Parenting Q & A

The Next Family

little girl about to throw food

Q:

I feel like I’ve tried everything but my son (age 2) will not stop throwing his food. He does it at home and at restaurants too. At first I tried to explain to him that we don’t throw food, but he kept doing it. Then I tried ignoring it, and then I tried taking his food away, and finally I put him in a time out because I was so frustrated. Nothing works! And I’m sooo sick of cleaning up the mess. What can I do?

A:
It’s great that your first approach was to talk to your son because it shows that your instinct is to communicate with him instead of rushing to reprimand him. When you do talk with him, it’s helpful to emphasize what you want him to do –‘food goes in our mouths, not on the floor,’ so that you’re clear about your expectations.

If he understands your expectations and still throws his food, then it’s time to ask ‘what need is he expressing?’ If you were busy preparing the meal before he ate, it could be that he’s expressing a need for individual attention. In that case, can you create a connecting activity, like engaging him in the meal preparation? Or, could you start your meal with a few moments of grace/gratitude? Even if it’s as simple as holding hands and talking about where your food came from, you could establish a ritual of quiet connection where he can sense that you’re tuned in to him.

Or, is he throwing his food because he’s done with his meal? For some kids, throwing food can simply be a matter of needing throwing practice. Kids are born experimenters, and it’s fun to see what happens when food splats on the floor, on the window, and on Mommy. You might try using what we call the say it – feel it – set it – sub it technique. Here’s how it works: Say it involves narrating what you see happening. Feel it means showing empathy, connecting with your child’s needs and feelings and letting him know that you understand and have taken this into account when setting the limit. Set it means clarifying what your child can and can’t do by setting a limit. And sub it refers to substituting something more suitable that attempts to meet your child’s need (for example, to throw). It might look something like this:

[Say it:] “Honey, I see you’re throwing food.
[Feel it:] I know you really want to throw something – it’s fun to throw things!
[Set it:] But food goes in our mouths or on the table, not on the floor.
[Sub it:] Do you want to throw a ball outside? Or do you want to throw this soft stuffed animal?”

Then, when you’re not in the heat of the moment and your child is ready to listen (perhaps even another day), have a conversation with him so that you can review the limit you’ve set. For example, ‘we only throw balls, and we throw them outside’ or, ‘we only throw soft toys inside.’ To set your child up for success, keep plenty of soft balls or toys on hand, and remove temptation by keeping the hard balls outside. Kids respond well to clearly defined limits that incorporate something that they can do.

If your child is throwing food in a restaurant, you can still try to say it – feel it – set it – sub it, but it will look slightly different:

[Say it:] “Honey, I see you’re throwing food.
[Feel it:] It looks like you’re tired of eating and you’re ready to have fun.
[Set it:] But food goes in our mouths or on the table. We don’t throw food.
[Sub it:] Let’s make puppets with our napkins and play a pretend game of catch.”

Kids can be surprisingly sensitive to our attempts to understand and meet their needs, and often the third step – sub it – can be delayed. Simply empathizing with your child’s needs can be enough to delay the need. As above, you could identify the issue, empathize, and then follow up with an offer like, ‘I know you really, really want to throw! I’m so sorry we can’t throw in the restaurant. But before we get in the car, we can do five throws outside. Would you like to do that?’

Like any parenting tool, say it – feel it – set it – sub it isn’t foolproof. It won’t always work. But sometimes, just knowing that you have a fallback plan can help diffuse a tense situation. Let us know how things go.

Holly & Julie

Holly Kretschmar and Julie Gamberg are two parents, writers, and educators who live in Los Angeles and are writing a book about parenting tools.

You can email them with questions at parentingadvice@thenextfamily.com

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