Dinner time: power struggles, playful parenting, stubborn eaters

I've poured through all the BPN listings on dinnertime eating struggles and I've learned a lot! I still have another question, though.

My 6yo eats everything happily and always has; my 8yo has always invariably decided he hates the food we're having for dinner, though another day he will eat it without complaint.

My husband has always taken a "playful parenting" approach: he tells stories, gets the kids mesmerized and laughing, and then puts the food in the older boy's mouth. He eats happily without complaint this way. Or my husband has a race, or "drive by eating," or any other kind of a game to get him to eat. I think this is going too far. I don't think my husband should be putting food in our son's mouth; on the other hand, it sure is peaceful that way! And in that way he eats really well. But he almost never just sits and eats a meal with us without some kind of game or cajoling. I, on the other hand, get annoyed, start bribing, or get angry, give consequences, and get into power struggles. It's awful. A nightmare. Or, I just read a book and tell him he has to have a bite before I'll turn the page.

The situation is compounded by the fact that if he doesn't eat, he has epic melt downs, and it's just so hard for all of us (so I feel anxiety about his eating). If he doesn't eat dinner he's starving 30 minutes later. So I guess what I'm saying is this: he's not full. I don't make him eat too much. I cook nutritious meals with food they love. If I'm trying something new I ask them to have a "thank you bite," and I don't make them eat food they don't like. If my husband plays with them, he'll eat all his food; if he isn't played with, or bribed, or read to, or fed ... he doesn't eat.

Do I say he can't have food after dinner if he chooses not to eat? Do we stop reading and playing games, knowing that he won't eat if we don't do that? I learned a lot from reading BPN about not getting into power struggles if the child is full, or doesn't like the food. But he's not full, and he does like the food (as evidenced by the fact that he'll eat if it's a game). I am literally at the end of my rope with this and totally confused about what to do. Thank you!

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The book "How to Get Your Kid to Eat ... but Not to Much" by Ellyn Satter was written for folks in exactly the situation you describe. Really a life-changer for many people.

Oh, my goodness! That kid is playing you! You gotta stop with your power trips and change it up. First, no more emotions; get zen and stay zen. Then, no more dinner: fix food, have snacks, people eat whenever. If you want to have dinner with the other son and your husband, do that.  Make sure healthy snacks are always available: cheese and crackers, fruit, cut up veggies. Let him graze so he doesn't get so hungry he has a meltdown. If he and his father enjoy food games, fine! Let them play! Then, finally, think about breakfast and lunch; why is that easier? Do more of that. 

Sorry your going through this. I would have him sit at the table for at least 20-30 min for him to eat his food. If he doesn't then I would send him to his room. And have him stay there for 30 min with no TV or electronics. Something like a timeout. And when he comes out explain to him it's going to be like that every night until he changes his attitude. Also don't give him anything new to eat even snacks until he eats at least half of his dinner. It might seem a little harsh to him but you are the parent and he I the the child. He is old enough to understand that. I hope this helps

Yeah, I gotta say, 8 years old is way way way to old for him to be acting this way. I don't think you have a dinner problem, I think you have a discipline problem. At 8 he should be helping prepare dinner, not being catered to at the table like he is an infant. I'm sorry if this comes off as harsh but you've gotta turn this around. I'd suggest a clear, calm conversation that boils down to you communicating these points: 

1- what's been going on at the dinner table is not acceptable and it needs to change. 

2 - lay out clear dcoectations and consequences including he will help prep the meal, he will help clean up the meal, and he will eat what is given. You determine the food, he determines the quantity. 

3- whining and tantrums will not be tolerated. 

4- if he doesn't eat there is no more food for the Night. If he starts to act up you'll assume it is because he's hungry and he will need to return to the table. 

My suspicion is that once you make it clear that you are fixing this, he'll stop acting like an infant. 

