The supper hour can be chaotic. You've got to figure out what healthy, kid-friendly meal to serve, do the cooking, and set the table--all while entertaining your rambunctious toddler. It's time to eat, and suddenly your kid throws a major fit. She's not hungry. She doesn't want to sit down. She's too busy playing. Argh! But don't give up on your dream of a peaceful family dinner yet. These subtle strategies will help teach your child that it rocks to sit at the table with Mom and Dad.
Toddlers are social beings--they like to hang out with the family. But maybe when you call your child to dinner, she's too deep in play to make the move right away. Try this smart idea from Meredith Jacobs, author of The Modern Jewish Mom's Guide to Shabbat: "Sing a song to bring the family to the table. It's a calm way to begin the meal and gives kids a chance to switch gears and disengage from whatever they're doing." Boston parenting consultant Abbie Davies suggests teaching your kid this simple ditty sung to the tune of "Where Is Thumbkin?" Parent: "Where is Emma? Where is Emma?" Child: "Here I am, here I am." Parent: "Sitting at the table, ready for a yummy meal." Child: "Yum, yum, yum. Yum, yum, yum."
Oh, yes, says Laura Markham, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in child development. "It's fine to let him have something to make him feel more comfortable at meals," she says. "Think about it: A table is somewhat alien to a toddler. It's high up, and he's told to sit still, which is against his nature." Let your little one play with spoons, trains, a teddy bear--whatever keeps him happy and eating so he gets used to sitting still at the table and parents can enjoy a bit of conversation. Should there be a toy-at-the- table cutoff age? "I wouldn't set any rules about when to stop allowing your child to bring something of his to the table, but I think he'll naturally stop needing it at 4 or 5," says Dr. Markham.
You might light a candle, a safe distance away from your child, to help ease into the meal. "It serves as a cue that dinner's about to begin," says Lesley-Anne Siegel, a child-behavior consultant in Montreal. "Blowing it out signals the end." Not a fan of candles? "Any ritual, like getting out cloth napkins, using 'the dinner china,' or saying grace are ways that tell a child that this is a special time," says Patricia Nan Anderson, Ed.D., an educational psychologist in Seattle.
Picture this: Everyone is seated, when Dad gets up for a second helping of chicken, which sends your 3-year-old into a screamfest. After all, if Daddy can get up, why can't he? "Toddlers are easily distracted, so the less you take attention away from the table, the better," says Lesley-Anne Siegel, a child-behavior consultant in Montreal. Have a water pitcher, extra napkins, and serving platters on the table within arm's reach.
When you see that your kid is losing interest in eating, redirect his attention. "If he's whining to get down and hasn't touched his food, say in an excited voice, 'Look at your peas! I think I hear them talking! What are they saying?' You can feel a bit goofy, but it beats having a power struggle," says Lesley-Anne Siegel, a child-behavior consultant in Montreal.
Rather than expecting your child to eat all of his broccoli, try this favorite trick of child psychologists: Tell him, "If you eat three bites, then you can get down from the table." Using if/then phrases can prevent outbursts by giving kids a bit of control over their circumstances, says Rahil Briggs, Psy.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in New York City.
"Most children crave their parents' undivided attention, and dinner is when you can give it to them," says Kate Geagan, a registered dietitian and mother of two toddlers in Park City, Utah. "Take this special time to focus on your child. If you consistently make the table a calm and nurturing place, he'll want to be there." Try asking some questions to engage his imagination--anything from "What did you see at the park today?" to "Do you like elephants or dinosaurs better?" You'll both have fun, and he probably won't have any problem staying happily seated.
Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Parents magazine.