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My Toddler’s a Monster at the Dinner Table, and It’s All My Fault

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With a 6-month-old that chowed down on sweet potato and avocado like it was candy, I thought for sure we’d have the whole healthy eating thing down pat with no extra effort on my part. We were instilling good habits from day one, molding his taste buds, and setting appropriate expectations for eating behavior.

Then that sweet little baby turned into a free-thinking toddler.

No one told me it happened that early; I thought we at least had until the pre-teen years until we had to worry about such obstinate and stubborn personality streaks. But no. Long before I was ready, I was dealing with a toddler that wanted to be in control of everything: the order his toy cars were lined up in, the way I tied his shoes, what he was going to eat, and when he was going to eat it.

Suddenly we’d gone from pleasant dining experiences to a full on riotous nightmare with each meal. We’d dealt with so many food-related obstacles already (allergies, eating constantly to soothe reflux) that I didn’t have any fight left in me. I proudly proclaimed we weren’t going to do things the “right” way anymore, we were simply going to do what worked.

Some may call it lazy, veteran parents will call it dumb, but as a first-time mom of a single child, I called it a victory. When I let my toddler choose his eating schedule and where he ate, the battles ended and my stress level plummeted. Goodness knows there’s enough stress in parenting, why create more?

But here I am, just a year later, and I’m eating every one of my words. As predicted by parents wiser than I, my laissez-faire eating attitude has backfired.

I created a monster.

Now we are that family that can’t go out to eat without a toddler who’s literally jumping up and down on the seat bench or seeing how much of his hand can fit into an open glass of water. Getting him to sit in a chair for an entire meal (read: half a sandwich) is like pulling teeth. He’s constantly up, down, and sideways. He’d rather eat balanced precariously on a stool or laying half-upside-down on an ottoman. And opposite of what all of this sounds like, he thinks eating is the best thing in the world. Every five minutes he’s banging on the pantry door or prying the fridge open with some secret, hidden toddler-Hulk strength.

I may now be getting points, laughs, and I told you so’s from those that have been doing this parenting thing longer than I have, and while I agree they’re probably well deserved, I also know that it ends here. This is where the hard work of parenting comes into play. We’re at a crossroads: We can let the current behavior continue (it’s not that bad, really) and have one of those kids that will never know how to politely eat a meal at the table, or we can put an end to it before it’s ingrained in his impressionable mind that these are acceptable practices. Obviously I choose the latter. Now don’t get me wrong, this kid will chow down on some peppers, eat hummus with a spoon, and beg for more broccoli, but it’s the long-term behaviors and habits I’m looking at here.

Wish me luck as I embark on my new endeavor of enforcing meals with butts in chairs and forks in hands. Perhaps we can aim for a peaceful family holiday dinner.

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