Here is the situation a mother recently described to me:
Her daughter would take one bite, and jump down from the table. Mom would put her back and she just kept jumping down again. Next mom would follow her around offering her dinner off her plate to eat while she played. When her daughter refused dinner, mom would make her favorite food out of fear that she would starve if she didn’t eat something!
Pretty extreme – but it makes the point that all behavior serves a purpose. This child has learned that you don’t need to be at the table to eat, that you can get your mother to serve you your favorite food and spoon feed you while you play. Her mother is trying to be a "good mother" and make sure her child is nourished. But her approach is problematic and she is bankrupt of ideas of what else to do.
Here is a strategy:
Establish routines. Decide exactly when meals and snacks are offered, preferable as a family. Your job as a parent is to provide healthy food choices at consistent and predictable times. Your child’s job is to make sure they get enough in their tummy to hold them until the next meal.
Apply Logical Consequences
A logical consequence of getting down from the table is the assumption that when one gets down they must be done eating – so their meal is removed from the table.
Mom: "We need to be at the table for eating. When you get down from the table, that tells me you are done."
Firm and Friendly Follow-Through
Refers to what you are going to do – not the child. You have stated that you will take their plate, now you must do it in a friendly matter-of-fact way.
Mom: "Oh – I see you’re done." (say nothing else)
Common pitfalls for parents:
- Giving some kind of "look" as they get down from the table that tells the child you have an "opinion" about their decision.
- Stating the consequence over and over again thinking the child didn’t understand (they did!) in hopes that you won’t have to follow through with taking the plate away.
Remember – children learn from experiencing consequences – not from the threat of a consequence.
The natural consequence of not staying at the table and eating is hunger. Parents often unknowingly interfere with the learning by making food available at other times to compensate. Stick with the pre-set routine! Let your child learn to move their behaviour in-line with the social order: eating at the family table at family dinner time. This is the essence of co-operation.
Language tips to get you through:
Mom: "I hear that you are hungry, but lunch time has come and gone, Our next time for food is snack. I am sure you will manage to hold on until then."
Child: "No, cookie – pleeeeeeeeeeease."
Mom: "You are really listening to your body, that is a great thing… Is it saying ‘feed me’?"
Mom: "Sounds like you are learning about how much that tummy of yours needs. Tomorrow you could try to have a bigger lunch and see if that holds you longer. Till then what could you do to help quiet your tummy? Maybe get distracted, or give it a rub? Snack is in an hour and I am sure you will make it." (NUF SAID – any more and they’ll learn to enjoy the special attention of this topic).
Try it out for a week before going to your in-laws for the holidays and let me know if your child managed to "eat, sit and be merry!"
Speak to your doctor if you are worried about the amount your child is choosing to eat or the nutritional balance. My rule of thumb is: if you only serve healthy food, and they are not lethargic, everything is probably fine. We tend to grossly overestimate how much children need, and we underestimate how many calories we pump into them in the form of juice.