Teaching babies to eat is messy. No matter when they are trained to feed themselves, the kitchen ends up looking like there was a chow-war.
We have all probably heard about the mother who hand-fed her child until he was two, hoping to avoid the hour of cleanup afterwards. It took longer to feed him. The child was frustrated because he was not allowed to feed himself. He wasn’t even allowed to play with his food—imagine that! His clothes stayed clean, his high chair was immaculate, and the floor didn’t need to be mopped multiple times a day.
But there was one secret this mother didn’t know. She didn’t realize that wasn’t saving herself the cleaning. All it did was delay the inevitable for about a year. As soon as her son was handed a spoon, the fun began. And I suspect it was even worse for her because, by that age, his throwing arm was stronger than it was at nine months old.
I could be called lazy, or maybe frugal with my time, but by the time my children were about six months old or so, they were handed a spoon. As I fed them their baby cereal and applesauce, they were allowed to hold, bang, wave, and drop the spoon all they wanted. Eventually, they were able to actually get it into their mouths.
Soon I would set the bowl of applesauce on the tray, and the baby would try to start feeding himself while I kept spooning in a little more. Finally, I would give up as handfuls of baby cereal were stuffed in with one hand, while the other hand waved the spoon in my face.
Unappetizing blobs of goo wound up everywhere—on their faces and hands, in the high chair, on the floor, and occasionally flung at the nearest wall. The hair would receive a coating guaranteed to make it smooth, luxurious, and full of body.
If we were lucky, everyone was treated to a work of art on the high chair tray, lovingly created out of pudding or cooked carrots, arranged in a 20th-century masterpiece. The artist’s cherubic face was decorated with a mashed potato goatee and a headdress of gravy.
It didn’t take long before we decided to strip our babies down to their diapers for mealtimes. It sure made it easier to sit them on the side of the sink afterwards and give them a quick rinse before setting them down to play.
The time I spent cleaning the kitchen was probably comparable to the time it would have taken to feed my child. By allowing the child to experiment and practice, it gave him or her more freedom and independence, while developing fine motor skills.
It also kept them busy for a while, which is valuable in itself.
There is one thing we learned the hard way: Teaching children to feed themselves and teaching them sign language at the same time might not be the best idea.
The sign for “eat” is pointing all the fingers at the mouth, barely touching the lips. The sign for “more” is putting all the fingers together in a cluster and touching the fingertips together a couple times. Those aren’t too hard to use. Some of the others are worse.
One night we were eating spaghetti, when our munchkin signed for more. My ever-helpful older daughter told her to say please, which our little one did immediately. Unfortunately, the sign for “please” is rubbing the chest in a circular motion. Yes, the child had clothes on. Yes, the same child had spaghetti sauce on her hands. And yes, it was impossible to get that stain out.
So maybe my house will never be featured in Better Homes and Gardens. Maybe my kitchen will be perennially sticky, and the occasional guest might end up glued to the chair. And maybe my stove will always have fingerprints on it. But I don’t care. My children are happy and creative and not dependent on me for everything.
While that young mother dutifully fed her son, I was tossing Cheerios on my son’s tray to keep him happy while I cooked dinner. While that mother spoon-fed every bite to her immaculate child, holding the spoon with immaculate fingernails in her immaculate house, my daughter was fingerpainting with her applesauce. And when it was finally time for the young mother to teach her son to use a spoon, I was already free of that chore.
No matter when they learn to feed themselves, it’s going to be messy. That’s just life. Besides, it’s highly amusing, at least until it’s time to mop the floor.
That’s my story, and I am sticking to it—and I will continue to stick to it as long as I am sitting here in a spot of maple syrup that I didn’t notice on the chair.
Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of six, and has served as a foster parent. She has a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.