Food Fight

Ever go to a restaurant, see a child acting up and say, "Boy, I'm glad that's not my kid?"

Meet Mike and Debbie, because that is their child, a strong-willed 4-year-old named Kyle.

Debbie: Now eat your hamburger, Honey. It will make you big and strong.

Kyle: No. I don't like it.

Debbie: But you always eat hamburgers at home. Come on, just one bite. (Offers it to him on fork.) If you eat it, you can have dessert.

Kyle: No! (Smacks fork out of Mom's hand. Fork clangs on table as numerous heads turn.)

Mike: You've gone too far, Kyle! You're not leaving that seat until every bit of that burger is gone.

Kyle: (Stands up and starts walking away from table.)

Mike: (Grabs Kyle's arm and jerks him back into his seat.) Sit down!

Kyle: Owww! You're hurting me! (Starts crying.)

Mike: (Takes advantage of open mouth by jamming in bites of hamburger.)

Kyle: Yuck. Gag! (Food falls out of his mouth.)

Mike: I give up! We're leaving.

Dr. James Dobson's best-selling book, The Strong-Willed Child, has been a valuable resource to parents like Debbie and Mike for decades. His advice could've helped them handle this situation without creating a scene.

"The dinner table is one battlefield where a parent can easily get ambushed," Dr. Dobson says. "A strong-willed youngster can simply refuse to open his mouth, and no amount of coercing can make him eat. Tell me in what other arena can a 30-pound child whip a grown man!"

One problem is that many parents unwittingly set up "safe zones" where the rules aren't enforced, such as the mall, supermarket, relatives' houses or restaurant. A strong-willed child immediately recognizes these havens and behaves offensively and disrespectfully to test the limits.

The key to disciplining a strong-willed child (or any child) is consistency. If a child misbehaves in a public place, take him some place privately and do what you would've done at home.

As far as Debbie and Mike's specific situation is concerned, Dr. Dobson says the best way to deal with a stubborn eater is to wrap up his food and take it home. While Kyle's at the restaurant, he doesn't have to eat, but he must stay seated until the meal is over. Making threats that you don't plan on carrying out, such as "not leaving that seat until every bit of that burger is gone" only compounds the problem and causes your strong-willed child to dig in his heels even more.

"When you're home for a few hours, your child will come back saying he's hungry," Dr. Dobson explains. "Simply retrieve the earlier meal, warm it up and serve it again. If he protests, send him out to play. Even if 12 hours or more go by, continue this procedure until food—all food—begins to look and smell wonderful. From that time forward, the battle over the dinner table should be history."

Parents need to know the effort in raising a strong-willed child is worth it. Almost all strong-willed children follow the values they were brought up with when they become adults. What's more, 85 percent of families have at least one strong-willed child. So you're not alone . . . even when that is your kid acting up at the restaurant.

Background Information

Journey of No Return
Sometimes as parents, we have a knee-jerk response to our kids as we're barraged by their numerous inquires and desires. Maybe it's time to stop being so negative.

When Not To Discipline
Parents should recognize when they should and shouldn't discipline their children.

When You Feel Like Calling in the SWAT Team
Are your children constantly testing you? This classic parenting advice will help you regain the upper hand.

Questions and Answers

After I spank my child, she usually wants to hug me and make up, but I continue to be cool to her for a few hours. Do you think that is right?

We'd like to be more unified in our approach, but how do we successfully move from two financial approaches to one?

How long do you think a child should be allowed to cry after being punished? Is there a limit?

I have never spanked my 3-year-old because I am afraid it will teach her to hit others and be a violent person. Do you think I am wrong?

It just seems barbaric to cause pain to a defenseless child. Is it healthy to spank him or her?

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Other Things to Consider

Ten Things Toddlers Wish They Could Tell You
It can do wonders for the frazzled parent to know what's going on in the mind of your little one.

TransitionsHaving a Baby, Preparing for Adolescence

Life PressuresWorking Moms, Stay-At-Home Moms, Time for Family

RelationshipsParents and Adult Children, Blended Families