How second children illustrate nature and nurture

content note: eating disorders

There’s nothing to make you realize which parts of how your kid turned out are beyond your control like having another one. Your special parenting methods, to which you had attributed your previous success or failure, often produce different results with a different child.


Anna is an easy sleeper; after the bedtime routine you just lay her in the crib and she curls up and goes to sleep. If she had been my only child, I might assume people who had trouble getting their children to sleep were doing it wrong. But I know that the same procedure didn’t work with Lily; we went through looooong stages of holding her, leaning over the crib bouncing the mattress, patting her and singing, reciting stories in the dark, etc.

If we’d had an easy sleeper the first time, we’d probably congratulate ourselves on our excellent methods. As it is, we realize that we just got lucky the second time.


Both our kids love care-taking play with dolls and stuffed animals, but Anna also likes car play. Lily had no interest in pushing a car around the floor the way Anna does.

(Not to say that gendered socialization doesn’t happen. My favorite example was the time Lily and I were at the park with a father and his toddler son. The boy hefted a basketball into a doll crib. “He scores!” said the father, at the same time as I asked, “Is the ball going to sleep?”)


In this case, the first child was plenty to change my understanding of how much power I had.

When discussing picky eaters my parents always quoted the pediatrician I saw as a child: “No child ever starved in the presence of food.” This is not exactly true, but I generally embraced this strategy before I had kids. Why were parents always heating up bottles — surely if a baby got used to cold milk they’d like it just as much? Why fix your kid special food — won’t they eat what they’re served if they’re really hungry?

Then Lily was born, and we watched her slowly sink from 82nd percentile for weight to 1st percentile. We tried breastfeeding, pumped milk, formula, nasty strawberry-scented Pediasure, three lactation consultants, two specialists, and medication to increase her appetite. Nothing seemed to be wrong, except that she didn’t feel like eating. At eight months she was kicked out of daycare and because she wouldn’t drink a bottle for the provider. At one year, she was diagnosed with failure to thrive. When she still wasn’t walking at 16 months, the doctor’s guess was “Probably not enough calories.”

So you can bet we weren’t refusing to heat bottles for her or insisting that there would be no dinner except what the rest of us were having. Despite some early successes with adult table food, at age three she’s now eating a typical picky American toddler diet: toast, chicken nuggets, ice cream, pasta, meatballs, rice, cheese, pancakes, fruit. She still isn’t very interested in food and would rather play than eat. But she’s up to a healthy 20th percentile weight.

I know the picky-toddler phenomenon is partly cultural. (See French Kids Eat Everything.) When I volunteered at a childcare center in Ecuador, I was amazed to see one-year-olds gobbling up their meat-and-vegetable soup every day. But many of those kids weren’t getting enough food at home, and the older children were kept at the table and spoon-fed by the staff if they didn’t finish their meals. Watching three-year-olds sit passively with women scooping potatoes into their mouths, I resolved never to do that to my children. I want them to have autonomy over their bodies more than I want them to eat the same dinner as the adults.

My embarrassment about my child’s “beige diet” is my problem, not hers. (Anna, meanwhile, happily eats the same tofu and asparagus as the adults — we’ll see if it lasts.)

I have a lot more understanding now for parents who do whatever works to feed their kids with reflux, tongue-tie, sensory processing problems, low appetite, or just garden-variety pickiness. And given that children largely grow out of picky eating, I no longer see accommodating it as the lazy way out.


3 thoughts on “How second children illustrate nature and nurture

  1. LRS

    Thank you for sharing the story of the difficult struggle you and Lily have had with food. It sounds harrowing, and I’m sorry it’s been so hard. When parents are frank about these kinds of challenges, it creates a more supportive and less alienating social landscape for other parents who are struggling, which is a good thing.

    Our son is just over six months old and has been sleeping more like Lily did. I want to want to have more kids, but it seems hard to justify going through this again. It helps to be reminded of the possibility that we might luck out and get an easier sleeper. On the other hand, we might unluck out in some other domain…

    1. Julia Post author

      In terms of whether I’d want to go through the hard parts again, I found Bryan Caplan’s take in “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” helpful – to think not just of my present self, but of what I’ll want in 5 years, 15 years, 30 years. If you think your enjoyment over time will be greater with another child, it may be worth it even if the initial stages are really hard.

      1. LRS

        I read Selfish Reasons during the first few weeks after we brought our son home, during what I think of as the “we’ve made a horrible mistake” phase. I’m more or less fully convinced on a rational level that having more kids is a good idea, but I’m still swinging around in this weird space of believing it without really alieving it. Delaying gratification has never come naturally to me. My wife seems pretty firmly set on it and blog posts like this help. I think I’ll get there eventually, but future-me had better be really grateful.


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