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Forcing a little one to eat is always a losing battle


QUESTION: Should a parent try to force a child to eat?

DR. DOBSON: No. In fact, the dinner table is one potential battlefield where a parent can easily get ambushed. You can’t win there! A strong-willed child is like a good military general who constantly seeks an advantageous place to take on the enemy. He need look no farther than the dinner table. Of all the common points of conflict between generations – bedtime, hair, clothes, schoolwork, etc. – the advantages in a food fight are all in the child’s favor! Three times a day, a very tiny youngster can simply refuse to open his mouth. No amount of coercing can make him eat what he doesn’t want to eat.

I remember one three-year-old who was determined not to eat his green peas, despite the insistence of his father that the squishy little vegetables were going down. It was a classic confrontation between the irresistible force and an immovable object. Neither would yield. After an hour of haranguing, threatening, cajoling, and sweating, the father had not achieved his goal. The tearful toddler sat with a forkload of peas pointed ominously at his sealed lips.

Finally, through sheer intimidation, the dad managed to get one bite of peas in place. But the lad wouldn’t swallow them. I don’t know everything that went on afterward, but the mother told me they had no choice but to put the child to bed with the peas still in his mouth. They were amazed at the strength of his will.

The next morning, the mother found a little pile of mushy peas where they had been expelled at the foot of the bed! Score one for Junior, none for Dad. Tell me in what other arena a thirty-pound child could whip a grown man!

Not every toddler is this tough, of course. But many of them will gladly do battle over food. It is their ideal power game. Talk to any experienced parent or grandparent and they will tell you this is true. The sad thing is that these conflicts are unnecessary. Children will eat as much as they need if you keep them from indulging in the wrong stuff. They will not starve. I promise!

The way to deal with a poor eater is to set good food before him. If he claims to not be hungry, wrap the plate, put it in the refrigerator, and send him cheerfully on his way. He’ll be back in a few hours. God has put a funny little feeling in his tummy that says, “Gimme food!” When this occurs, do not put sweets, snacks, or confectionery food in front of him. Simply retrieve the earlier meal, warm it up, and serve it again.

If he protests, send him out to play again. Even if twelve hours or more go by, continue this procedure until food – all food – begins to look and smell wonderful. From that time forward, the battle over the dinner table should be history.

QUESTION: Does the middle child really have greater adaptive problems than his or her siblings?

DR. DOBSON: The middle child does sometimes find it more difficult to establish his or her identity within the family. She enjoys neither the status of the eldest nor the attention given to the baby. Furthermore, she is likely to be born at a busy period in the life of her parents, especially her mother. Then, during her preschool years, her precious territory is invaded by a cute little newborn who steals Mama from her. Is it any wonder that she often asks, “Who am I, and where is my place in life?”

Dr. Dobson is founder and Chairman Emeritus of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80995 ( Questions and answers are excerpted from “Complete Marriage and Family Home Reference Guide” and “Bringing Up Boys,” both published by Tyndale House. COPYRIGHT 2010 JAMES DOBSON INC.