How to Build Boundaries While Staying Responsive

February 28, 2020

Posted in: Early Intervention, Feeding, Feeding Tube Weaning

At Thrive, we often work with parents on building their own DOR (Division of Responsibility) within mealtimes. This was developed by Ellyn Satter and reviews the basics behind the roles of the parent and child at mealtimes. The parent’s role is to determine the what, when, and where of mealtimes and the child’s role is to determine IF they eat and how much. When we review this with families, parents always ask “When can I set boundaries?” The DOR does not mean you do not have age appropriate limits, expectations, and boundaries at mealtimes. As the parent, it is okay to set those boundaries or limits in a responsive setting. One of the first questions that parents have when discussing boundaries is about throwing… 

Throwing food is pretty much a universal phase that all children go through when learning how to eat and participating in mealtimes. Here are a few common reasons why children throw food

  • Gravity – It is developmentally appropriate to begin throwing objects from about 9-14 months as children learn about cause and effect.  Little ones learn through movement and senses.  Giving your child a piece of food may encourage tossing and watching to see what happens next can be a very interesting activity for their developing brains. 
  • Someone’s All Done – Often kids toss food because they are no longer hungry.  When the food is no longer useful for satiating hunger, they begin to look for other “uses” of the food, and things begin to fly. 
  • Attention! – Attention is the “currency” of early childhood.  Regardless if it is positive or negative, attention is what makes many little ones tick.  Parents often react to tossed food with facial expressions, explanations, and cleaning-up on the spot, and kids get the attention they were seeking.  More and more food gets launched, and the more attention they get for tossing it. 

What are easy ways to build in boundaries for throwing? 

1.  Ignore what you can – Don’t make big reactions or lots of eye contact.  Often kids get more attention for the “undesired” behavior of throwing food than they do for other mealtime activities.  By ignoring the tossing, we are teaching them that this behavior doesn’t result in more attention. 

2.  Keep it simple and positive – If you feel you have to “correct” the behavior by delivering a verbal message, keep it simple. Keep it positive instead of saying “Don’t”, tell them what to do instead. “Food stays on table” “Food on plate” 10 words or less one time is enough! 

3.  Praise other things – Offer praise for other more “desired” mealtime behaviors.  (i.e. sitting, talking, sharing, etc).  Try telling your child what you want them to do instead “I LOVE how your sitting at the table!” “Thanks for sharing that story with your brother!” 

4.  Offer a target – Provide a “No Thank-You” or “All Done” plate for kids to drop their foods into that they no longer want.  When you see they are considering tossing a food, offer the plate and teach them “Food can go in all done plate” 

5.  Clean-Up – Involve your child in clean-up if they are old enough. This can be a positive routine that offers a natural consequence in lieu of a punishment.  It’s a great message for kids to receive, “After we eat, we clean up.” 

6.  Beat them to it – Pay attention for cues that your child may be done.  Try to wrap up a meal a few minutes before the tossing behavior begins. 

Best of luck on your journey to end the “food fights” and make mealtimes more fun (and a bit less messy)!