I needed a better strategy. I needed to divine a plan. I needed to think about better, non-screaming contingencies ahead of time. After turning to my friend Google for some "help my 4-year-old won't eat" soul-searching, I felt gratified when I stumbled across research from Harvard psychologists that supported my instinct to be proactive. The researchers write about the want/should conflict. With regard to my dilemma, when in the heat of a dinnertime battle, what I may want to do is scream like the boiling mommy teapot that I am, whereas what I should do is something a tad more positive (I'll get to that). According to the author of the A Kind Parent blog, the key to making optimal should choices rather than suboptimal want choices is to plan ahead.
Sounds easy, right? So how do we actually plan ahead in a way that will cool us down when kid antics make things get heated? Lucky for all us feeling the mommy guilt, I came up with an quick and easy worksheet to help us work through the process. Check it out, and click on the image to download!
Step One. Identify the problem. Think about what you're doing, not just your child's shenanigans. For me, I too often allow mealtime routines to slide. I let the kiddo focus on things other than food, and then I go from 0 to 60 in my frustration level when food doesn't make it to her mouth. For her part, the kiddo is easily distracted. She will do ANYTHING other than eat if we let her.
Step Two. Figure out what you've tried before to deal with the issue, and think about why it hasn't worked. My past strategies: well, saying "eat your food" a million gazillion times. And some other things too... but mostly "eat your food. Eat.Your.Food. OMG IT'S BEEN TWO HOURS EATYOURFOOD EATYOURFOOD!!!!!!!!"
Step Four. After you read all the tubes, write down the ideas that stick out to you as ones that seem pretty good. It's even better if people who support the idea write about it in actual publications, and not just in the comments under GIFS of toddlers gorging/bathing in spaghetti. For my problem, the solutions that stand out are meal routines and fixed expectations.
Step Five. Look around. Is anyone else responsible for raising children with you? If so, politely ask them to do steps 1-4.
Step Six. Talk to your parenting partner.
Step Seven. Listen to your gut. What do you think is a workable solution for you and your fam?
Step Eight. Come up with your plan. Be specific. What are you going to do the next time your kid has their finger on the detonator button?
This is what we came up with to avert future mealtime crises - we will eat our food at the dining room table. The kiddo has to at least try all of her food. If she doesn't like it, she doesn't have to finish it as long as she gave trying it a good faith effort. When we finish our food, we set a timer for 15 minutes. We then accompany the kiddo at the table for those 15 minutes. If she feels full before eating all of her food, she can tell us that and ask to be excused. If there is still food on her plate when the 15 minutes is over, we clear the table. At any point in the evening, if she says that she's hungry, she can have her leftover dinner food back. Dessert is a sometime treat when A) it's available; and B) we think she did a good job of focusing on eating her dinner.
Step Nine. Come up with your contingency for what to do if the plan doesn't work. For my part, if my dinner plan starts falling apart at the seams, I'm going to walk away. I'm not going to say "eat your dinner" again. She'll eat when she's hungry. My job is to make food available and accessible, not to nag her. Of course, my plan isn't set in stone forever and ever. The second part of my contingency plan is to be flexible. Revisit and revise until we find a happy dinnertime equilibrium.
Step Ten. Pat yourself on the back for being awesome. Parenting isn't always a win. It's trial and error, and occasionally stumbling on something that works. The key to being a great parent is putting forth effort, and if you're trying to take steps toward more positive parenting, then you're doing an A+ job already. Keep it up, and keep this worksheet handy. True, this is based on a n of 1, but let me tell you... for the last week this kid has been ROCKING mealtime. And we are loving eating together again.