Tuesday, 04 April 2017 13:04

Teaching Self-Control to Young Children - Part 4: Eating

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In this series, Teaching Self-Control in Young Children, we have explored how to teach the important virtue of self-control in Boundaries, Sleeping, and Speech. In this Part 4, we will look to find ways to teach self control in how our children eat. Despite the hilarious scene in the movie, “A Christmas Story”, where the little boy is encouraged to “eat like a piggy”, most parents would prefer their children to eat in a more civilized way. However, many parents struggle with how to achieve this. As with all training of children, begin very early. Why retrain once a behavior has gotten out of control, when you can train properly from the very beginning? 

1. Take a seat

Start training your child in self-control by doing something simple - having him sit while eating or drinking. Instead of allowing him to walk around with his sandwich or bag of chips, teach him to sit down at the table until he is done. Don’t allow your young child to take a few bites of his sandwich, go play with his Legos, and come back a half hour later and take a few more bites. It takes self-control to stay seated and not jump up on a whim to go do something “more fun”. Separate lunch time from play time and insist your child sit until he is finished eating. Even with a snack of juice, it’s easy to become accustomed to simply handing our child an unbreakable sippy cup with a lock on the lid and allowing the child to roam the house. While these sippy cups minimize the mess, we take away a wonderful opportunity to teach our child self-control. Instead, hand your child a regular cup (no handles or lid) while he is sitting down at the table. You can even draw a circle on a plastic placemat - kids love this - and teach your child to always place their cup right in the middle of the circle. Teach them at first to use two hands instead of trying to grab the cup with one. Yes, there will be accidents as your child learns not to put the cup on the rim of the plate or slam it down hard so the juice splashes everywhere. Training takes time and patience, and most importantly, the parent needs to be nearby to instruct. As with all the training in these examples, the reward is teaching the virtue of self-control to your child. It is an investment worth your time.

2. Neatness counts

When first introducing finger foods, a toddler can be taught to not throw the food off her plate. Many parents have given up using a plate (as it is often tossed over along with the food), opting to instead put the food directly on the highchair tray. Or if they do use a plate, it comes equipped with little suction cups so it won’t move! Instead, take this opportunity to teach self-control. Put a regular plate (not plastic) directly on the tray with finger food in it. Instruct your child not to touch the plate - just the food in it. This takes practice and repeating on your part, and can only be done if you take the time to sit next to your child. Talk to her patiently and persevere. Kids like to hold on to the plate as they eat - discourage this. Remember you are teaching self-control in eating behavior (and as a wonderful consequence, neatness). Don’t allow your child to mash her food, run her fingers through her hair or fling anything off the plate. When pieces fall off the plate onto the high chair, pick them up, put them back, and gently say “food stays on the plate”. You will be amazed at how quickly she will learn and actually want to be neat. Praise your child as she learns and make it enjoyable. As this type of training takes time on mom’s or dad’s part, it may be best to put your full attention to your child before the rest of the family sits down to eat. Some families prefer to teach at the same time as the family eats, opting to use a portable high chair which hooks directly onto the table.

3. First… say your blessing!

Another excellent way to teach self-control at the table is to have your young child wait to eat until after the blessing is said. At first, keep the food a distance away as you say a blessing together. Once he gets the idea that a blessing is said before eating, place the food directly in front of the child and instruct him to wait until after the blessing. Always remember that one way or another, you are training your child - either by doing nothing and allowing him to do as he pleases (i.e. throw food, mash food or wear the food on his head), or by training him in good behavior by taking the time (and patience) to instruct. From an early age, if you have taken the time to teach your child, you should be able to bring him to a restaurant and have a pleasant meal together as a family. But more important than even a pleasant, stress-free meal is that you are teaching the virtue of self-control to your child.

4. Chew with your mouth closed

A toddler who is taught self-control in her eating grows into an older child who can learn to exhibit good manners and control at the dinner table. She doesn’t chew with her mouth open, nor does she keep her elbows on the table or play with her food. She does not pile food on her plate that she cannot finish - instead, taking what she knows she can eat and asking for a second serving when she is done. When your child starts talking with a mouth full of food, simply put your finger over your mouth and signal for her to be quiet. Once again, constancy with correction on the part of the parent is important. If she is never allowed to speak when she has food in her mouth, she will gain the self control to swallow first before speaking. The same goes for putting her elbows on the table. Verbal reminders should be enough, but occasionally you might have to just get up, walk over and gently flick her elbow off the table without saying anything. Sit back down and continue eating and the lesson is usually learned. 

5. Take back the family dinner hour

Another excellent way to teach self-control from an early age is to ask your child to sit down throughout the entire meal with the family. Having this standard also eliminates him asking a dozen times during the meal if he can “get down” (either to go play or to use the bathroom) - he can learn self-control in waiting if he knows dinner is “officially over” when dad says the prayer after meals or however you signal dinner time is over. This is not only a way to teach self-control in a child, but also a way to take back the family dinner hour. Even if the child is done eating, he can be taught to sit at the table with the rest of the family. As they get older, dinner time becomes a beautiful time to come together, conversing and sharing - something that will make precious memories. 

6. Schedule Meals

Look for other ways to teach self-control in your children, including eating at scheduled times rather than grazing throughout the day.  A self-controlled person eats what she needs to stay nourished and healthy, not just when she is bored or in the habit of eating whenever she wants. She eats slowly, enjoying not only the food, but also the company at the table.  A child who is allowed to snack all day whenever she wants will most likely have an aversion to the nutritious, healthy food offered during meals - she knows she can push that away and an hour later reach for the crackers. Again, by insisting she eats what is offered when it is offered not only teaches self control but gratitude for the food given.

A young person who exhibits self-control in his eating truly stands out and most likely will also exhibit this virtue in other areas of his life. We will continue to explore these other areas in Part 5, which deals with teaching young children self-control by Sitting Still, including at meal time.

Cheryl HernandezCheryl Hernández and her husband of more than 30 years, Kevin, live in Florida. They have nine children, including a daughter who is a Servant Sister. They are lay members of the Home of the Mother.