F.Birchman / MSNBC.com
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/4/2005 5:32:32 PM ET 2005-04-04T21:32:32

How should parents react when their kids refuse to go to church? And what's the best way to deal with a picky eater? Growing Up Healthy answers your queries. Have a question about children's health and well-being? Send it to us atchildrenshealth@feedback.msnbc.com. We’ll post select answers in future columns.

Q:We have a very large family (six children) and our oldest son, who is 16, recently said he doesn’t want to go to church anymore. He’s mentioned that he doesn’t agree with our church’s view that gay marriage should be prohibited. Our faith is very important to us. Should we insist he attend church with the rest of the family or allow him to stay home?

A: It’s understandable that you want your children in church. There’s great data to suggest that when adolescents are involved in positive activities they’re more likely to associate with positive peers and less likely to get in trouble, says James F. Alexander, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah and co-creator of the Functional Family Therapy treatment program.

But there’s a big catch.

“The research is also pretty clear that family bonding is even more important,” explains Alexander. What this means for you is that no matter how you handle this situation or any other you don’t want to jeopardize your relationship with your son or in any way splinter your family. If you do, you can expect more trouble (e.g. your son lying and avoiding you). Instead, you want to foster the feeling of a team trying to figure it out, not you against your son.

How do you do this? “For starters, rather than insist your son goes to church and [thus] creating a crisis. It’s better to approach it as a process,” says Alexander. “Have a discussion about why your son doesn’t want to go and then say, ‘Okay, you’re on record as not wanting to go any longer. But I want you to give me a month.’” Ask him to attend as usual for the month and during that time keep talking about the aspects of church that your son finds unpleasant.

You may discover the reasons he doesn’t like church are petty: he doesn’t want to get up early on weekends, he doesn’t want to dress up or he thinks some fellow church members are annoying. If this is the case, work out compromises. Perhaps he stays in youth group but doesn’t have to attend church services — or he attends a later service and wears whatever he wants.

Then again, you may discover, as many parents have, that there are real and very serious reasons why your son finds himself incompatible with church life.  

“Sometimes this is a bigger thing,” says Cheryl Giles, a professor of the practice in pastoral care and counseling at Harvard Divinity School and a psychologist who works with child and adolescent psychiatry at Boston Medical Center. For example, he may be trying to come out as gay. “If that’s the case, it could be very difficult to do that in some religious environments,” says Giles. “If you can’t figure out how to talk this out, go to someone who can help. Your son needs a safe and impartial person to talk to about what’s possibly behind his decision to take a church hiatus.”

You may also find it helps to open up dialogue if you both read up on adolescent spiritual issues. Giles recommends "Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers" by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist-Denton.

But, if your son ends up not attending church activities, he should know it isn’t good enough just to stay home in bed. “You should ask him how he’s planning to replace his church activities. Is he going to read a book for an hour or write in a journal? Ideally, you want to have an activity in place that contributes to his growth as a person,” says Giles.

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Bottom line, though, is that your son must know that your relationship with him is more important than whether he goes to church. “I’d assume too that for most parents [who are Christian] a son or daughter’s relationship with God is also more important than face time in church,” says Alexander.

Lastly, be prepared to go through this with several of your children. The degree to which each of your kids remains religious is likely to change with adolescence and even differ among the children as they become adults.

In fact, researchers now believe that, like other personality traits, there’s a strong genetic component to “religiousness.” A study recently published in the Journal of Personality found that environmental factors such as parenting and family life influence a child's religiousness, but the effects decline with the transition into adulthood. The University of Minnesota study followed 169 pairs of adult male identical twins and 104 sets of fraternal twins. The identical twins remained similar in their religiousness but the fraternal twins (who share many but not all of the same genes) became more dissimilar as they grew into adulthood.

So, despite being raised in the same environment, there’s really no telling what will happen with each of your six children.

Q:My 4-year-old son will only eat chicken nuggets, hot dogs and bread products. My husband and I have tried in vain to get our child to try other foods, but these attempts always lead to hours of him screaming and crying and not eating. Any advice?

A: In January the U.S. government released revised guidelines on what constitutes a healthy diet. In those guidelines, we were all advised to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. In particular, the nutrition pros said several times a week anyone over age 2 should eat from all the vegetable subgroups, including dark green vegetables, orange veggies, legumes and starchy vegetables. So what do you do with a child who, never mind food groups, will only eat about three foods?

Not much, according to Karen Cullen, an associate professor of pediatric nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine’s Children’s Nutrition Research Center in Houston.

“This is a power issue more than a nutrition one. If your child is on the growth charts, he’s probably doing fine. But kids are very perceptive. If they see their parents get upset, they kind of like that,” says Cullen.

Her advice is to simply offer nutritious foods at each meal and at least twice a day as snacks. If your child eats, fine. If not, remove the food until the next meal or snack.

“You should offer foods that kids recognize,” recommends Cullen.

So maybe not eggplant Parmesan but spaghetti, chicken, vegetables and fruit. Also offer whole-grain bread and milk at each meal. Every other night it’s fine too to make the foods you know your son will eat — the chicken nuggets or hot dogs, although you may explore healthier versions. For example, you can make your own nuggets with chicken breast and bread crumbs and you can buy vegetarian hot dogs at most supermarkets. Preservative-free turkey franks are also available at health food stores but they can be expensive.

“Even if a child only eats a piece of bread and drinks a glass of milk, though, that’s fine,” says Cullen. “Your responsibility as a parent is to prepare the food and offer it at mealtime and snack time. It’s the child’s responsibility to choose how much to eat.”

You especially don’t want to take that responsibility away from your son. It’s important that he’s able to listen to his body and respond appropriately to hunger signals now and in the future. Cullen says that the odds are enormous that your son will develop a broader palate in due time.

There is one last thing you can do, though, to ensure it’s a broad and healthy palate: eat well.

“What you eat sends a very clear message to your child. So really look at your habits,” says Cullen.

Yes, you should be eating those vegetables (at least two and one-half cups a day) and the fruits (at least two cups a day). Bon appetite.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of the new book "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.

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