July 02, 2015

Q: My four year old is extremely messy when she eats and drinks, beyond what is normal for her age. She will be starting pre-k in the fall and I'm worried she'll be made fun of for it. Her younger sister is age-appropriate messy, and no where near as bad. The reason it concerns me is because we keep telling her what she's doing and she doesn't seem to care. We've tried all types of punishments and tricks. Please help!

A: Dear Ashten7829:

It is hard to know exactly what is happening here, but it sounds as though you and your daughter are in the midst of a power struggle. Of course, you'd like her to mind her manners about eating and drinking in a tidy fashion. But you may be stuck in a rut here--the more you punish your daughter, the more angry she feels inside and the more she resists doing things your way. No parent can win this kind of tug of war!

My suggestion is to change your tactics. I'd take away the direct pressure to eat and drink the way you want her to--and forget the reminders and the punishments. Work on making family mealtimes fun and sociable experiences. As children grow, they naturally become alert to the way that other people do things and eager to imitate these patterns. She will eventually catch on to "good manners," because that's the way that grown-ups that she loves and admires behave. Her peers may give her some feedback too--this might not be a bad thing.

Maintaining a warm positive relationship with your daughter is more important at this time in her development than fixing her messy table manners.

Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Berger