Don’t take the bait

November 29, 2011

My son really likes control.  I have become expert in side stepping around power struggles with him.  I also like giving him choices.  Not only do they encourage autonomy, but they give him a feeling of having some control, making him more likely to cooperate with my requests.  I usually find this is true when it comes to eating, a potentially endless source of conflict and anxiety for parents.  However, I’ve recently been experiencing the following scenario.

I give him a choice of what he would like for his meal.  He tells me his choice.  I prepare the requested dish.  He sits down at the table and looks at it.  He starts to whine and say he doesn’t want it.  How annoying is that?

In one of my less patient moments I tried, “Well that’s what you said you wanted, so I’ve made it and you can sit there until you’ve eaten it!”  Result:  power struggle.  Child refuses point blank to eat food.  I get even more annoyed, resort to bribes and threats about pudding or where we’re going after the meal (I don’t agree with bribes and threats, how has he driven me to this?), they don’t work (I already knew that, so why did I try them?), he eats enough to feed a mouse, then either spends all afternoon being bad tempered because he’s hungry, or I spend all evening stressing about him waking up early in the morning because he’s hungry.  Everyone’s a loser.

On the next occasion, in a wiser, more patient moment I tried a casual, “Oh dear, that’s a shame” and carried on washing the dishes.  Child whined for a further 30 seconds, then ate food.  Brilliant.  (I managed to refrain from making any smart arse comments along the lines of “I told you so”, or “Thought you said you didn’t want it”.)

On the next occasion, being slightly bemused by his contrariness I commented, “I asked you if you wanted pasta and you said yes”.  Reply: “Yes, but not with cheese on.” (I had grated some cheese on top. I usually do.  He likes it.)  My response, “Oh dear. You’ll have to take the cheese off then”.  Child whined for a further 30 seconds, then ate food.

What’s going on here?  It’s as if he’s looking for a fight. Is he testing me in some way?  I’ve already given him a choice of what he would like to eat, but it’s like he’s double checking; “Am I being forced to eat this?  If so, I’m not going to”.  If this is the case, it’s a great example of coercion provoking counterwill.

Whatever it is, I’ve definitely learnt not to take the bait.