How to get kids to eat at the table, Part III
Answering a reader’s question about how to stop children’s complaining, playing around and dawdling at the dinner table.
I have some more thoughts on the question.
I think you need a bit less nonchalance about your son’s behavior and a bit more nonchalance—masterly inactivity, a purposeful leaving alone—about the eating itself.
I suggest laying down the law on behavior at the table: we do not come to the table and complain. Nor do we play around and dawdle. I’m sure you don’t want him to get in the habit of fussing and whining and being disagreeable. I know you would not like him to go to someone else’s house and express himself that way. Or treat his wife that way someday. You son needs to be taught that if he wants to eat dinner with the family, he has to be polite. I’m sure he will decide that, yes, he does want to eat and he does want to be with the family, if encouraged to think about it.
He can refuse any dish by saying, “No, thank you,” and he doesn’t have to eat or even try anything at all, ever. If he whines and is rude about the food (or anything else), he will be sent from the table and not be allowed to come back that evening. He has the choice: be hungry or follow the expectations and eat with his family. I would be very calm and unemotional about this announcement. Act like it’s no big deal, be matter-of-fact, but this is how it’s going to be now.
That said, know that even subtle pressure to eat will arouse resistance. I would avoid arguing with him about what or how much he eats, or urging him in any way to try anything at all, ever. Refuse to get pulled into that power struggle. I wouldn’t pester him at all, at the table or elsewhere at a more neutral time, about his fussiness. The more you try to talk him out of it the tighter he will cling. It seems to give him a power and identity as “the picky one” that he is enjoying. The attention he’s getting about it is perpetuating it, probably. My guess is that he is gratified and affirmed by being asked to “just try it” and being able to refuse.
Far better to pull food away from him than push it on him. Let him reach out and ask for it, and be the one to make his eating happen. He won’t let himself starve. If nobody presses him about eating, nobody cares what or how much he eats, he will give up the fight, I predict. How much and what he eats should be entirely up to him. Your job is only to provide only foods you are happy with him eating, have regular meals and snacks, and provide a pleasant atmosphere at the table, which includes insisting on manners.
It’s time for you to stop knocking on his door to sell. Let him start knocking on your door to buy. He will come around.
In the spirit of pulling away instead of pushing, I would also limit the length of the meal. Instead of telling them to hurry up and eat, just end the meal. Quit pushing him; instead pull away and let him come forward.
Set up a natural urgency to eat. Instead of adapting to them, let them adapt to you, without being mean about it. Let hunger be their problem to solve. They’ll learn quickly that dawdling leads directly to regret a bit later when they find themselves still hungry. I would warn them before dinner one night that this was how it was going to be, and then do it that night.
Your kids can be trained that when the parents stop eating and are sitting there no longer eating, they had better make haste if they still need more food, thus tuning them in to their own appetites. They should know the signs that the end is near. You can start clearing away and that should be their clear signal that their time is up. I’d be really cool and calm about it, but just start removing their plates when it’s time. Let their appetites wake up and teach them urgency.