Why firm boundaries rule
“Toddler explore by demonstrating resistance” Janet Lansbury
In our desperation to get kids to eat we can sometimes give them too much control over their diet. There’s no question that empowering toddlers and young children by giving “choices” can be an instrumental parenting tool. Children are constantly being told what to do and what NOT to do, it’s no wonder kids often feel powerless. Providing simple choices can give them a sense of control and help make decision making more collaborative. However, when it comes to food too much freedom can actually feed problems, especially with kids who have a strong-willed, persistent temperament. Too much choice gives kids power over something where they actually need leadership. Ask a young child “What do you want for lunch?” and the response is likely to be something salty, processed or fried. French fries, chicken nuggets, pizza PLEASE!
Too much choice also paves the way for issues with twins or multiple siblings. As kids get older maybe they can be involved in meal planning at a high level, but young children need structure not choices when it comes to food. If you don’t want to eat pizza and Mac n cheese every day don’t feed it to your kids. Otherwise you are preparing their taste-buds for craving those sorts of foods all the time.
Toddlers and young children can’t be expected to make a healthy decision about their diet without lots of guidance. We’ve learned this lesson first hand, and relearn it over and over again. What kid hasn’t requested ice cream for breakfast? The good news is that over time your kids will start to crave fresh foods and will understand that unhealthy foods make them feel bad. The aim is to teach kids to respect the system, listen to their bodies and eat what you provide for them. Remember, if they are truly hungry, they will eat.
Have firm standards and rules
First of all, let’s set the expectations. Young children are going to have very strong opinions about what they should eat, when they should eat, and HOW they should eat. Let’s be honest, they’re going to have strong opinions about EVERYTHING!
When it comes to food it is not our job to cater to their every whim. Not only would this get incredibly expensive, it would lead to a lot of frustration and almost certainly create poor eating habits. It’s our job to give our kids the tools to start forming constructive habits around food. This means creating a routine that they can rely on and sticking with it.
Consistency is hard work, but it is the only way to guide kids with an attitude of fairness. What are your house rules? Most people change their minds depending on their mood and circumstances. When certain behaviors are allowed one day and not allowed the next kiddos don’t know where they stand. This is where boundary pushing blooms. Establish some house rules. Write them down and post them somewhere for everyone to see. Or talk about the rules out loud and often. The focus should be on creating healthy habits and eliminating stress from meal times. Figuring out your house rules will help bring clarity for everyone in family. Here are ours:
- No technology at the table
- At mealtime we sit at the table together
- You must eat your food experiments (aka no playing with food)
- Condiments must be eaten with food. Mustard is not a meal (this is a big one!)
- When you ask for something, say please
What is acceptable for one family may not work for another. Figure out what your standards are around table manners and stick with them. Do you expect your child to eat at the table? How do you feel about playing with food? Banging utensils on the table? There are no right or wrong answers, but kids need consistency and clear boundaries.
When a rule is broken it helps to stay unemotional. Come up with some standard consequences and follow through. We believe in natural consequences. So if a utensil is being used improperly (banging on the table!) that utensil gets taken away. If they are playing with food and not eating, the meal ends. When babies and toddlers play with food, it’s usually a signal that they’re not hungry.
Offer kids choices that are unattached to food. What utensil do you want – fork or spoon? Do you want water with ice or no ice? That way if they change their mind the outcome doesn’t impact the meal or waste food.
Having firm guidelines will not eliminate tantrums, but it should reduce them. Food can be a huge trigger when kids are struggling with something. If they are tired, hungry or extra emotional, meal times can be especially difficult. The more they resist the more important it is to be loving, yet firm. Just the other day, Joel was having a tough afternoon. It was snack-time and he was munching on some carrot sticks. His dad came downstairs and took a carrot. This set him off on a rage, demanding that his carrot be replaced even though there were still about a dozen beautiful untouched carrots still sitting in his bowl. Kids can be sticklers for fairness. Perhaps Dad should have asked permission first before snatching a carrot and the crisis could have been avoided. However, the reaction was epic. There was hitting, screaming and general hysteria. The meltdown had nothing to do with carrots and everything to do with a much needed emotional release. Still the carrots were removed from the situation. It took about 45 minutes to get him to calm down at which point snack time was over. He never did get the carrots back, but he helped make dinner and ate 3 meatballs + a huge plate of pasta. The moral of the story is, it was a tough afternoon for all of us, but the message received was it’s ok to freak out over a carrot, but it’s not going to change the rules. Perhaps over time we can find easier problem solving skills for these sorts of scenerios. The hope is that by not giving in to unacceptable behavior but providing love and support our kids will learn to embrace healthy habits that will guide them throughout their lives.