There are two little words that instil a sense of dread in almost every parent with young children. In any other scenario, these two unassuming words are often a welcomed phrase. But in a household with babies, toddlers or children, they invariably describe a daily battle ground where tantrums abound and tempers are lost.
Two little words. Dinner time.
It was around the time that our first born turned one when my husband and I decided we should begin eating dinner as a family. Properly, around a dining table. It was not only how I was raised, but all the parenting experts seemed to agree that it strengthens the family bonds, improves table manners, and encourages better eating habits.
Fast forward a few more years – and few more kids – and I began to wonder if any of these ‘parenting experts’ actually had kids of their own. Nowhere in my family was I seeing improved table manners. Just plenty of…
Careful, you’re about to spill your milk!
Stop talking with your mouth full!
For the last time, get your feet OFF your brother!
Turn around and sit down properly!
I can still hear you chewing, keep your mouth shut!
A knife is NOT a drumstick!
And nowhere was I seeing better eating habits. Just too much of…
Come on, please. Just try a little bit?
You might like it if you give it a chance.
One taste won’t kill you!
Look at how well your sister is eating her dinner.
I had to eat my plate clean when I was your age.
No dessert unless you eat all your dinner!
Night after night, the same drill. Night after night, the same whingeing, the same pleading, the same arguments, and the same frustration.
And then one night, purely out of sheer exhaustion, without a single shred of sanity left for yet another dinner time fight, I proposed to my husband an utterly crazy idea.
“Tonight, while we eat dinner, we’re not going to mention food or eating at all. No. Matter. What.”
You might be hoping that I’m going to tell you how our painful dinners were reformed in an instant. That my children enthusiastically ate their dinner that night with impeccable manners.
Sorry, but no. The table manners were still atrocious. And I was still surrounded by fussy eaters.
But what did change was the atmosphere. Instead of getting our kids to eat with their cutlery, we talked about our days. Instead of begging each of them to eat just one more bite, we discussed upcoming events. And instead of negotiating the prize of dessert, we shared funny stories.
It was about a week later – a week of ignoring how and what our kids were eating at dinner time – when the unimaginable began to happen. 2 was starting to nibble at different veggies on his plate. 5 was painstakingly trying to mimic how my husband used his knife. And after she finished her dinner, 7 wordlessly got up and cleared away our plates.
For years, I thought we’d been encouraging our children to become excellent eaters. I thought we’d been fostering flawless table manners. But all we were doing, night after night, was rewarding and reinforcing the bad behaviour with our constant attention.
Without the attention, our kids finally had the space to watch us. And copy us. We were finally prepared to trust that our own behaviour will teach them all they need to know.
Because children will always be great imitators, they just need something worthwhile to imitate.
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