Q: My four-year-old daughter will not stay seated at the dinner table. We’ve tried taking her plate away if she gets up, but the behaviour happens again the next day. It makes mealtimes so tense. What can we do?
A: You’ve been applying a discipline tactic called a logical consequence. Consequences work great, but beware of pitfalls.
Are you being consistent? It’s important that you remove her plate each and every time that she gets up.
Are you being firm? Don’t give her plate back if she returns later.
Are you being friendly? Be sure you don’t roll your eyes or make harsh comments; consequences delivered this way become punishments, and they will invite resistance.
Are you in a power struggle? Logical consequences don’t work if there’s a fight going on, either overtly or subtly. Now that a fight has begun over sitting at the table, your child now thinks that staying to eat represents losing the fight. She wants to prove “You can’t make me” and she’s saying this with her behaviour.
So what can you do?
•: Keep doing what you’re doing (be consistent, firm, friendly).
•: Know that it’s not your job to make her stay at the table. If she gets down, so be it. If it doesn’t get a rise out of you, it’s a less interesting pursuit.
•: Talk to your daughter sometime other than mealtime and say, “We seem to have a hard time all coming together and having a meal at the table. How could we do that better?” Tell her, “I can’t make you stay at the table and eat with us, but we’d sure enjoy your company and we hope you’ll decide you want to be with us. How can we make that happen?” Asking for input and stating you want her to come of her own volition should ease the power struggle and win her co-operation.