How to get kids to the dinner table: get an attitude

Nov 9, 2009 by


OBSERVED at the Pearl Brewery Farmers Market on Saturday morning: this little girl wanted to know how much it would cost to buy a tomato. The seller got out her special stock for the girl to pick from and weighed her selection. A quarter? That's exactly how much the little girl had in her little purse to spend on something special that day. Now what kind of kid in today's world wants to buy a tomato with her quarter? And what kind of parent raises a child like that? I should have interviewed them.

I like to say it’s never too late to change. While in theory, it’s never too late, the reality is that sometimes, for various reasons, it just is.

Whether it’s too late for you to start serving real meals and getting your kids to eat them all depends on your attitude.

“Masterly inactivity” is the most effective attitude for a parent to take on, at the dinner table or elsewhere, according to Victorian-era British educational reformer Charlotte Mason.

Masterly inactivity is the state of being in charge, seeing all, yet purposefully leaving children alone to a great degree.

The elements of this attitude, according to Mason, are:

  1. Authority

Children need to be aware at all times that you are in charge. Establishing your authority from the beginning is the best, but better to do it now than try to yet later. It may take some time. Your children should see that you are steady and solid, not wishy-washy and hesitant.  “This element of strength is the backbone of our position,” Mason says.  Be the kind of parent who can fix them with your eye, without nagging.

2.      Good humor

Having natural good humor at the table doesn’t mean you let them walk all over you or don’t care what they do. But being in a pleasant mood, being able to joke around and laugh are good things.  Be firm but pleasant at the table.

3.       Self-confidence

“Parents should trust themselves more,” writes Mason.  Avoid worrying out loud, fussing, explaining, interfering, pestering, hovering at the table.  Be dignified, straightforward, and clear in your own mind what you expect from you children as far as behavior. Then make it clear to them and stick to it.

At dinner time, if you’ve done your homework, you know what you should feed your kids, you’ve gotten it together and it’s on the table. At that point, your job is over and you’ve done it well. Once at the dinner table, it’s time to let that purposeful leaving alone take over as far as the eating goes.

4.          Confidence in the children

It’s not all up to us. Expect the best, believe in your child, then let her fulfill your expectations without constant checking up on her. Know that your child can enjoy healthy foods without being forced, and only without being forced.  Believe in their appetites. Believe in their ability as little humans to regulate their own eating by listening to their appetites. We’ve all heard the tiresome mom who hounds her child: “Emma, eat your salad. You can’t have any dessert unless you eat that. Yes! At least one bite. Stop it!” Neither effective nor agreeable to be around.

5.         Serenity

“This open-eyed attitude must be sphinx-like in its repose,” Mason tells us.  Rushing around and doing too much, complete with stress and pressure, doesn’t contribute to successfully getting kids to the table.  Planning ahead and allowing time for just being at the dinner table are requirements.

We should cultivate the “serenity of a Madonna,” as Mason calls it. This attitude adds to the security of our children in knowing their parents are in charge and know best. Children don’t need to hear about our worries about obesity and health. They don’t profit from our fussing and hovering. Don’t share your nervous fears with them, such as what if they won’t eat it? What if this isn’t really good for them? What if I can’t get them to eat right and they get fat and sick and die?

The parents must bear the burden of their children’s training, urges Mason, but “let them bear it with easy grace and an erect carriage as the Spanish peasant bears her water jar.”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 9 November 2009 / All rights reserved

Related posts:

“Using sphinx-like repose to end the food fight”

“How to use masterly inactivity to win your child to healthy eating for life”

“Taking a detour: One good way to neutralize a kid’s food resistance”

This post was feature on Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on Jan. 22, 2010


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