Q. Our bright, happy, lively 16-month-old boy has always loved food -- the more the better.
Now he has begun to reject some foods, but still eats well and happily. The problem is that we can't always schedule meals together, and our son always wants to eat if he sees anyone else eat, especially Mommy and Daddy, or even if he sees food prepared or served. If he doesn't get food right away (even after he has had his own breakfast), he cries and cries.
His father and I try not to give in, reminding him he has already had his meal, but this results in a miserable, crying, whining baby. For a while we tried putting him in his high chair and giving him food. There was peace and contentment in the house, but also a baby who was getting presumably unneeded calories. Lately we've been trying to distract him creatively, which works just fine when I'm willing to leave the house and take him for a walk, but this tends to fail the rest of the time.
I should note that our son's height and weight are in good proportion, according to the pediatrician's chart, but he is large for his age and has a toddler's protruding tummy.
Another problem is my son behaves far better with his nanny, who cares for him during workdays, than for me. I have tried not to give in to his demands that I baby him (carry him home on walks over short distances that he frequently walks with his nanny), but I am successful in this no more than about half the time. By and large, he behaves better for his father than for me, and better yet for his nanny.
A.Actually, both problems are really one. Your little boy is looking for more attention from you and your husband, and he's found that food is a good way to get it. It not only pleases his young appetite but he's found out how hard it is for you to deny him a crust of bread (or a slice of pie or anything else that's handy). That's a typical reaction for both of you to have.
In every relationship one person lets the other know her vulnerable point and from then on, that will be the weapon the other chooses. A parent may let the child know it's particularly important for him to take a daily bath; to take a nap; to be trained; to go to bed on time; to clean his plate -- or to eat within certain limits. Inevitably, the parent's special need will be the child's certain rebellion.
In your household, food is becoming the weapon, although you may be tempted to think that this is because you're a working mother or even that the nanny is more competent than you are. Neither is true.
Your little boy is just doing what comes naturally: He's trying to get his way. This is part of his instinctive drive for independence.
The more he prevails, the more frightening his power can seem to him, and this may make him ask for more hugs and kisses -- or food or walks or carrying -- to make sure he's still loved.
It doesn't have to be this way: Behavior can be modified in either direction. If you reward him for his scenes he'll just have more of them, but if you reward him before they happen, he'll want to be good.
You'll find the food problem will be less if you don't make such a big deal of it.
You do this by inviting him to have a lick of this or a sip of that without waiting for him to ask. There's also nothing wrong with giving your son half of his breakfast early and then inviting him back into his high chair for the rest while you eat yours. The key is to make your offer before he begs. Even if he's already eaten his whole meal, a few extra slices of banana won't make him fat. Put your trust in the doctor's chart.
What he really wants is the chance to eat with you. Although most parents aren't brave enough -- or foolhardy enough -- to have breakfast and dinner with a young child seven days a week, he needs to join you for as many meals as you can stand. A child gets a sense of conviviality and well-being when he breaks bread (or bananas) with people he loves.
Unexpected rewards for good behavior keep a child responding well in other situations too.
Extra, unexpected cuddling will make him much less likely to fuss if the attention is given when he is content and if he knows he can count on you to give it spontaneously at least once a day.
You may think this is babying your little boy but at 16 months, he's still a baby and indeed, no matter how old he gets there will always be a part of him that will need some babying and he'll need it from his mother most.
That's why he cries to be carried when you go on a walk. You'll find it easier to say no if you take him in a stroller, so you can give him a kiss when he does cry -- and keep right on pushing. That still will be hard to do when you feel the glare of old (and young) biddies, but you won't be teaching your child to trade on his tears.