with!!)

That’s right, so beyond helping them to understand how to prevent germs from spreading, we are also hoping to keep our child as healthy as possible. Healthy foods and joyful movement are definitely key to this. Yet, we have to make sure children aren’t feeling pressured.

Oh yesiree, the minute there’s pressure applied, Lenny bucks up!

The best way to ensure we are helping kids with their nutrition and movement needs is to role model, actively reduce stress at mealtimes and offer a variety of foods at the family table. Having a food that they like at mealtimes will foster a real belonging mindset at the mealtime. Showing fun ways to move your body together is also a great way to encourage connectedness.

So bring in a new dish alongside something I know he already likes…

I definitely think that making your child feel secure is very important in times like this. From a nutrition perspective, providing a range of foods in a calm environment is helpful. Moving your body joyfully before a family meal is loaded with benefits like increased concentration, better mood and increased length of time that children can sit. So, definitely play a bit of “freeze dance” or do some star jumps with your little ones to physically reinforce that in times of uncertainty you can be there to keep them safe. Provide foods from a range of food groups where possible and a range of colours and then children can decide to eat them. Pressure at the mealtime can backfire and turn into a tense negotiation.

Umm, have you been spying through our windows lately Simone?!

No, but this is very common so you need to go easy on yourself. Taking away pressure may leave you feeling like they are eating less of the food you want for them to eat, but this is (mostly) short lived. The long term benefit of eating foods from a place of internal curiosity and raising a child with a positive relationship with food far outweighs the extra teaspoon of mashed potato you got them to eat last week.

Amen sister!

And on another side note, well one that is kind of more pressing than coronavirus in our house, Lenny is going through a pretty interesting phase (code for ‘not really trying much’) at dinner time. Can you suggest how we get back on track?

Plan something that you would normally have – so maybe spaghetti bolognese, as well as a safe option for Lenny – so rice and sweet potato – is a great idea. Plonk it all in the middle of the table.

So kind of like a ‘Lazy Susan’ set up at the local Chinese Restaurant?

Perfect image! And before you sit down, join him to shake out some wiggles, wash your hands, have a laugh and then head on over to the table (or picnic rug or any other location of your choice). Empower Lenny to serve you something and see what he chooses for himself. When a child refuses to eat a meal, it is like an iceberg, there is always a huge amount of reasons “why” lying below the tip. Your job as a parent is to enjoy your food and offer him experiences and safety.  

Thanks so much Simone – I’ll keep you posted.

You can follow up with Simone’s beautiful thoughts and online programs over here at Play With Food and on Instagram as well.

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