Eating at the Table with Kids

So it is Thanksgiving weekend and the kids in the family are now at an age where they can "sit" at the table to have thanksgiving together. Furthermore, the child to parent ratio is getting scary and looks like it is only going to get worse, which isn't a bad thing. Getting your children to "sit" at the table is not easy and if you aren't careful it can easily get out of control. Here are a couple tips to help with your children and family. 

1) Determine what is expected from the children immediately. 
-Having clear expectations in the mind of parents from the beginning will put everyone on the same page. If you are ok with your kids getting up, standing in the chair, throwing food, etc then that is what you are going to get. If you want them to eat their meal, make an age appropriate mess and then entertain themselves quietly they will do that if you set that expectation. So what is a reasonable expectation? That is for your family to decide. Our girls are presently 16 months and 3 years. They eat, feed themselves, talk and when they are done play with some books/small toys for a couple minutes until the meal is over. It takes practice, and that leads to

2) Practice, every meal.
-Every meal time is a chance to re-enforce the family expectation. If you do not sit and eat with the family it is unreasonable to expect your children to do it when you NEED them to. For example, eating out, when guests come over, or for special occasions. Practicing or playing tea (or pizza party, birthday party, etc) is fun and can be done with any child age or gender.

3) Deal with tantrums appropriately.
-Just because it is meal time or there are guests around does not mean that discipline can be ignored. When your children throw a fit ignore it, just as you would with any other undesired behavior. If it is too bad, isolate the child by putting them in the crib/time out. When they calm down they can rejoin the meal. Please do not let others bully you or make you feel bad about your discipline style or expectations. Also, giving your child free reign just to get through the meal will ultimately make the behavior worse in the future. Be strong now. 

4) Practice, did I mention that yet?

5) Schedule important meals at the right time.
-RIght before nap or bed time is a great time for a family meal. That way when your child is done eating or starting to melt down they can be excused to bed and everyone else can keep eating. 

Here are some age appropriate tips:
6 months: sitting at the table with everyone else is just fine, give them some small not messy foods to entertain for a while. The dissolvable puffs are great. 
9 months: more finger foods, give in small frequent doses to take up some time and keep them entertained.
15 months: this is the age that things get messy. For important meals, give cleaner foods. If your child is throwing things on the floor, take the food away. At this age if they finish before everyone else give a book or a small toy. Once dropped on the floor or gets tired of it, go ahead and give another. Eventually they will not be able to go on and they can go to bed.
2-3 years: How about coloring/stickers/play-dough when they are done?
4 years: Depending on your children this is probably the earliest that they can sit at a "kids table." If there are other older children it might work younger if they can help police the situation.
The Kids Table: Before they go off by themselves, set clear expectations. For example, you guys will not be too loud, not make a mess and if anyone cries/fights/etc everyone will get in trouble. Follow through with any discipline plans. 

Teenagers: Conversation with adults and other family can be a challenge. Try asking questions or conversation starters that can not be answered with a yes or no. I find that asking questions can sometimes seem intrusive so instead I lead with a statement and try to get them to respond. For example, "Hey Jake, I saw this thing on TV about this videogame called Call of Duty 3. It looks really cool and scary realistic. Any of your friends playing this?" Follow up questions 1- how much time are you guys playing on this 2-isn't technology cool 3- do you think that games like that make people more interested or sensitive to the demands we put on our military? It is an adult conversation disguised as "adult ignorance." Then follow up with something like, "I really enjoyed talking with you about that." Then, give Jake a thumbs-up! (That may be too far)

Good luck, Aaron Traeger MD Aaron R Traeger MD FAAP Pediatrics Pediatrician Bloomington Normal Illinois