Q: My 2-year-old daughter eats a few bites of supper each night and then wants milk. So I give her milk. Then she refuses to eat anything else. We take the milk away and attempt to bribe her to take a bite of this or a bite of that. Sometimes we make her something else to eat, something we know she likes. What can we do to get her to eat without hassles? I know that giving her milk before she's finished everything on her plate makes no sense, but I'm afraid that if I don't, it may lead to future eating problems.
A: The worry that not giving your daughter milk when she asks for it may eventually cause her to develop an eating disorder is a prime example of what I call a "psychological boogeyman"-an unfounded fear that paralyzes a parent's ability to think clearly about an issue and therefore his or her ability to act effectively. You're hardly alone in this regard. I estimate that at least 90 percent of America's parents (mothers, mostly) are infected with one or more of these diabolical psychological viruses.
You're making a mountain out of an anthill. Wouldn't everyone's lives be simpler and therefore happier if you simply give your daughter milk when she wants milk? Yes, they would. Milk is not the problem; you are. I'm sorry to have to tell you this so bluntly, but newspapers don't give me enough space to be warm and fuzzy about such things. Besides, I'm a man, and my genes prevent me from being very sensitive.
If your daughter was not thriving, she would be symptomatic: dark half-circles under her eyes, lethargy, a distended tummy, and so on. In the absence of symptoms, one is forced to conclude that nutrition is not an issue. Some toddlers eat like small horses, some eat like birds (a bad, albeit popular, analogy, since most birds eat huge amounts of food relative to their body weights). In either case, these toddlers thrive. Besides, processed milk is full of good vitamins like D. (Personally, I'd give her nothing but organic milk, which can be had at just about any chain grocery.) If you want to add some insurance into the equation, give her a chewable multi-vitamin every day.
Problems of this sort reinforce my belief that very young children should not be sitting at the "big table" for family meals. The arrangement is a set-up for parents to begin cajoling (and when that fails, attempting to force) a child to eat. The child in question becomes the focus of everyone's attention at the table and learns that she can manipulate her parents by refusing to eat what they want her to eat. The learning in question takes place intuitively, not consciously, but the end result is the same: family meals that are not pleasant for anyone.
Put a plate of bite-size fruits and veggies (carrot sticks, cucumber slices, orange wedges, dehydrated apple slices, and so on) out for your daughter to snack on during the day. Thirty minutes before you and your husband sit down to eat, put your daughter at the table (or a smaller, child-size table, which kids generally love) with her dinner (a smaller version of what you're eating). Let her eat what she feels like eating, then give her milk, then let her down, at which point you and your husband sit down to a peaceful, child-free time of conversation.
When she's older and has developed a more ecumenical palate, have her join you. In the meantime, enjoy!
Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions at www.rosemond.com.