Last night I caught an episode of one of the many "Nanny" shows. Apparently this nanny's idea of discipline involves putting children in time out whenever they don't do what they're told, when they're told to. Now, this may seem reasonable when you read it, after all, it's time out, and kids should listen to their parents! But let's look a little closer. In the show, the family is eating a meal. There's a large production crew, plus the nanny who is prompting the parents and kids from behind as they sit at the table. Imagine being a little 8 year old girl whose parents called in this huge crowd because she's been bad, to make a movie about how bad she is. The stress must be enormous. And stress causes kids to lose their appetites. She eats about a half cup of dinner, and then says she's not hungry. Her plate is loaded with as much food as an adult might eat, a lot more than I eat at a sitting, in fact.
The father demands that she cleans the plate. She says, crossly, I'm not hungry. I already ate one plateful (we don't know whether this is true, since we don't see the whole meal). The father tries to cajole her, but the nanny jumps in and lectures the girl about obeying her parents, and then the nanny has the mother bring the child to their time out spot. The girl becomes hysterical --who in their right mind wouldn't become angry and upset about being humiliated in front of a room full of disapproving strangers? The time out becomes a fifteen minute long torture session as the girl is told how bad she is, manhandled by her mother to keep her in place, and commanded to sit up, to finish the plate full of food, to stop crying and to do what her parents tell her.
She finally capitulates, or so it seems-- we never see whether she can actually finish what looks like almost a pound of food. My guess is that they decided to edit it out. I couldn't help thinking that the parents are setting the stage for a possible eating disorder if they continue to make dinner into a war zone.
So how can you rewrite this situation so that the child isn't driven to hysteria, the parents get a calm meal, and food doesn't become a weapon?
First, detoxify meal time. It shouldn't be full of activity, noise and interference. Mealtimes that are calm and pleasant family times will encourage the child's involvement. Second, do not force children to eat more than they are ready to eat. Doing this teaches the child to override his own body's signals that he has had enough. Do that often enough and the child will no longer eat only until he's not hungry, he'll eat whatever is put in front of him. I think you can guess what that leads to.
Serve your children the meal, let them eat until they judge themselves to have eaten enough, and then take the plate away and excuse them from the table. You can remind them that the plate will go in the fridge if they get hungry later, so they can have leftovers. It's wise to avoid serving high-calorie desserts during a period when you are teaching your child how to gauge his own appetite. That way you won't have to deny the junk when the meal is over. It just won't be there. Eating dessert in front of him to "punish" him doesn't really work: it makes you look mean, and it teaches the child that food is a weapon after all.
Your child won't starve to death if you don't make him clean his plate. As long as there's nothing in the house but healthy foods, you can pretty much let him select his own snack menu (as long as he cleans up after himself). And kids who graze on healthy food are less likely to become overweight or develop eating disorders down the road. Of course there are other disturbances to be had at dinner, but choose a battle worth having.
Family dinner is important, but only good when it fosters togetherness, communication, and pleasant memories. So serve the meal at a set time every night, have everyone gather together, ask your kids how their day has been, or what they liked about school today. Tell them something about your day in a way they can relate. Show them by example how to be a good listener, and a good storyteller. Teach table manners by exhibiting them, but now is not the time to nag. Remind them once, and teach only a rule or two at a time. Make sure they have portions small enough for them to complete, but if they don't, don't make a big fuss. The important thing is that they associate dinnertime with the positives of being part of the family.