Monday, June 11, 2012

Ask Dr. Momsie - My Messy Eater

I'm excited to answer my first "Ask Dr. Momsie" question, which was submitted by Musing Momma.  By the way, she writes an amazing blog that you've just got to check out.  She is also a child psychologist who has a biracial family, so we are kindred spirits.  Sometimes even us "experts" need a second opinion from a different perspective, and I'm honored she asked me.  Her question:
"My oldest son is a messy eater.  As he gets older (he's now 5 1/2), it SEEMS he should be neater, but that isn't the case! (And he's messier than his 2 year old brother.) We can't make it past breakfast without food on his clothes and usually his seat at the table is a mess. His teacher at preschool has commented that he is just one of those kids she knows will be a mess at the end of the day. Part of the problem is that he just doesn't pay attention while he's eating. He's busy talking and thinking and wiggling, so he's waving his pb&j in the air or putting it down on the table instead of on his plate, and so forth. (He's definitely a very active, talkative kid.)

My main question is whether we should just chalk this up to being 5 and let it be. Part of me says we need to pick our battles and this one isn't worth picking. But we still find ourselves "nagging" through out meal times to lean forward, stop tipping the chair, keep his food on his plate, etc.  And, do you have any suggestions for helping him be neater, without nagging him?"
Your son sounds awesome!  Is there anything better than a lively, talkative, rambunctious kiddo?  What a joy to see a kid really living life and loving it! 

That being said, I believe that the world is full of "messies" and "cleanies."  I, for example, am a cleany - almost to the point of OCD. Food falling off my plate would warrant immediate clean-up.  My sister, on the other hand, is not necessarily a messy, but she always ate like a hurricane as a child.  My mother ended up just packing extra clothes everywhere we went, knowing that my sissy would inevitably spill something on her clothes.  My sister learned this strategy to be effective, and even practices it into adulthood.

Part of your son's messiness could be a set personality trait and all the encouragement and punishment in the world wouldn't be able to change him into a cleany.  Still, there may be a couple of ways to encourage more attention to mealtime etiquette.

First, it might be important to figure out if your son has the ability to be neat and clean, but chooses instead to be a mess.   In psychology, (as you know, Musing Momma, but let me share for everyone else's benefit) we would call this a "performance deficit."  The opposite would be a "skill deficit," meaning he just doesn't know how to be clean.  It is super easy to determine if your little boy is experiencing a performance or a skill deficit.  Just offer a really tempting incentive for staying clean through a mealtime, and if he is able (has the skill), he will surely perform.  I might suggest that you start with small increments of time, say ten minutes.  If he is able to stay in his seat and not make a disaster for ten minutes with no reminders from parents, than the reward is earned and you know that your child has the ability to be a cleany (at least for a little while).  If he simply can not manage to mind his manners for those ten minutes, try lowering the requirement to five minutes at the next mealtime.  If still no sign of cleanliness, then you know your little guy has a "skill deficit," and he is either a messy by nature or he may need to be taught exactly what you expect at mealtime.  You could probably teach him to be a little more mannered with tons of rewards and some punishments, and lots of modeling from mom and dad.

Another idea is to implement a "mealtime manners plan." This might be especially helpful if he is demonstrating a performance deficit.  Create a chart with the expectations for mealtime manners:  stay in seat, cleans up spilt food, doesn't drop food on floor, etc (all the things you find yourself nagging about).  Have a box by each expectation, where you and your son can review at the end of each meal and fill with a little sticker or smiley face.  Then, give meaningful rewards and logical consequences for completing or not completing each requirement.  For instance, if you can put a happy face in four out of five boxes for the night, maybe dessert is warranted.  If your son simply earned no happy faces for the night, a logical consequence would be to assist mommy with clean-up. Remember, the keys to consequences are to make them logical (punishment fits the crime), and to deliver them non-emotionally and consistently.

Hopefully this advice will help you overcome the mealtime mayhem.  But, if not, this may a battle worth forfeiting.  Let's just hope your son marries a nice woman who likes to clean!


  1. I am the messy sissy! I think sometimes we are messy eaters just because we are overactive social beings. I have been a teacher for twelve yars now. I have noticed that my more social students are often messy eaters because they talk instead of eat. I know I still am guilty of that! I have two sons. One is just like my sissy April and one is just like me. I embrace them both and try to teach table manners, but pick my battles! Good luck with your messy eater:)

    1. Overactive social being is a perfect way to describe my son - LOL!

  2. Thanks sissy! I think you're totally right! For some more social kids, neat eating is not a priority. Thanks for sharing your point of view!

  3. This is SO helpful! Thank you!!!! It is great to get a fresh perspective and your objective approach is just what I needed! It's also so cool to think about how behavioral principles can be applied to the simplest of "kid challenges."

    The skill-deficit / performance-deficit distinction is one I hadn't thought about explicitly but is REALLY helpful to think about. Because if I think about it as it applies to my son, he IS able to be neat but ONLY when he has a big motivator. Otherwise, he just doesn't care that he's making a mess (it bothers us, not him). So perhaps we need to realize that unless we're willing to create a significant motivator, we need to let it go!

    We often tell him he won't get a treat after dinner if he can't use his manners, but I think we have not been clear and systematic enough about it - so it ends up feeling arbitrary. Was he neat? Neat enough? A chart would make it more clear and concrete for him (and us) and I'd be curious to see how that would change things.

    Thanks again! I'll keep you posted!

  4. I just wanted to share a little update! So, we didn't end up using the more behavioral strategies, but I do feel that things are better and that your input really helped. I shared your feedback with Hubby and he didn't feel like the issue was significant enough to invest the time/energy in creating a "manners plan." Just discussing that (i.e., is it worth it?) was a good "check" for us and helped put things into perspective, which I think then helped us back off a bit.

    And then what really helped me was the idea of messies vs. cleanies. My son truly is a messy a this point (you should see his room! eek!). Keeping that in mind and trying to embrace his personality rather than fight it gives me perspective - we can work on manners (use utensils, ask to be excused) without hovering over how neatly he eats. Thanks, Dr. Momsie! (And Sister Momsie!) :)

    1. Thanks for the update! Glad things are going well. Isn't Sister Momsie great?


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