"When you give me soup, or some other food that I don't like," 5-year-old Joah said to me in a warm, conversational kind of way, "then I pretend that I'm very thirsty and I drink and drink and drink, hoping that I won't have to eat the soup."
"But," he sighed maturely, "it never works."
"Oh," I said, making sure that I didn't laugh at this grave confession.
It has taken a year, but I have finally trained my children not to collapse in despair at the mention of soup for supper. At about 4 o'clock, they all come barreling into the kitchen, stepping under feet and into spaces that you never thought possible, enquiring desperately what's for supper. A year ago, the answer of soup was met with exclamations of disgust and genuine heartfelt sobs. I had to do something.
"Lael, Joah, Anna," I said, lining them up with my eyes, "you are never allowed to complain about supper. Ever. You don't have to pretend you like it. You can just keep quiet. But you are absolutely not allowed to complain."
The next time I served them soup, they obeyed. None of them mentioned the soup. Lael politely said that she had a sore stomach and needed to lie down immediately, but I could call her when the dessert came. Anna took one mouthful and started gagging, and Joah clutched his throat and held his breath till his face turned red.
I tweaked the rules a bit – you're not allowed complaining with your words or your nonwords. "What I mean is, don't complain with your faces either," I explained. And so the next soup supper was just met with sighs – deep, dark, weighed-down-with-sorrow sighs. "No," I said, "no, no, no. Nothing about you is allowed to complain – not your words, not your faces, not your attitudes. Soup is cheap, soup is healthy, and it is good to have to eat things that you don't like. We will eat soup."
And so finally, after many answers of "please don't complain, it's soup for supper," my children learned to just simply ask: What kind of soup? And although their eyebrows rose as I listed each successive vegetable, there was no sign of moaning any more.
Which I think is why Joah's confession moved me so much. It was not a complaint but a silent admission that if he could make soup disappear some other way than through him, he would.
I began to doubt my soup policy.
"Do you think it's OK," I asked a group of moms a few days later, "to serve up meals of suffering to your kids? I mean, I don't just serve soup because it's cheap and healthy, it's also that I feel that it's good for children, at least once a week, to suffer through a meal. But now I'm wondering whether it's really worth it."
"Well, you do want to get vegetables into their diet," one mom replied. "And you do want to budget wisely," said another. "But it's more than that," I replied, "because I could do both of those without serving up soup."
"Yes," one particularly thoughtful mom added, "but getting your children to suffer patiently through meals that they don't like at home, prepares them for when they have to do that at someone else's house. Other families and other cultures will always make food that your children don't like. But if they have learned to politely accept it, then they've learned a great skill in hospitality."
That was a good point. So I went and home and whipped up some celery, bean, potato, and carrot soup.
"Mom," Joah said after 10 minutes of staring at it, "Anna is pushing her soup round and up the sides of her bowl, trying to spread it out evenly, to make the middle look empty, so that you will think she has eaten it."
"But," he sighed, "it won't work."
"Why won't it work, Jo?" I asked.
"Because the soup is still there. Just like my secret won't work, now that I've told you."
"No, I guess it won't."
I decided to fetch some chocolate. They had had enough suffering for one week – two soup meals in the space of seven days. I carefully broke up the bar and placed it in front of each of them. Anna stopped smearing her soup up the sides of her bowl, Joah stopped pouring himself more water, and all three of them began to swallow generous mouthfuls of soup. So there was a trick to making soup go away that did work.
I decided not to share this secret with Joah.