Testing Limits

Dear Munchkin,

As a general rule, you thrive on tactile stimulation. Sometimes this means you love to run and jump and bounce and fling yourself into my arms. Sometimes it means you want to play with play-doh or the rice box or sand. It often means you prefer your fingers over your fork.

When you were younger, I tried to be the kind of parent who encouraged you to jump in and explore your world, including your food. Now that you’re approaching four years old, I still want you to have hands-on learning experiences, but I also find myself driven to teach you some table manners. So we’ve been working on keeping your elbows (and sometimes your entire upper body) off of the table. I regularly remind you to “finish chewing and swallowing, then take another bite,” and to keep your lips closed while you chew. (The smacking sound you seem to enjoy is like nails on a chalkboard for me.) And every time you are provided with a fork or spoon, I remind you to use it instead of your fingers, often multiple times within a few minutes.

I know it must be a challenge for you. These are a lot of new rules and you don’t really understand why you need to follow them. It also seems like it’s in your nature to make eating a full-body experience. Adding insult to injury, Peanut sometimes uses his fingers, shovels more into his mouth while still chewing, and laughs and babbles with a mouth full of food, usually without much comment from me. I’m sure it feels like a double standard to you.

Last night at dinner, you swiped a hand at my plate in an attempt to poke or grab at my food. I reminded you of another relatively new rule: keep your hands (and all other body parts) to yourself. You flashed a mischievous smile and made a couple more playful swipes, carefully avoiding actually touching my food. I gave you my “it’s time to stop” smile, and you did. So I let it go.

Toward the end of dinner, though, you started poking your finger into what was left of your mashed potatoes, curling it a bit to pick up a little on the tip, then licking it off. I was tired of the daily battles over getting you to use a utensil when we all know you can. And you had used your fork very well up until that point. I quietly but firmly began to draw the line: “Munchkin, the next time you put your fingers in your food, it will be time for you to leave the–” Poke. There was that mischievous grin again, but this time there was a challenge in your eyes: “what are you going to do about it?” “OK, Munchkin, time for you to leave the table,” I said, matter-of-factly, as I moved the plate out of reach.

“NOOOO!” It was like I’d flipped a switch, instantly activating a tantrum. You screamed and cried as I gently and intently removed you from your chair, then Daddy took you out of the room. Once you got most of it out of your system, you asked for cuddles to help you calm down. Daddy and I happily obliged. It was thrilling to see you demonstrate such security and trust in your parents. We will have plenty of these “checking the boundaries” experiences as you mature; I hope you always feel that Daddy and I discipline you out of love and with love. May God continually grant us the grace to be calm, understanding, and forgiving, and the courage to set and maintain those boundaries.


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