Current Issue

Q: Our 20-month-old son has developed the bad habit of spitting out bites of food. The first time it happened, I had set a cup on his tray while he was still chewing a bite of food. He removed the food from his mouth, set it on his tray, and then took a drink. I thought nothing of it, but it’s gotten progressively worse since then. Sometimes he’ll chew a bite of food for a while, take it out of his mouth, put it on his tray, and take a bite of something else. Then he puts the half-chewed bite back in his mouth and begins chewing on it again. If I catch him before he spits out a bite, I can sometimes coach him into chewing and swallowing. We have tried giving him only one bite at a time after the prior bite is swallowed, but this is frustrating for all of us. What can we do to teach him to eat properly?

A: At this age, children are prone to experiment with the “stuff” of the world, and what you describe is simply one such experiment. To you, your son’s behavior appears odd (alarming?) only because it doesn’t conform to the more mature behavior of older children and adults. As a consequence, you are concerned that your son may be developing a bad habit when he’s simply engaged in a very innocent and playful process that involves curiosity, discovery, and creativity. The food grows his body; playing with it grows his mind!

Your son wonders what happens to food when he chews it, and the only way to find out is to remove it from his mouth. By chewing one thing, then another, he’s experimenting with different tastes and combinations of tastes. At the age of 20 months, he’s discovering how to make the simple, necessary act of eating something that’s not just enjoyable, but adventurous. He’s discovering that food is a “many-splendored thing.” How wonderful!

This is no big deal, but be assured that if you make a big deal of it—if you focus a lot of attention on this issue and try to micromanage how he eats (you have already started down this road, in fact)—then what is now harmless play may turn into something very serious. Food may become the focal point of a power struggle between you and him. Instead of regarding food and the act of eating as an adventure, he may become a picky eater, a food neurotic instead of a gourmand.

King Solomon, who is reputed to have been the wisest man who ever lived, wrote a book in his old age reflecting on life in which he made the insightful comment that “there is a time for everything, / and a season for every activity under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Believe me, this is not the time to be correcting your son’s table manners.

Left alone, by which I mean you completely ignore it, this situation will probably run its course before his third birthday, by which time he will be trying to imitate your behavior at the table. If it hasn’t run its course by the age of three, then is the time to begin gently correcting him. In the meantime, if you can’t stand watching him chew and remove, then feed him separately, away from the table—out of sight, out of mind.

Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, call Elizabeth Stevens at (919) 403-8712.

Living with Children

From the November 2008 Signs