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Refuses to Eat Lunch At School

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Child Won't Eat Their Packed Lunch

I had an email from a mom this week who had a little guy starting kindergarten that refused to eat his lunch at school.  At first she was very concerned but then she realized that he might be doing this for attention because he would keep talking about it. Wisely,  she began ignoring it.  The question she had for me was what to do about his request to eat the lunch she packed when he got home from school.   Should he be allowed to eat from his lunch box at 3:30pm?  OR – do you use the whole "the time to eat has come and gone – you made your choice at lunch time – now you need to wait until dinner"

What do you think?

Let him eat it?
Make him wait for supper – the logical consequence?

This is a question for all you out there that have taken my course or who have been studying Adlerian child guidance practices.  Its also the kind of question that keeps us working with the theory all the time. Can you see it both ways?

So do you want the answer I gave?

I start always by trying to step inside the mind of the child and find out the usefulness of the behavior.  I believe the boy was refusing to eat lunch as a kind of hunger strike, hoping that it would maybe get him withdrawn from kindergarten.   Which of the 4 goals of misbehavior is that?

  • attention
  • power
  • revenge
  • avoidance

I think the boy has a goal of power in his hunger strike. Often eating, sleeping and toileting is where children discover they can make a bid for power because parents can’t control the child’s biological functions and kids like to remind parents of this!

If we agree that there is a power struggle between mom and the kindergarten student, then apply a logical consequence is NOT recommended.  Why? because so often when we use logical consequences as a discipline technique we inadvertently do so in a way that is simply a camouflage to wielding our autocratic power over our children and it backfires! 

Repeat – do not use logical consequences for dealing with power struggles!

So what do we do instead?  In this case, I would recommend that if mom’s goal is to end the power struggle so her child will eat at regular times, the best way to get him eating like the rest of society is to make a non-issue out of it.  The fighting over lunch eating needs to end.  I say, let him eat his lunch when he gets home, and I predict that in a few days when he sees that mother doesn’t care about either his hunger strike or his after school eating that he will commence eating lunch at school like everybody else. He stands to gain nothing by doing it any other way.  NOT eating at lunch is no longer making a statement that anyone cares about.  Who would sit hungry and NOT eat if there was no benefit to be gain? Mom’s lack of concern over her child’s eating schedule will more quickly allow him to adopt a regular one.   Insisting he eat at school and not at 3:30 will add fuel to the fire of this fight and no doubt create the opposition he enjoys. By trying to manipulate his choices by a consequence only serves to further the power struggle and will actually delay his interest in adopting regular eating habits.

It might feel permissive to you, to allow the child to eat their lunch at 3:30 – but I think it will not be for many days if you have ended the power struggle.

Great questions – keep them coming! We all learn from others and that is what this site is about.

About Alyson

Alyson has been blogging parenting advice for over 15 years. She has been a panelist at BlogWest, Blissdom, #140NYC and more. Her content appears on sites across Canada and the US, but you can read all her own blog posts right here.

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5 Responses to “Refuses to Eat Lunch At School”

  1. sadie-may

    Wow! This is great advice! i have done the same thing. When my children did not want to eat during mealtime, I did not care about it. I left things around the house for them to get, and that was that. I made no big deal about it, and eventually, they came to.
    I have two children who are minors. One who is thirteen, the same age as yours, and one who is ten, who is my Aspie child. She will refuse foods because they are a certain texture or color. For the texture thing, i have no way to even get her to eat, and for the food that is a color she does not like, I allow her to dye the food the color she does like. What I’ve done thus far is to just not prepare food that is the texture she hates and stick to what she likes; however, it is not going over well with my thirteen year old. For the past few years, I’ve just allowed them both to eat separate things, but some parents feel I’m being too permissive. I do not feel i’m being that way because my ten year old has special needs, and I feel I should cater to them. My thirteen year old should not be left out because of my other daughter’s special needs: or, she might resent her sister. So, I’ve just done the everybody eats something different approach, though, I know that is not conventional. What do you recommend.

    Reply
  2. Diana

    Hi,
    I have a question too. I have a 4 yr old son who refuses to eat in school. He is not a very good eater even at home but at school he refuses to even touch his food. He expects either his dad or me to come and feed him at lunch time! We have been doing it for the past 2 years but now I really want him to start feeding himself. The talk of eating lunch by himself in school, that itself makes him cry and he works himself up to the point of puking.Please advice.

    Reply
  3. Alyson Schafer

    I suggest that you leave him to deal with the needs of the situation: Its lunch, he is at school, he can eat or be hungry. You ( and others) are not available to feed him.
    I suggest you let him know in advance you will not be getting involved in his meal time at school and let the school deal with his lunch room behaviours.
    He may get so upset he gets sick to his stomach, but be calm, be unimpressed, and carry on. He’ll figure it out.
    Alyson

    Reply
  4. Deborah Spake

    Hi, my almost three year old has had difficulty adjusting to preschool this young. She has always been a great eater. I didn’t have to potty train her – she was ready on the earlier side when she saw her cousin coin git and after a few naked days – chose it on her own and it just was an easy transition from diaper to potty. She only wears diapers at night and at nap. She transitioned to potty use way prior to preschool. And there’s never been any power struggle with her – cause it was no big deal. Now at school she has started refusing to touch her snack and her lunch. She knows when she eats it makes her poop (this has been talked about) and she knows how uncomfortable it is to “hold it”. So in order to make it from 9:00am – 1pm without having to go poop at school, she’s stopped eating. She has two programs, one she was more well adjusted to and bonded with the teacher and the other ‘not comfortable there at all’. However, even with those different environments she has been doing this behavior of not eating at both. Some days I gave her snacks after school or she finished her lunch (if she’d eaten some of it). This week got more extreme when I found out that she ate Nothing both days (no snack, no lunch .. nada). How do you address this? Its seems its not about power, but avoidance? or managing her anxiety? Help!!

    Reply
  5. Alyson Schafer

    Hi Deborah,
    Yes – it does seem the usefulness of not eating is to aid her in the goal of not going to the washroom at school. You could see if she will talk to you about what makes her nervous: is it the sound of the loud toilet? The being alone in the washroom? Fear of someone hearing her or seeing her? Or something else she might offer. Once you know her actual fear you can develop coping mechanisms to help her overcome her fears. See what you learn and get back to me! I’ll help with next steps too.
    Alyson

    Reply

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