Dear Bracha,

My two-year-old is constantly throwing his food on the floor when he is finished eating. I have tried giving him his meals in smaller portions, encouraging and asking him not to throw food, and praising him on the occasions when nothing is thrown. I also always make him pick up what he throws, but he continues to do it. Any suggestions?

Mom with food all over

Dear Mom,

Ahh, it's the old throwing things on the floor trick! See mom pick up, see mom pick up again, and again…again….again….This is a game and it remains a game no matter what you do. You are now locked into an expected behavior with a child spin on it. It is that "child spin" which is the hardest to beat.

What do I mean by "child spin"? What you are up against is how your son sees and interprets these events. If he doesn't see the downside of what's happening, then he has no incentive to stop playing the game—therein lies your problem. What is the downside when everything is seen as a game? And that is how most two-year-olds are relating to their world. A fun game puts the child at the center of attention; this is the positive reinforcement, the incentive for continuing the game. Therefore it is quite possible that the attention your son receives as you focus solely on him, while instructing him to pick up whatever food he has dropped, does not act to discourage him from dropping the food. It is only another part of the game. As long as he perceives things as positive then there is no down side and no incentive to change his behavior.

What to do? Now that we have seen that we are dealing with "child spin", it's time to put a little "mom spin" into this picture! We have previously discussed what comprises attention: talking, touch and eye contact. Therefore all these things should be minimized when your son displays poor behavior, behavior you wish to discourage. For example, when you instruct your son to stop dropping his food on the floor, you're talking to him—a form of attention. When you make him clean up his mess, you must give him instruction and keep a running commentary until the task is done—a great deal of attention. That is why these efforts have not resulted in any positive change of behavior. Using "child spin": they give attention and your son can not see any negative side to what he is doing.

Enter "Mom spin." Your son wants attention, give it to him! Perhaps you have been leaving him in his high chair while you clean up around the kitchen and he has found this great way to get you back – what ever you have been doing, make sure that from now on you are with him: talking to him and smiling at him while he is eating, keeping things positive. The moment he throws something on the floor, you make a short instructional statement such as: "No throwing things on the floor." Don't pick up anything at this time. Make sure you voice is stern and your face "angry". (Don't yell or raise your voice or make judgment statements, e.g., "You're bad!" The object is to give your son as many non-verbal clues as possible that he has done something wrong.) Then turn your back on him; just turn your chair around and let him see only your back for at least thirty seconds. Do not talk to or interact with him in any way. When you turn around and continue the meal, act as if nothing has happened. If he throws more food on the floor, and he will, repeate the above scenario.

I fully expect your son to throw all his food on the floor, expecting you to react as you usually do. It will take time for him to establish a cause and effect relationship, but he will. The only thing that you have to watch out for is consistency. You must be consistent! Going back to your old response even once will confuse your son and lead him to continue his poor behavior as he hopes for your predictable response to his game.

Your child's wish for more attention and interaction with you is perfectly understandable and normal. The only choice you have as a parent is how he will receive it. Will he receive attention when he displays poor behavior or when he displays good behavior? By increasing interaction during the meal time and instantly removing it as soon as he drops any food, you are able to take over his game in a way that he will understand. You now have created a "downside" to his behavior that he can see even in "child spin". As to the food on the floor, just sweep it up yourself when the meal is over and don't say a word to him about it so as to not have any increased interactions associated with this poor behavior.

A few small points:

If you feel your son is hungry because he did not eat enough, do not give him any extra food or treats as this may create associations of reward that you do not want. If you feel that your son will be hungry, move up the nest snack or meal time while staying as close to your regular routine as possible.

If you feel that you are not teaching your son to be responsible for his actions because he does not clean up his mess – you are right, but this is not the time. The more important lesson for you to focus on is getting this food dropping under control. Responsibility for messes can be taught in cleaning up his toys and other opportunities and will eventually be used at meal times as well.

If you feel that your son will not understand what is expected of him with just a short instructional phrase, rest assured that by this time you have told him to stop dropping his food, and why it's not nice to do so, about a hundred times. He's a smart boy; he already knows it's wrong. It is not knowledge but incentive that he needs.

I am sure that you will find that children make up a great many games, some of which are not appreciated by us adults. You now have the template to discourage any of these poor behaviors. Our sages often state: "Teach a child in his way." This means: find the best way for your child, the way that most suits his abilities and temperament.

May you find this journey with your son to be both positive and enjoyable.