“You’re too young to feed yourself,” said Mother, trying unsuccessfully to be calm, to twenty- month-old Edward. “Let Mommy feed you.” “No, Eddy do it!” said the determined toddler who, holding his spoon in his fist like a weapon, had managed to get most of the cereal out of his bowl and on to his clothes and the floor. When Mother tried to grab the spoon out of his hand, Eddie burst into tears and regressed into a full-blown temper tantrum. Later, when things had calmed down, Mother described her frustration and how much she had enjoyed feeding Eddy before he began to insist on feeding himself several months ago.
Toddlers have a bad reputation when it comes to eating. They have strong likes and dislikes. And they are often very, very messy. What’s a parent to do? Do you make them eat all their vegetables? Do you teach them table manners? In order to answer these questions an understanding of toddler development is necessary.
During the second and third years of life, toddlers make a determined effort toward gaining as much control of their existence and their relationships with their parents as they can. Gone is the placid, compliant infant who happily took to the breast or bottle. The toddler’s determination is not a bad thing. Indeed, it’s very healthy and necessary for normal development. But it is often the bane of a parent’s existence. For a detailed explanation of these years, beyond our present focus on eating, please refer to Guiding Your Toddler’s Development: Eating, Sleeping, Toilet Training, and More at www.calbooks.info.
The Toddler’s Attitudes Toward Food
During the second year of life, toddlers insist on controlling the acts of eating and drinking themselves. Foods are touched and smelled as well as tasted. Some foods are preferred or rejected because of color, texture, temperature and taste and whatever else the toddler has on his or her mind at the moment. Toddlers’ determination to do things on their own and to choose what he or she eats is a very healthy sign of developmental progression and is to be encouraged and facilitated, within the limits of parental tolerance. When you think of it, it’s not so different from what we do as adults. We all continue to have food likes and dislikes, and even somewhat messy ways of eating, particularly when we eat alone. I know you still drink the milk left over in the cereal bowl from the bowl itself when no one is around to observe.
Eating should never be a battleground between parent and child. Parents should encourage the joyful exploration of food with all the senses as well as the active manipulation of foodstuffs and the acts of eating and drinking. I love pictures of messy toddlers joyfully eating. We should all be able to enjoy eating that much. After all, it is life’s second greatest pleasure.
Setting the Toddler’s Table
Provide a variety of food and drink. Allow the toddler to choose what to eat and how much to eat. Always allow the toddler to get out of the high chair after a reasonable amount of time. As previously stated, eating should never be a battleground between parent and toddler. Remember that the goal is to make eating a happy and satisfying experience that can be enjoyed, without conflict or difficulty, throughout life.
Put the high chair somewhere in the kitchen where the tile or linoleum floor can be easily cleaned up. If a holiday meal is to be eaten in the dining room, either feed the toddler in the kitchen first, or put a large tarp under the toddler’s place. Don’t worry about cleaning his or her hands, face, the high chair tray or the floor, until after the meal is finished. DO NOT criticize the toddler for failing to eat some or all of the food placed on the try or for squashing, squeezing, smearing or throwing food. Remember how much fun it was to get dirty as a kid? Such a parental attitude of non-criticism and genuine acceptance facilitates the development of a healthy attitude toward food throughout life.
Examples of What Not to Do
The following examples are illustrations of parental lack of understanding of toddler development and a well-intended, but developmentally inhibiting, need to remain in control of the toddler in a manner that was necessary during infancy. Gradually giving up control of a child’s habits and behavior is a painful parental process that continues throughout childhood and adolescence. After investing so much time, energy and love into the care of an infant, it hurts to have the toddler begin to usurp control of eating, particularly since they do such a messy job of it.
A relative called Child Protective Services after watching the mother of an eighteen-month-old scream and slap her daughter across the face because she refused to finish what was on her plate. Obviously, this is a pathological example.
Sarah was determined that two-year-old Sam would learn to like peas. She had to do eat her peas when she was young. When Sam refused to open his mouth for the spoonful of peas that Mother was holding in front of him, Mother insisted that he was being a bad boy. When she did succeed in getting the peas into his mouth, Sam cried and spit them out all over the high chair and Mother’s dress.
All fifteen-month-old Karen wanted to eat was milk, sugar-coated cereal and bananas. Mother felt that Karen needed a balanced diet or she would become ill. She became increasingly frustrated when all attempts to get Karen to eat “more nutritious” foods failed. Mealtime became a source of anxiety for both Karen and Mother, and both usually ended up crying. No toddler has ever starved to death because of a refusal to eat certain foods.
Father: “John, you’re going to sit there until you finish everything on your plate. I don’t care how long it takes.”
One hour later, two-and-one-half-year-old John was still in his high chair dawdling with his food. He clearly had no intention of eating his dinner.
Father: (in disgust) You’re a bad boy. I’m not happy with you. No TV tonight. You’re going to bed.”
