We still have our issues at dinner, but I'm glad to say that the food now stays on our dishes, except for legitimate spills, and we have regular (for us) conversations...where three children talk at the same time and two grown ups try to listen and maintain order, and wedge in some adult news when possible. It's a charmingly normal, if loud, family dinner.
What worked the magic? No magic here, folks, just some determined, consistent, calm, positive parenting under the tutelage of our mentors. There are some general guidelines:
- Try to serve at least one thing that each child likes to eat.
- Try to serve dinner as close to the same time each day as possible. (I fail at this sometimes, but at the beginning we were eating at 6:00 sharp every night.)
- Parents are strategically placed between children wherever possible, though I can manage all three children solo now, if needed.
- Don't plate the children's food (which we were doing previously). Instead parents control the food and serve "family-style" from the center of the table.
- Key: When serving the children two questions are favored: 1) Where should I put your ___? and 2) Would you like a little or a lot? Sometimes for the latter question we ask a number or, if you're feeling really creative, a shape (e.g. for bread, square/rectangle/triangle, etc.)
- Also Key: Re-phrase child's response as politely as possible as in: 1) Right here, please. and 2) A little, please. If the child replies with a polite form of their own initiative, praise them! "I like the way you said that!" or "Nice asking!" If you have re-phrased for them then wait for them to parrot the polite phrase before responding with the next question or by placing the food on their plate. The pause for politeness is so important...eventually they start initiating those polite phrases and it is just great!
- If you give a child a choice about whether or not they want an item (which we do now from time to time) their responses should also be polite: Yes, please or No, thank you.
- If the children ask for more of something this needs to be polite too: More ____, please, Mommy.
- For a while (a couple of months seemed to do it for us) adult conversation is off-limits. Pretty much everything said should be about the food, or at least directed toward engaging the children in talking at a level that's appropriate for them. Now we like to ask about our favorite thing at school that day. These days we can edge in a sentence or two to each other, but we have to be careful not to get into extended discussions because it's very easy to upset the balance and lose the positive attention that the children are really craving during this time.
This is what has worked for us, and it has only gotten better as the kids get older and more into our dinner routine. I'm not embarrassed to have them eat with us when we have company now, although I do sometimes feed them early if the company dinner time is far removed from our norm or if we have some specific adult conversation that needs to happen over the meal. In general dinner time is a happy time at our house now.
Credit where it is due: I learned about these and other techniques I am currently using with my daughter from two wonderful people, Clarissa Montanaro and Robin Hauge. Please contact them at clarissamontanaro-AT-gmail-DOT-com for more information.