Have you heard of the book "Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense" by Ellyn Slatter?  This very quick google search turned up this link: http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/dor/divisionofresponsibilityinfeeding.php

Please read this.  It's so important and useful.  Basically, parents decide WHAT to feed kids, WHEN to feed them, and WHERE to feed them.  Kids decide WHETHER they eat and HOW MUCH they eat.  So, dinner is roasted chicken, brown rice and some vegetable and is served at 6:30pm at the dining room table in your seat.  Kids decide WHETHER they'll eat it and HOW MUCH to eat.  We implemented this after the birth of our 2nd child and I have no food issues in the house.  Some days/meals my kids eat a lot, some days/meals not much.  Since your child is 8 years old and you have a history of playing games, bribery and power struggles, I'd suggest having a talk and saying you are old enough to decide how much to eat and mommy and daddy aren't going to play games any more.  Then you don't say a word.  Not one "oh look how nice sibling is eating" or "just try one bite of carrot" or "if you eat your potatoes, you can have a cookie" whatever.  Just have nice, pleasant dinner conversations.  Kids have so little they can control in this world, and food/eating is one of them.  This division of responsibility takes away the power struggle.  You will be playing the long game here.  Change won't come overnight.  Good luck to your family!

A big problem here is that you and your husband are at cross-purposes. While he is well-intended, he is undermining the discipline you are trying to enforce by being the "fun/nice guy," and basically your son has figured out that if he holds out long enough, your husband will entertain him into eating. And yes, your son is way way too old to be spoon fed. Yikes! You and your husband need to get on the same page, and hold firm about eating at the table without resorting to bribery and entertainment. Right now he has you over a barrel because he knows that it is more important to YOU than it is to HIM to eat, and that there won't be any consequences if he holds out - there are no consequences.  To change things, you need to not cave in and if he doesn't eat, he doesn't eat.

I would highly recommend figuring out how to get your husband on board with this, as you need to have a unified front - you don't right now, and your child is taking advantage on it.

Our daughter was a picky eater who really needs to eat or she melts down - much like your son, so I empathize. Our situation was somewhat different, but I can say that cajoling and pleading didn't work... we eventually were able to break through the power struggle and now she knows that meal time is meal time. We do accommodate her tastes to some extent, but in general she knows that she is expected to eat at dinnertime.

By the way, a book that really helped us is Dreikurs, "Children the Challenge." It's old, so some of the ideas are dated, but it really explains about parent-child power struggles and how we can end up perpetuating them without realizing them as parents. Good luck, this is a tough one!

This may not work for you, but sometimes, as a thought experiment, I try to imagine the opposite.  What if I was TRYING to train a child to [whatever the thing is that is annoying me - in your case, not eating unless there are negative or positive antics]?  What would I do to reinforce the behavior I was looking for?

While this article is about training a spouse, not kids, and it isn't about food, it touches on how the ways we respond reinforce behaviors in those around us, often regardless of if we like those behaviors: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/25/fashion/25love.html

I am writing in response to this common (and on the surface, very logical) approach: "if he doesn't eat there is no more food for the night."

One of the best bits of parenting advice I ever got was this: serve the dinner, kids eat or don't eat, and then, if the kids are still hungry after dinner, LET THEM SERVE THEMSELVES CEREAL.

That last part was crucial for me: if I felt like my kids were going to be starving, I couldn't let go of the urge to either a) cater to their restrictive tastes by only serving kid-food; or b) try to cajole them to eat the food.

I was given this advice by a parent with older children, and I could see her kids turned out great in terms of their eating habits, but I still didn't believe it; I thought if we allowed our kids to eat cereal after dinner, it would backfire and they would never eat ANYTHING else. But we decided to try it, and in fact: it worked fine. The pickiness of course did not go away immediately, but the cereal option did not seem to have any noticeable affect on kids' pickiness. And slowly, over time, without the fear that our children would starve if we didn't serve chicken nuggets every day, their eating habits improved. I think we probably started this approach when our kids were around 7 or 8, and they are in middle school right now and eat almost everything. They have a number of friends who seem to only eat white rice, cheese pizza and chicken, so I feel like something went right with this approach... and I think the cereal option was an essential element, for taking away the power struggle or the parental instinct to cater to our childrens' hunger.

Good luck!