No dinner for Max? Depends on what he’s had to eat.

November 8, 2011

The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another, his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said, “I’LL EAT YOU UP!,” and was sent to bed without eating anything.

I have read Maurice Sendak’s book “Where the Wild Things Are” to my kids dozens of times. But I never stopped to think about what it means to send a kid to bed without eating, especially as a punishment for making mischief.

Parenting columnist John Rosemond thinks it’s a misguided tactic. “A hungry child isn’t thinking about the ‘wrongness’ of his actions; he’s thinking that he’s hungry. That’s counterproductive, obviously,” he said in an e-mail. “Consequences need to focus the child’s attention on what he/she did wrong.”

For his part, Sendak has said he often went to bed without his supper — but by his own choosing. In a 2004 Public Broadcasting System interview, Bill Moyers asked Sendak, “Were you ever sent to bed without supper?” Sendak answered, “I often went to bed without supper ’cause I hated my mother’s cooking. So, to go to bed without supper was not a torture to me. If she was gonna hurt me, she’d make me eat.”

Online parenting forums occasionally have debates about whether it’s right, fair or effective to send a kid to bed with an empty stomach. It’s not clear how often that act actually occurs, but it does seem the thought crosses parents’ minds now and then.

Joshua Sparrow, supervisor of in-patient psychiatry at Children’s Hospital Boston and co-author, with T. Berry Brazelton, of “Feeding Your Child the Brazelton Way” (Da Capo Press, 2004), says of the practice,“I have no idea if people still do it.” But if they do, he says, they should probably rethink their approach.

First, Sparrow says we shouldn’t “layer food with meanings about other things.” Food should be about “nourishment, health, the pleasure of being with people,” he says. “Avoid turning it into a battleground for power struggles.”

Sparrow says there are things children can control: breathing, feeding, toilet-training and falling asleep. Parents should avoid linking any of these to punishment or other consequences because that automatically places the child in control. “You cannot get food into a child if the child doesn’t go along with it,” he says.

Jennifer Shu, an Atlanta pediatrician and co-author, with Laura Jana, of “Food Fights” (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2008), agrees. “In general, we don’t want to link rewards or punishments to food.”

Regarding sending kids to bed without supper, she says, “The concerning thing is the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.”

On the other hand, Shu says, most kids wouldn’t be harmed by skipping supper.

“Most kids are getting plenty of calories during the day to make it to the next morning,” she says. “I’m more concerned with skipping breakfast.”

Despite the increase in childhood obesity in the United States, Shu says many parents seem worried that their kids aren’t getting enough to eat. “They’re so concerned that their child’s going to starve, they’re willing to give them chicken nuggets for supper just so the child’s not feeling hunger.”

Shu and Sparrow also say that one of the most common problems they hear from parents is that the child refuses to eat what’s served for dinner. But unlike young Maurice Sendak, kids often think they’re entitled to have their parents prepare a separate meal that’s more to their liking.

Both experts are unequivocal about how to handle that.

“Do not cater to the child, do not make a separate meal,” Sparrow says. “To get into cooking different things for different kids creates conflict, and the parent feels put-upon and not appreciated.”

“You make a family meal, sit down, keep things light and pleasant, say ‘this is what we’re eating,’ ” Sparrow says. “People may think that sounds barbaric. But you don’t have to do it in a mean way.” That includes making sure there are several different foods on the plate, “not just green beans,” so the child is likely to find something to enjoy.

With younger children, Sparrow advises parents to keep presenting challenging foods. “It can take more than 15 times” before the child will accept a new food, he says.

Shu also recommends including the child in the meal-planning process. Before cooking, “give kids a choice of two healthy options, carrots or broccoli,” she says.

But if at the end of the day, the child says he’s full, Shu says, avoid pressuring him to finish dinner.

“Forcing the kid to eat when he’s not hungry, maybe already full, can be counterproductive.”

In that case, she says, “sleep is more important.”

More online

For nutrition news, visit the Checkup blog at voices.washingtonpost.com/checkup , follow @jhuget on Twitter and subscribe to the Lean & Fit newsletter by going to washingtonpost.com/wellness.

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