It starts with a spoon pushed off the high chair. Perhaps some food is thrown on the floor. Or even better, thrown AT you. Some may experience food actually being spit out and spraying all over your shirt. At first it may seem cute and even laughable, but your reaction to their behavior is going to have the biggest influence on them continuing the behavior. Or not. No judgment here, Brooklyn has had her share of us laughing or getting upset with her. Oh yes, even a negative reaction allows the behavior to continue… or get worse.
So what to do when your toddler- or even your 4 year old- thinks meal time is a game or has trouble expressing their frustrations? The solution is very simple: a very BORING reaction. OK, so what exactly is an example of that? Here are 2 from 2 different age groups and situations:
- Fiona is 2 and in her high chair. She is discovering her motor skills and strength are improving. She wants to practice and show off those skills! She also wants to have some fun. You know this game. Fiona looks at you in an oh-so-cute way and slowly starts pushing her spoon off her tray. “Uh uh Fiona… no, no, no…” is your initial response, with a smile, as she keeps pushing that spoon. You think she is so adorable and your face and tone show it. She keeps pushing it, pushing it, and OOOPS! “Uh Oh Fiona!” and everyone giggles and Fiona thinks “How fun! Not only am I cute but I’m making people laugh!” The focus is off the meal and she continues the behavior to get the reaction she gets from the table. Instead, let’s try the boring reaction approach. Instead of cutesy comments, a smile, and a “ready to play” approach, when Fiona starts pushing that spoon and looks at all of you with that smile- don’t react at all. Keep eating as a family, doing what you’re doing, and don’t even look at what she’s doing. If that spoon goes off that tray and onto the floor, pick it up in a calm way, put it on her tray, look in her eyes and tell her, “Fiona, the spoon is for eating and stays on the tray.” If she does it again, same thing but add “Fiona, the next time you push the spoon off your tray, the spoon goes away.” Keep on doing your thing. That third time, say “Fiona, the spoon stays on the tray and this time it goes away.” She can figure out a way to eat her meal without the spoon. This boring reaction approach isn’t that easy though. It takes consistency and patience. The results won’t happen overnight.
- Let’s say you have the 4-year-old that is very expressive, independent, and knows what he wants. And tells you! It’s OK for him to express his feelings and his choices, but that doesn’t mean you need to react in a way that will allow him to manipulate meal time. So when Ben tells you “I don’t like this! I don’t want a salad!”, you take the boring reaction approach that I do with Brooklyn. “Ben, it’s your choice to not eat your salad. This is our dinner and you have a choice to eat it or not.” Leave it at that. Don’t make a big deal. Don’t beg. Don’t plead. Don’t negotiate. And definitely don’t get up to make something else for Ben.
The boring reaction approach when it comes to behavior at the table can actually create an adventurous eater with consistency, patience, and time. The trick with this technique is they look at your boring reaction as a consequence. They want a rise out of you. They want to see you flustered and catering to them. What’s healthy for them, and YOU, is to still acknowledge and teach but in a way that will gain positive results.
Wishing you a positive family table with less mess and stress!