How to use the Push Pull Principle on a food-throwing toddler
My friend Elaine has an adorable 17-month old, Wade. Every meal, Wade always starts throwing food once he’s eaten. As soon as he no longer needs it as food, he turns it into a toy. It’s a normal stage for a baby. A one-year-old discovers that he can throw food and enjoy doing so. But it’s been going on for awhile and Elaine doesn’t know what to do about it. She scolds him, but he doesn’t let that bother him.
I asked her if she took the food away from him when he did it.
“I don’t want to take the food away,” she said, “because I’m afraid he’s not done eating.”
That fear is the crux of the matter and so it continues.
Mom is the only one who’s afraid here. Wade has no concerns at all. He’s in charge and he knows it. He likes throwing food and he likes having power over Mom. He’s a happy-go-lucky little savage and a contented tyrant. Things are going his way. He’s never deprived of food, or of throwing food. He sees no reason to change.
But Wade’s hunger is not something to fear. It’s something to leverage against his bad behavior. Elaine’s mistake is trying to get him to stop throwing food and to eat it instead, when he needs a real a reason to do things her way. She’s pushing food on him where she should be pulling it away.
So, I told Elaine, don’t keep the food there for him to throw. He’s already smart enough to wait till he’s eaten a good bit before throwing, so there seems to be little danger of starvation. Don’t be afraid, be firm. Let him be afraid. He may not listen to reason, but he will listen to action. He’ll see Mom isn’t such a pushover. Taking it away as soon as he shows the least sign of wanting to throw it is a natural consequence of his action. Continue to reason with him also until he understand that food is only for eating, not for throwing, and that food stays on the table.
If he is still a tiny bit hungry when the food is removed the first time or two, that experience will not damage him; rather it will help him focus next time on his hunger and that he needs to eat when the food is present, not throw it.
Wade has an important lesson to learn: “Do what mom wants me to do or I may be hungry. Things won’t be OK for me in some way.” If he doesn’t learn it now, the danger to his own well-being will keep increasing. Even if he eventually lost interest on his own in throwing food, he would not lose interest in doing his own thing, for better or worse. It’s not cruel to require a child to treat other people right (starting with her parents), and value what’s valuable, or be safe or do the right thing. It’s good for everybody.
It may feel like a game of chicken. Who’s going to cave? It’s a step of faith. You may think, “If I withhold food, my darling will feel hungry. He’ll suffer and starve.” No, if you withhold food, your child will learn that food is valuable and will learn to eat when its time and not behave like a wild thing. He won’t stop eating: he’ll just stop making a mess. He’ll also be on the path to becoming the kind of bigger person other people will enjoy being around.
But before he gets much further along that path, he’ll outgrow the desire to throw food and move on to the next thing he needs you to teach him.