How do I encourage my son to use proper table manners without giving him issues with food?

How do I encourage him to have proper table manners without giving him issues with food?

By Dr. Kimberley Bennet




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“My son refuses to sit still at mealtime and gets up 5-10 times during dinner. How do I encourage him to have proper table manners without giving him issues with food?”

Thank you so much for your question. I would love to know how old your child is so that I could advise on what is developmentally appropriate… I imagine this is a young child, because young children often have a hard time sitting still at mealtimes (this is often the point in the day when they magically develop the ability to play with remarkable independence (!) Typically, children are able to remain at the family table for longer periods as they grow older because they develop eating routines that are more aligned with adult eating patterns. Younger children, on the other hand, tend to graze more throughout the day and, with shorter attention spans and limited language skills, are less likely to be occupied by adult conversation.

It sounds as though family mealtimes are something you really value, and, as a result, there is a bit of a power struggle between you and your child. Reading between the lines, I’m guessing that you are repeatedly redirecting your child back to the table during mealtimes in an effort to have a connected family meal, and in an attempt to encourage your child to eat more food. When these tricky patterns emerge in families it can be helpful to shift your focus. Instead of seeing your child as the “problem” (he refuses to sit at mealtimes) make him a co-creator of the solution.

You might say,

“Family mealtimes are important to me. I miss you during the day while I am working and dinner is a time for us all to come together and reconnect. I’ve noticed that you find it hard to stay at the table- I get it. What ideas do you have that will work so we are both happy?”

If your child is too young for this conversation then get creative about making mealtimes more interesting for him, to encourage him to want to participate. For the few minutes that your child is willing to sit at the table direct the conversation at him, his day, his interests. Consider whether you would be comfortable with your child bringing a stuffed toy as their “guest” to dinner. Can your child choose a favourite toy to play with on the table? Would you be happy to read to your child while they eat?

You also mention wanting your child to have a healthy relationship with food. A model I recommend is the Division of Responsibility. Within this model the adult is responsible for deciding what nutritious food to serve, but the child has responsibility for deciding what to eat and how much to eat. This framework gives power back to the child at mealtimes because it removes the pressure on the child to eat. No “One more bite!” no “Look an airplane… neeeooow!” or “You have to try your carrots before you can have any pudding!” Instead, children are encouraged to tune into their bodily cues of hunger and satiety, and to simply stop eating when they are full up- rather than when their plates are clean.

Thinking about all of this, I wonder if it would be helpful to clarify your goals. What are your expectations for mealtimes? Are they developmentally appropriate? Would you be happy with your child leaving the table when they are full? Would you be happy for your child to remain at the table even if they aren’t willing to eat any more? And most importantly, are your hopes and expectations developmentally appropriate for right now.

I hope this helps.



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