Q&A: 20-month-old squirmy at mealtimes

Sylvie writes:

"Here is a toddler question. Our little one is almost 21 months, and in the last couple of weeks he has started being difficult at meals. He still eats well, but he gave up sitting in his high chair one day and mostly he wants to sit on one of our laps for the whole meal. He has the Tripp Trapp chair, so at first I took off the baby seat, thinking he'd be happier sitting in it like a normal seat. Didn't work. Then I bought him a little step stool, thinking that he try to climb up himself. Also didn't work. I even don't have a problem if he just sits in a normal chair to eat. But usually he just whines and screams until he gets a lap. Otherwise he is a cheery, happy toddler. He sleeps well, eats well and there haven't been any other big transitions lately.  Is this just a phase? I'd like to know any good strategies to enforce some type of meal time rules that avoid any yelling. I assume he is just testing boundaries, but I'd like to teach him about basic rules (i.e. we sit either in a high chair or a normal chair for meals) without having to yell at him. Ideas?"

It's been awhile since I've posted a mealtime question about a 20-month-old, so Sylvie's question was right on time. It's no coincidence, I think, that 20 months seems to be the peak of mealtime resistance. If you think about what's going on developmentally, it makes total sense. The 18-month sleep regression, which gets all the press (at least here on AskMoxie.org), is really just part of a larger phase of development that includes brain development stuff, movement stuff, speech development, pattern recognition, and a big phase of figuring out that they are separate from you (and from the rest of their environments). It seems to last roughly from 15-21 months, but of course varies in length, intensity, and scope across all kids.

The upshot of this phase is that they can see and taste autonomy, but can't actually reach it. They can tell that they want to go someplace, and can maybe run there by themselves, but aren't allowed to. They have things they want to say and tell you, but probably don't have the speech skills yet to say all the words. They can see all this cool stuff that they want to do but The Man (aka you) is keeping them down.

Meals are the only area in which they can really exert any control. Either by refusing to eat things, by refusing to swallow, by eating only a limited range of foods, by throwing food on the floor, by refusing to sit in their high chairs, whatever. And because we parents are so concerned about their eating nutritious meals in adequate amounts, their power is actually real instead of just symbolic. In other words, when parents care, kids actually have power. Which is why they keep doing it.

[What you do about that depends on what your goals are. I never wanted to disenfranchise my kids. I wanted them to feel like they had some control over their actions and environments. So I tried to give them a lot of choices (binary choices--this or this, in which I was truly ok with either choice) to help them build decisionmaking skills and also help them feel like they had some autonomy. At the same time I tried to let go of the food stuff, so that anything that happened at mealtime wasn't going to bug me so much. I wanted to shift my kids' way of learning about control from mealtime (which was annoying to me) to other areas that weren't as annoying to me. And all this theory was AWESOME, except that my kids were still toddlers and were not on board, so it was all a chaotic crapshoot anyway. Cue the thousand tiny violins. Also: It gets better. My kids both got their own breakfast today and I'm not actually even sure what they ate.]

So, yes, this is just a phase. Sylvie's doing the absolute right thing since her goals are to teach her son table manners and a standard of conduct at mealtime, while still giving him choices within that. It would probably be working really well, except that he's 20 months old. And it's coded into him to resist. When I think about kids this age the phrase "bag of cats" comes to mind.

So my advice is for Sylvie to stay true to herself and her own ideals of both a) what she wants to teach her son, and b) how she wants to teach it to him. She is being an excellent mother and doing all the right things (for her own personality and goals). Eventually her son will come out of this phase (probably in a month or two, but at least by the time he leaves for college), but in the meantime, she's at least doing the best for herself, and knowing that eventually what she teaches him is going to click. You can't control your kids anyway, so you might as well be happy with your own decisions while your kid is going through the necessary but annoying developmental stages.