Eat it or wear it?

There’s a memorable scene from Judy Blume’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing involving a parent-toddler showdown at the dinner table. In it, we’re presented with a classic toddler situation — Fudge Hatcher, age 2½, doesn’t want to eat his cereal. His parents beg and plead; Fudge continues to refuse. Finally, Fudge’s dad gets mad. 

“Fudge, you will eat that cereal or you will wear it!” he declares. And then he drags Fudge into the bathroom and dumps the cereal over his head.    

This scene seems to exemplify a common power struggle between parents and children during the toddler years. You, the parent, want your child to do something. Your child, the toddler, doesn’t want to do it. How will you prevail? 

The answer: You will not prevail. In fact, by entering the battle at all, you have already lost. Parenting a toddler presents us with a daily reminder that, despite our greatest efforts, we can never really control another person. In fact, the harder we try to control someone else’s behavior, the more that person will rebel. 

Rebellion as default

I’m reminded of a time I was visiting a friend’s house with my kids in tow. 

Felix, 3, immediately found a cherry tomato plant and began jubilantly plucking off the little fruits.  

Of course, ransacking the poor plant was not enough. He proceeded to caper out the back door with his stolen goods, flinging them hither and yon. I quickly followed him. 

“Felix!” I yelled, trying to sound authoritative. “Stop that right now!” 

Momentarily contrite, Felix lowered his chin to his chest, pouted cartoonishly and marched over to the fence, his back towards me. I went over to him. 

“It’s all my fault!” he announced in his tiny, sad voice.

I sat down with him for a few minutes and we talked about how he can’t just go around picking tomatoes and throwing them all over the place. He nodded solemnly. I thought we had an understanding. 

Minutes later, I caught him with another handful of forbidden fruit. He grinned at me. Then he made a move like he was going throw one. 

“What are you doing, Felix?” I said, like a parent. “Don’t you dare throw those tomatoes!” 

Felix stared me down; with his sinister smile, he suddenly bore a striking resemblance to Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Then he took the handful of tomatoes and shoved them all into his mouth at once, chewing slowly and looking quite pleased with himself.   

Two to tango    

The aforementioned “eat it or wear it scene” is etched in my memory for eternity. But I couldn’t remember the context — what led up to the cereal over the head? I consulted the book for details. 

It turns out that the comic-traumatic climax was the result of a pattern of indulgent parenting. One day, Fudge stops eating. After a couple days of this, his mother starts to worry. She asks her older son, Peter, to do headstands to help make Fudge eat. 

As Peter explains, “When Fudge saw me upside down he clapped his hands and laughed. When he laughs, he opens his mouth. That’s when my mother stuffed some baked potatoes into it.” 

Soon, however, Peter refuses to take part in the headstand scheme any longer. 

“Oh, he’ll eat when he gets hungry. Why don’t you just leave him alone!?” Peter suggests, quite reasonably.  

His mother, however, doesn’t leave him alone. Her attempts to manipulate Fudge into eating include letting him eat under the dinner table, like a dog. And when even this doesn’t do the job, Fudge gets punished with the cereal over the head. 

What should we do then?

Is there any way to avoid these sorts of power struggles over food with children — even with toddlers, the most notoriously picky eaters of all? 

Yes, according to Ellyn Satter, author of the definitive how-to-feed-your-child-successfully book, Child of Mine

She advocates the “division of responsibility” in feeding: “You take leadership with the what, when and where of feeding, and let your child determine how much and whether to eat what you provide.” (I will explore this approach in more detail in a future column.) 

Meanwhile, Satter echoes Peter, Fudge’s older brother, when she advises the reader do what “works” if you want your children to eat fruits and vegetables. 

“What works is minding your own business,” writes Satter. “Eat and enjoy your own vegetables. Your child assumes, ‘Someday, I will eat them, too.’”


Shannon Keough lives in St. Paul with her husband and two children. Send questions or comments to skeough@mnparent.com.