By Nancy Ripton
One recent morning my toddler dumped his cereal on the floor; then he crawled under the table to eat it. This would have been bad enough, but his three-year-old brother soon joined him, laughing and rolling around, crushing any Panda Puffs in their path. It was clear that mealtime had spiralled out of control, but how could I regain authority?
“Children are creatures of habit,” says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Discipline Solution (McGraw-Hill) and an upcoming book on picky eaters. It’s important to lead by example in order to instill an eating ritual at every mealtime, not just the ones that are convenient for you — my children were using my lax approach to breakfast against me. “Mealtime should be about connection between family members,” says Pantley.
If your meals are more stress than sanctuary, now is the time to change the way your family eats. Try these solutions to the four most common mealtime-manners dilemmas.
By age three, children should be able to sit for limited amounts of time at the table, but it’s unrealistic to expect lingering family meals until around age five. “Don’t bring your child to the table until everything is served and ready,” says Pantley. Once seated, keep your child engaged with questions about his day. If he finishes eating before the rest of the family, encourage him to say “thank you” for the meal and ask to be excused. Then, let him leave the table if you agree he is finished. If mealtime is a pleasant experience, your child will soon want to stay put longer.
making a mess
When toddlers play with their food or make mealtime difficult, it’s hard for older siblings to understand why the rules of the table are different for them. “Put your older child in the role of teacher and encourage him to model good behaviour for his younger sibling,” says Pantley. Praise your child when things go well. If that doesn’t work, point out other privileges he gets based on age. Try: “Carson may throw food now, but he doesn’t get to stay up and play with toys.”
toys at the table
Children can learn early on that mealtime should be about eating and socializing. This time is a great opportunity to talk with your little one, uninterupted. Politely tell your child that toys are not allowed at the table but he can play with them as soon as he’s done. “If you expect your children to honour the no-toys-at-the- table rule, that means you need to do the same,” says Fox. So no BlackBerry, iPad or magazines at the table and turn the TV in the room off. You need to engage your children if you expect them to follow suit.
“Good manners are about consistency,” says Louise Fox, owner of The Etiquette Ladies, which offers classes on social graces to kids. By age three, children should chew with their mouths closed and use a napkin (not a sleeve). Children should not be using their hands to eat — unless it’s hamburgers, corn on the cob and the like. To make it easier, buy child-size cutlery that he can learn to master. Once your child is old enough, around age four, encourage him to help set the table. “It’s not too young to teach lessons like: “Mr. Fork goes on the left,” says Fox.
Sitting at the table is also a great time to teach common courtesy, such as saying “excuse me” after a burp, asking politely for more spaghetti instead of reaching across the table, and taking turns speaking. And although you’d probably rather he eat what you serve, teach him to simply say “no, thank you” if offered something he doesn’t enjoy, instead of making a face.
If you keep things light and fun at mealtimes, your child will want to eat like a grown-up. Offer specific praise when your child does something well and don’t nag about the negative, says Pantley who suggests substituting “don’t chew with your mouth open,” with the more positive, “can you please chew with your lips together?” “Focus on what you want, not what you don’t want,” she says.
Nancy Ripton is the co-founder of JustTheFactsBaby.com. Her two children have stopped eating cereal off the floor — for now.