Girl Eating Peanut Butter SandwichI recently received a note from a reader, and it reflects an issue that so many parents and educators struggle with.  I asked permission to use her note as a starter for a blog about mealtimes, and she graciously agreed!

I’m so glad to have found your site! I studied child development in college, and feel strongly about using kind, effective guidance, but find that I don’t always react as I’d like to with my own two children and get derailed in the moment because of my own strong emotions or because I’m just tired. I just read your post about raising decent children and really enjoyed it.
 
I would love some advice on an issue we’ve been having with our two-and-a half-year old. As a side note, I’m due with our third child in a few weeks, so she’s likely going through some turmoil because of that. The problem is that at dinner time, she will not stay in her chair or will try to sit on the table. We’ve been threatening to strap her into her booster seat if she can’t stay still, which she hates, and then we end up giving her too many chances and it just turns into a circus. Sometimes I sit her on my lap, which she enjoys, and she’ll eat her whole plate of food. I read your suggestion about saying that mealtime is over when you get out of your chair, but then I’m not sure what to do with her at that point; I think she would just try to climb on my lap and eat my food. Then I would just have another situation to deal with. I’m wondering if she’s not old enough to be expected to sit still and should just be strapped into her booster seat for each meal, not as a punishment but just because that’s the level she’s at. Anyway, I would love any advice you have!
 
 thank you,
 Lindsey

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Dear Lindsey,

First of all, congratulations on your newest soon-to-be babe!  New siblings, changes in family structure, moving, new jobs, and other big life changes do cause young children a great deal of anxiety.  I think you are right – your daughter is going through some turmoil.  In the midst of these changes, our children ask us, by way of their behavior, to ground them with a consistent, unchanging response.

Your daughter needs a consistent response with very clear limits.  When she climbs out of her seat, simply say, “You must stay at the table to eat.  When you climb down, you are telling me you are all done.”  The first time she does it, you can help her back into her chair.  If she does it a second time, simply say, “Thank you for telling me you are done.”  Then, remove her plate.

If she tries to climb back up to eat, keep repeating the phrase, “You weren’t done yet.  I see.  We will eat snack soon, and you can try again then.”  If she climbs onto the table or into your lap, move her back to the floor and say, “I’m not done eating yet.  When I’m done, you can sit with me.”

Food should never be used as a tool to manipulate behavior (either as a threat or a bribe, If you clean up all of these toys, you can have dessert! or If you don’t stop pestering your sister, no dinner for you!).  In this case, removing her plate is not coercive or manipulation.  You stated the limit clearly: “You must eat while in your seat,” and when she climbs down, you are helping her to identify that she is all done.

Children find great freedom in clear and consistent limits.  We often mistake their loud protests and repeated limit-testing as a sign that we should be more accommodating.  In reality, they are testing – like little scientists – to make sure the limits really remain the same, regardless of their behavior.  “Will the limit stay the same if I do this?  What about this?  What if I yell louder?  What if I lay on the floor and kick?  What if I stand on top of the table?  Will the limit stay the same??”

Guess what happens when our response changes?  Our inconsistencies give children reason to continue testing to figure out where the limits are.  Only when children are beyond-a-doubt sure that the limit is firm will they stop testing. 

Also, I think it is critical to reflect on your own emotional state before you tackle this with your little one.  We can’t ignore the amount of emotional turmoil we experience during times of transition.  The first priority is to assess whether you have the emotional reserves to manage setting and holding firm limits with your little one at this exact moment.  Regaining peace during mealtimes shouldn’t take too many meals, but it will take an extra effort from you, and it helps to honestly discern whether or not you have the support to make the shift now.

Two and a half is certainly old enough to eat without a booster seat.  Janet Lansbury has this wonderful video and blog post about very young children at the meal table that I highly recommend.

I wish you luck with your growing family!

Warmly,

Emily

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