Dinnertime Discipline

More Dinnertime Tips

Child feeding dog

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The Goal: Making conversation, not burps, at the table
Kids like to belch because, well, it's completely inappropriate and, as a result, hilarious. It usually gets a lot of attention--positive (from siblings and friends) and negative (from parents). "Kids love behaviors that get a big reaction," says Dr. Harlow.

How to Get There: Your mission: Be the most boring audience ever. Ignore the burping and even talk right over it--about the weather, your job, or decorating the house (a snoozefest for kids). If the other kids can't help but giggle, put your burper in a time-out away from the table or else he'll keep on going, suggests Dr. Harlow.

You can also try a little peer pressure. "When my daughter was 8 years old and doing the whole burping thing," recalls Dr. Carter, "I told her how one of her boy cousins, who was the same age, burped in front of their three teenage cousins and they looked at him as if to say, 'How gross and childish.' She idolized those teenagers, so burping lost a lot of its cool."

The Goal: Eating with utensils instead of fingers
"Using a utensil can be a challenging skill to master and especially frustrating for a child, even a 9- or 10-year-old, when she's hungry," says Dr. Carter. Technology may not be helping either. "Basic table skills, like properly using a fork and knife, seem to be showing up later," says Robbie Levy, a pediatric occupational therapist in White Plains, New York. "One theory is that electronic games don't develop the fine motor skills needed for these tasks," she notes. Plus, they take away time previously spent on activities that do help, such as cutting out snowflakes or molding with Play-Doh.

How to Get There: Start by being flexible about the utensil a young child wants to use. Ditch the toddler fork if she's begging for the big fork, for instance. Or if she's having trouble maneuvering a fork, stick with a spoon a bit longer. "The more they watch what other people are eating with, the more they'll want to use the appropriate utensil," says Dr. Tankersley. Fun little plastic appetizer forks from a party store or even a fast-food spork can also help bridge the gap between using fingers and utensils. Setting out two forks or two spoons can help, too, especially if your child doesn't like different foods to touch.

The Goal: Putting his bottom on the chair
Got a kid who eats standing next to his chair or rests one knee on it as if he has a train to catch? Your little commuter may want out of his adult-size chair because it isn't comfy. "When a child's feet are dangling and his posture is off, it's harder for him to use his hands and to sit long enough," says Levy.

How to Get There: First, if necessary, put a step stool underneath his feet or a pillow behind his back so his whole body is better supported. "Ideally, he should be sitting upright with both his hips and his knees at a 90-degree angle," notes Levy. Next, make sure you're not expecting your child to sit for periods outside his developmental league. "Abilities will vary, but a 3-year-old can probably last for seven to ten minutes," says Dr. Harlow.

Then steal these preschool-teacher tips: "When one of our students stands or starts wandering away at snacktime, I'll say, 'When you get up from the table, I assume that you're done. Let's clear your plate.' After a while, hungry kids learn to stay seated," says Dr. Tankersley. Or tell your jack-in-the-box that he's frozen in his chair until you come around and unstick him with a magical tap, she suggests.

Got a bigger kid? "Somewhere in the 6- to 8-year-old range, a child should be able to sit through the duration of a normal family dinner," notes Dr. Harlow, "which means 20 to 30 minutes." If you have an older kid who stands, put him in charge of cleaning up all the food crumbs that got dropped on the floor during the meal (sweeping up is fun for preschoolers, but not so much for grade-schoolers).

The Goal: Doing more eating and less playing
When a child is blowing bubbles into milk or piling all her food together into a disgusting mix, she could be bored, full, not really feeling the night's menu, or just plain curious, says Dr. Carter.

How to Get There: One of your main goals is to create positive feelings about food--which also helps encourage more adventurous eating--so kids should be able to have a little fun at the table when it's appropriate, says Dr. Tankersley. "Our preschoolers love diving their Teddy Grahams into pudding or making little hammers out of cheese cubes and pretzel sticks," she notes. You just have to decide where your family's line is about what's unacceptable--say, building a green-bean fort--and let your child know. If the antics don't stop, jump right to: "It looks like you're done eating," and take away the misused food or drink.

If boredom seems to be to blame, steer the conversation toward a topic she'll be more interested in. When all else fails and your child is clearly done eating, consider an early dismissal so you at least can finish in peace.

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