Let them eat snails

Last December, I took the trip of a lifetime. My daughter was studying abroad for a semester, and I flew out to meet her so we could spend the holidays together in Paris. I'm happy to report that, after being together 24/7 for nearly two weeks, we not only didn't kill each other, we had a fantastic time.

One of the best things about visiting France is eating like the French do, which means eating pretty much anything that once was (or still is) alive. During our stay, we ate snails, frogs' legs, the gonads of crustaceans, the livers of force-fed geese, and several moldy cheeses that smelled like the socks at the bottom of your gym bag. Tragically, we didn't have time to try brains, thymus glands, or a paté made from the soft parts of a sheep's head. Oh well, you have to save some highlights for next time, right?

Sitting across from my daughter and watching her sample these delicacies, I appreciated her sense of adventure. One of the most common complaints I hear from parents is that their kids are picky eaters. I've always been grateful that my kids are willing to try pretty much whatever I put in front of them. But being in France opened my eyes to new realms of food exploration. How is it that the French can get their kids to eat snails, when some American kids won't even try whole wheat bread?

I asked Daniel, our host in Paris, and he gave an interesting response. "Americans," he said, "have too many choices."

He recalled traveling in the United States for the first time, and walking into a diner. "I asked what Americans eat for breakfast. The waitress said eggs. Good, I have eggs. She asked how I want to cook them. She gave me five choices. And how dark should the toast be? And what to put in the coffee? And how crispy to cook the bacon? Too many decisions. I told her to give me the first thing on each list. In France, you don't tell the chef how to cook your food. That's his job."

Similarly, he said, French children don't decide what they will and will not eat. That's the parents' job. I was familiar with this idea from my own Chinese upbringing, where our choices at each meal came down to: a) Eat it, and b) Go hungry. This ultimately led to a fondness for fish maw, cow tendon and duck feet, which I have since passed on to my own kids.

This is not to say that every kid is going to chow down on tripe stew just because you plop it down in front of them. Kids in general are sensitive to strong tastes, some more so than others. Still, the huge variations in SFT (Squiggly Food Tolerance) from one culture to the next can't be ignored.

But why would we deprive our children of the freedom to make choices? Isn't that a necessary step in their development? Isn't that a fundamental ingredient in their happiness? Isn't that the American way? Well, yes. And no.

We Americans are obsessed with freedom. We'll tolerate an enormous amount of chaos, crime and inequality to preserve our right to do as we wish. Singapore and Switzerland may have safer, cleaner streets and emptier prisons, but you'll never see their systems catch on in the good old U. S. of A. Deep down, we believe that individual freedom and choice is our birthright, and our surest road to prosperity and happiness.

The trouble is, the effects of choice on happiness are not what you'd expect. Time and time again, research has shown that when people have only one choice, they tend to find ways to be content with what they get. But when they choose from among many options, they end up less content – wistfully eyeing the choices not taken with buyer's remorse and regret.

Providing our kids with a multitude of choices doesn't necessarily make them happier. In fact, it may do the opposite. And by letting them choose what they want to eat now, we may deprive them of a wider array of foods to sample and enjoy for the rest of their lives.

It's good to let kids have a voice. It's good to give them a sense of control, and an opportunity to make decisions. But it's also good to expand their experience and their horizons beyond what they would choose on their own. Sure, let them have a PBJ sometimes, just because they asked for it.

But once in a while, let them eat snails.