If you have a toddler, this phrase may save your sanity. Even if you embrace a bit of insanity, it will at least save you lots of time and effort. Whenever your toddler refuses a meal, just say, “You don’t have to eat it.” It really is that simple.
Stay with me here: Do not fix an alternative meal. Unless there’s a serious medical or behavioral issue, your child is not intentionally going to starve him or herself. Really. Toddlers love food just as much as the rest of us. In fact, that is the very reason your toddler is refusing to eat the lovingly prepared, balanced meal you’ve made.
Imagine for a moment that you’re 2 years old. You’ve recently learned how to express your likes and dislikes. You’re smart, and you are just beginning to figure out that you can exert control over the world around you—including your parents. You also know that cookies taste better than most things.
What you don’t know yet is that if you skip the broccoli, potatoes and chicken so you’ll have room for more cookies in your tummy, you won’t get the nutrition your growing body needs. As far as you’re concerned, Mom and Dad simply don’t understand that you don’t want this stuff, you want cookies. Or perhaps they do understand, and are keeping the cookies for themselves.
Remember, as a 2-year-old, you are an intelligent, adorable little sociopath. Your lack of empathy and remorse, your sense of entitlement, your glib charm, and your newly discovered ability to manipulate others are working together toward a common goal: cookies for dinner.
As a sociopath, you are indifferent to the anguish you’re causing by refusing everything on that little sectioned plate with the cute pictures hidden under the food. You don’t care that mom and dad are worried you’ll starve, or that their dinner is getting cold while they try every trick in the book to get one morsel of yucky pot roast past your pursed lips. The goal of replacing meat/potatoes/vegetable with fruit/cupcakes/pie is all that matters.
Now, with that in mind, let’s slip back into your adult skin. Your actions at mealtime will determine what behavior your charming, sociopathic offspring finds successful. If you teach Tiny L. Sociopath that the road to cookies for dinner begins with refusing to eat what the family is eating, you should be proud when he or she masters the lesson.
Back to the phrase that’s about to free you. “You don’t have to eat it.” Say it. Believe it. Then, and here’s the important part, explain the consequences of not eating. “This is what we’re having for dinner (or lunch). There is no second choice waiting in line in case you don’t like what we’re having. You don’t have to eat this, but if you don’t, you’re going to be hungry.” Be as calm and matter-of-fact as if you were explaining that it gets dark out when the sun goes down.
Give your child this choice at every meal and watch how quickly he or she decides which option is better. Now who’s the manipulative sociopath, huh? Now who’s in control?
In truth, you both are. By empowering your child to make this choice, you’ve taken control over mealtimes again. But you have to stay strong. There will be times when your child goes hungry. There will be times when your adorable, manipulative, hungry little sociopath will sit and watch the rest of the family enjoy a sweet treat after the meal, which he or she does not get to share. Arguing with a sociopath is pointless, but your toddler is no fool and will learn from this experience.
Be sure to explain that you’d love to share, but that cookies are only for the people who ate their dinner. If you’d like a cookie, you’ll need to eat your dinner first. Say it like it’s no big deal. Because it isn’t. It’s simply the way things are.
“Oh, did you want a cookie? Okay, well then let’s eat some dinner so you can have one!” Say this with a big smile and no hint that there are other options. Because there are no other options.
Part of you is going to want to keep offering different foods until Tiny L. Sociopath eats something. While this urge is natural, it only teaches that manipulative behavior works. What’s more, it encourages your toddler to keep striving to improve on said manipulation until every night’s dinner is Cheetos and cupcakes. It also means you’ll spend your meals engaging in an endless cycle of trial and error instead of eating.
Wait, we may have just discovered a foolproof weight loss plan for parents! No. Must stay strong. Back on topic.
While the “take it or leave it” approach may seem cruel, it actually empowers a child by allowing him or her to learn the concepts of choice and consequences. If the child complains of hunger an hour or so after the meal, offer the uneaten meal again. If it’s something you truly believe your child greatly dislikes, you can also try an acceptable—but not too yummy—snack, such as dry Cheerios.
But no cookies.
Keep those for yourself.