“Barbara,” said Mother, “you’re old enough now to learn some table manners.” Barbara had insisted that she sit at the table with the family in a booster chair instead of her high chair. Just two-and-three-quarters-years-old, she was almost as messy at the table as she had been in the high chair, and Mother was frustrated by the need to clean up the food that fell on the floor and the milk which was spilled on the table cloth. “If you don’t do a better job of using your fork and spoon, you’re going back into the high chair.” “Mommy, you’re mean. I’m trying to be good.” Barbara’s desire to be grown up and sit with the rest of the family at meals was a major developmental step forward and a source of self-esteem. It should have been encouraged without recrimination. Barbara was trying hard to copy her older siblings use of silverware and would eventually succeed with a little bit of encouragement. Furthermore, there would be plenty of time to teach table manners before Barbara began eating at her friends’ homes and becoming a reflection of how good a mother Mommy was.
Examples of Things to Do and Say
Remember at all times that your goal is to make eating a pleasurable experience which both nourishes the body and stimulates pleasant social interaction with other human beings, both within and outside of the family. The foundation for these life-long goals is laid down in infancy and during the toddler years. Provide a calm, accepting atmosphere in which the toddler can experiment with food and control the eating process without fear of criticism or concerns about parental disapproval because of food preferences, messiness and a lack of table manners.
Mom: “Sally, here’s some carrots and peas. You like carrots, don’t you?
Sally: “No, Sally want French fries.”
Mom: “But French fries aren’t as good for you as carrots.”
Sally: (with determination) “I want French fries.”
Mom: “Ok, here are some French fries. I’ll just leave the carrots and peas on the tray for you to try if you want to.”
Mom walked across the kitchen and continued preparing dinner for the family.
Sally didn’t eat the carrots and peas that day, but she did later when Mom used the same approach.
When the doorbell rang, Mother left twenty-month-old Bob in his high chair while she answered the door. When she returned to the kitchen, Bob had mashed potatoes all over the tray, his face and clothes.
Mother: (with a smile) “You really enjoyed those mashed potatoes, didn’t you?”
Bob: “Mommy, I want more.”
Mother: “Ok, but let me clean you up a bit first. This time let’s not throw the mashed potatoes on the floor.”
Bob: “I made a mess!”
Mother: “Yes you did. Here’s some more. Use your spoon and enjoy them.”
Alan: Addressing his father at the dinner table—“Daddy, I eat what you eat?”
Daddy: “Sure my big boy. This is spinach, you never tried it before.”
Alan: “Oh, yuck!” He pushed the spinach off his plate and on to the high chair tray.
Daddy: “That’s OK. You can try it again when you want to.”
On a warm summer night Dad took two-year-old Benjamin out for ice cream. By the time Ben had finished with his cone chocolate was all over his hands and face. Having prepared himself for such an inevitability, Dad took the wipes he had with him and happily cleaned up ben’s hands and face. “Daddy, more ice cream?” said Ben? “Not tonight Ben, I think you’ve had enough, but we’ll get more soon.”
“Mommy, I’m hungry,” said three-year-old Sarah. Can I have some cookies?” Mother: “Honey, it’s nearly four o-clock we’re going to eat in another hour or so.” Sarah: “But I want a cookie now!”
Mother: “I’ll tell you what we’ll do, here’s your cookie and some of that good cheese that you like so much but let’s just eat a little bit of both now; and remember Mommy made your favorite – meatloaf - for dinner.”
Every parent wants their child to be healthy and grow up to be happy and secure individuals. The toddler years help lay the foundation on which future happiness and security are built. These years are sometimes difficult ones because what seems to the parent to be in the child’s self interest, such as eating a balanced diet, conflicts with the toddler’s determination to eat what he or she wants to eat and in a manner which is often messy and even sometimes unsanitary. Remember that the goal of all parent interventions during these years is to keep the toddler safe, since he or she has no genuine sense of danger, and to allow for initiative, curiosity, and self-determination, all under the watchful eyes and mature judgment of loving adults.
You will get angry. You will want to force your toddler to eat what you think is best for him or her. You will feel provoked. You will clean a lot of high chair trays and floors. But do remember that these wonderful years are gone in the blink of an eye and that marvelous creature who enthralled you, wore you out and frustrated you endlessly will disappear before your very eyes to be replaced by an equally fascinating preschooler who will provide new sources of joy—and frustration.
If You Want to Learn More
There are many resources available to those parents who want to learn more about this fascinating age. Here are just a few for you to consider.
Guiding Your Toddler’s Development; Eating, Sleeping, Toilet Training, and More by Calvin Colarusso M.D.
What’s on Your Toddler’s Mind: A Roadmap to Toddler Thinking and Behavior by Calvin Colarusso MD.
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Bruno Bettelheim, Thames and Hudson, London 1976.
Child and Adult Development by Calvin A. Colarusso M.D., Plenum Press, New York, 1992.
Childhood and Society, 2nd Edition. Erik Erikson W. W. Norton, New York 1963
The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant. Margaret Mahler et al. Basic Books, New York, 1973