Jim Shinn Column: Dinner Drama


picky-eaters-detail   Is dinner time filled with lots of drama at your house? It is for homes across the land. I have witnessed it in my own family, counseled families about it, discussed it in parenting programs, and just recently read a very misdirected article about it. I won’t get into specifics, but it was another enabling approach to a simple problem.

            Eating meals together is good for the family’s emotional, physical and spiritual health, especially if you pray! It should be a relaxing time where we share daily experiences and enjoy food and the company of families. It is called “breaking bread.” There is a phrase that at the table, we don’t discuss “religion or politics!” Why is that? It is because these are emotionally charged topics and dinner should not be a time of conflict, but just conferring about the day and our experiences.

            Too often, dinner for families, especially with younger children, is a power struggle. Parents want them to eat, and the child has a different agenda. It doesn’t make any difference what the agenda is, it is upsetting for both parents and child. The article I read was about how to manipulate your child to eat. Parents or caretakers need to put down their tools of trickery and get back to basics. Parents are in charge and children get with the program or experience logical consequences. Yelling, fighting and screaming at the table are not logical consequences for a child not wanting to eat.

            Many years ago, I was doing a parenting class, and the parent shared she is always trying to placate and please the child and offer what the kid liked. I simply said, “This is not Burger King. The child does not get it his way!” To have less conflict, parents should choose the menu, and the child can choose to eat or not eat. If the child isn’t hungry or doesn’t like the current dinner fare, they can go without. If there is complaining, they can be excused (but not to watch TV, use the phone or electronics!) They simply go to their room and wait until the meal is completed. Also, and this is hard for parents, the child gets no food until the next meal. The logical consequence to not eating is to get hungry, and I guarantee the child will have a good appetite waiting for the next meal. If they can be quiet, and not eat, they can stay at the table and join in the fellowship.

            Call your local emergency room. There are no starving children waiting to be seen. We do have an epidemic of childhood obesity though. It is hard for a parent to think of their child hungry, but it is not a parent’s job to protect a child from the consequences of their immature, self-centered or bratty behavior. In the real world, for example, the school cafeteria, you eat what they serve or you bring your lunch. If you don’t eat, you go hungry. Fasting is good for the body and the soul.

            A hungry child is often a motivated and grateful diner. Too often, a child can get what they want by throwing a fit. Another logical consequence is no dessert or snacks if the meal is not completed. Now when you institute a new system, many kids will get with the program after a few days of an assertive parent who sets clear, healthy boundaries. If the struggle continues, you may want to call a counselor because you may be dealing with a “strong willed” child. For that I suggest reading the classic by Dr. Dobson, “The Strong Willed Child” written over 20 years ago as well as seeking some counseling.

            Saying no to a child doesn’t make you a bad parent, just a parent. Of course, giving some choices, like “corn or broccoli” is OK, but if you are dealing with a little tyrant, offering choices probably won’t help. Parents need to own their power and kids need to eat, or they can go without. A parent’s job is to prepare their child for the outside world. If your child gets invited by a friend for dinner, and doesn’t eat (which is the exception, not the rule), they won’t get invited back.

            So sit back and enjoy dinner and if children can’t act like human beings, they don’t belong at the table. You can turn dinner drama into a delight, but it requires a little work, some wisdom and a spine, God has provided all the tools, but we just need to use them. Later in life, our children will thank us, or just ending making the same mistakes.