Red Hot Chili Peppers (or, Raising Children)

07 Aug 2006

Let’s consider the following scenario: you’ve brought home some very tasty Chinese food for dinner. Let’s say the dish is Szechuan fish fillet from San Fu restaurant in Ann Arbor, just to pick a random example. This dish contains small hot chiles. You only have to eat these once to know that you may not want to do it again; they give a nice heat to the sauce, but if you chew them up, the result is painful. (Maybe you like this sort of thing; I used to be able to eat extremely hot food, the kind that resulted in a flushed face, heavy breathing, and sweat dripping from my nose, food that burned you twice, but I can’t do it anymore, unless I want to have to spend the night sitting up in a chair eating Tums and hoping for the heartburn to subside).

So, let’s imagine you are sharing this dish with your children. If you were giving it to a two-year-old, you would probably pick out some tidbits of fish and vegetable, go light on the spicy sauce, give her some rice to eat with it, and make sure you avoid giving her any of the hot chiles. (Maybe your two-year-old doesn’t like hot food; ours seems to be quite happy with it, even if it makes her cheeks turn pink, probably because pretty much since she was first able to eat solid food, she’s eaten mainly smaller, cut-up portions of what we eat. She will even stop and puff out her cheeks and say “Wow!” and then eagerly reach for another bite).

But you definitely take out those chiles, for the baby. You do this because you aren’t cruel; the two-year-old isn’t fully ready to learn exactly what effect each part of the dish will have on her mouth. Her skill with a fork is still a bit limited, although she’s making great progress; she can’t pick apart the dish herself, and you don’t want her to accidentally develop a fear of the food you’re feeding her. You want her to trust you. You can’t explain it to her, at least, not yet.

But if you were sharing the dish with a twelve-year-old, how would you do it? I don’t think you would pick the dish apart; you would, most likely, just tell the child “Here! Try this. It’s delicious. But don’t eat those little hot chiles.”

What happens next, it seems to me, will depend on, and possibly reveal, quite a bit about your child’s temperament. Some children might just say “OK,” and carefully avoid the peppers… although perhaps not carefully enough.

But ours certainly would never do that. His first inclination is to tedious debate. “Why not?” he asks. “Because they’re extremely hot,” I say. “How hot?” he says. “Painfully hot,” I say. “How painful?” he says. What remains to be said at this point? Pain is highly subjective. “They rate somewhere around 50,000 to 100,000” on the Scoville scale,” I could say. I’ve warned him; I’ve lived up to the reputation for trustworthiness I try to maintain with my child; I haven’t lied to him; I didn’t try to surprise him. But how could I possibly convey what 50,000 Scoville units means?

Unless the child is just willing to take it on faith that those numbers mean “wow, that’s hot,” there’s really nothing to be done for it: the child will have to eat one. The result won’t be any permanent damage.

As it turns out, it was one of the few times my son has ever told me “you were right!” So my reputation for trustworthiness actually increased by one point, in his eyes. And he learned something; he doesn’t regret having decided for himself that he wanted to find out just how hot “painfully hot” is, because he gained some valuable information. And he will now apply just the degree of caution that he feels is appropriate, based on his own risk aversion level. He’s now calibrated his understanding what a hot chili pepper means against his own sensitivity and tolerance.

I bring up this whole thing because it has seemed to me that I’m hearing more and more about parents who would somehow attempt to forbid the child from eating the hot chiles, or maybe even just try to avoid the issue by never bringing home Szechuan food. I can’t imagine doing that. I would forbid him from eating cyanide; I’d restrain him from sticking a fork in his eye. But spicy food was (and still is, when my stomach can handle it) one of my great joys in life. Am I seriously supposed to tell my child he can’t have that joy because he might fry his tongue a little bit?

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