Care and Feeding

My Toddler Takes an Hour to Eat Dinner

We are dying of old age waiting for her to finish her chicken nuggets.

Kid taking too long to eat food.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I hope you have some advice on a toddler who takes forever to eat dinner. My husband and I prepare food that my 3-year-old typically likes, so it’s not because she’s a picky eater. She will sit with us for five to 10 minutes and eat, then get up to play, go “potty,” interact with her baby sister, feed the dog, dance around the kitchen, basically anything but eat. Getting her to eat dinner takes up to an hour! We try bribes with small desserts, or threaten that if she doesn’t come eat we’ll give her dinner to the dog and there will be no more food for the night. (We have followed through on this at least once but it hasn’t helped.) It’s a nightly battle … and usually it ends with her dinner sitting out until she eventually eats it.

At this age, can she really understand “If you don’t eat now, then no more food tonight” and possibly going to bed hungry? Should we be stricter and put our foot down, or just let her take her time to eat dinner?

—Mom of a Grazer

Dear MoaG,

Most letters we get about toddler-dinnertime problems have to do with the fact that the kids aren’t spending enough time at the table—they are rushing through, throwing a few bites down, and running off forever. Worrying about your kid wanting to spend too much time in the act of dinner seems like unnecessary stress.

Dinner is cool. Dinner is where families spend time together and reground the collective. Dinner—especially with kids—should be an aimless, timeless, agendaless hangout. It’s usually really hard to get that to happen for a variety of reasons—schedule-stressed parents, bored kids, screen-time obsessions, family tensions. So, when it is happening, my advice is to embrace that shit. Let your kid run around the house aimlessly. Lay on the couch with a crossword puzzle that you’re in no way seriously about to complete. Let her come to your lap, run away, play a little, go sit with dad, look at a book, and then come back again. Get funny place mats with pictures where you have to find 100 items. Play ridiculous games of 20 questions where your 3-year-old frustrates everyone because she keeps insisting potato chips are an animal.

Of course, as parents we feel the time crunch of the evening routine. We have to get dinner done, so we can get to bath time, so we can get to bedtime, so we can get some work done and some sleep in, so we can get up tomorrow morning on time so that we can get to school and work on time so that we can do it all over again. It’s the reality of parenting in capitalism, and it can be super stressful. But the good news is that we parents are granted, if we are willing, little tiny windows of freedom from that in the form of little kids who just could not care less about the clock. This is a gift. And it’s a temporary one. The day will come where you have to struggle to get your kid to spend any real unstructured time with you. And it will come so soon that it will feel like you’ve been ambushed and cheated out of your kid’s childhood.

So my advice is to breathe a little. Let the evening breathe a little too. Let dinner take an hour if it wants to. After that, ask your daughter kindly if she’s all done before giving the leftovers to the dog and moving on with your evening. She sounds like she’s having a great time with these spacious dinners. I hope you can too.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband was born in Norway and raised in Morocco and educated in Scotland. As a result, he is fluent in several different languages, and I’ve seen throughout his life what a gift that has been to him. When I got pregnant, I asked my husband if he would teach our son one or more of the languages that he knows. I know how easy it is for children to absorb language and how much harder it is once you’re older. My husband gave it a great deal of thought and decided that he wants to conduct his relationship with his son in English and that he wants to be a father in English. I respect this answer and could tell that it was well considered. But do you think we will regret not being a trilingual home when our son and other future children are young? My husband is the only one who can control this, so should I just let him decide in what language he wants to father his son?

—Polyglot or PolyNOT

Dear PoP,

There are two questions here. Will you regret not raising the kid in a trilingual home? It’s entirely possible, depending on what you mean by we. There is a nonzero chance that when your kid is, say, 19 and realizes he could have theoretically been fluent in multiple languages, opening up job, education, and social opportunities at home and abroad, he may respond, What the hell Mom and Dad?! That will make you feel guilty, since you already wish he had that. Who knows, maybe even Dad will be kicking himself.

But the reality today is that none of this matters. Your husband, who you admit was thoughtful and deliberate in his decision, came to the conclusion that he wants to raise his child in English. There is nothing you can do to change that. And just as there are good reasons to raise a kid multilingual if the opportunity presents itself, there are reasons not to. You have to be quite constant in raising bilingual children. What is your collective family language? How do you deal with the fact that father and son can speak in a language that mother cannot understand? There are legitimate pros and cons to both choices and therefore both choices are valid. Subject to preferences, sure, but still valid.

Which brings me to the second question, implied but not stated in your letter. Imagine if my answer was “A thousand times yes!! By all means, raise the child in all the languages and never doubt for a second that this is right!” What then? Would you hold your husband at knifepoint until he relents? Threaten divorce? Try hypnosis? Even if you show him my answer and send him every Google result suggesting that multilingual is best, your own letter indicates that he’s thought this through. He’s considered the arguments for and against, and he’s decided against. Maybe he will change his mind, but I wouldn’t count on it, because it was not a hastily made decision. Therefore you have to live with it.

To that end, it seems that he’s probably understood your reasons for wanting multilingual children, but maybe it would help you to spend some time understanding his reasons for not wanting this. Maybe there are good ones that you haven’t thought of. And maybe that dialogue will be helpful for the both of you.

Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m a first-time mom to a 1-year-old. She’s delightful: friendly, always smiling, loves people. We live in a diverse area of New York City, and our neighborhood playground has a toddler section, a bigger-kids section, and a basketball-court area where older kids generally hang out. We’ve gone there a few times, always to the toddler section, and she loves it. There have been a few times when kids have pushed her or grabbed a toy from her, but nothing that wasn’t easily resolved.

Last week we were in the swings, and there was only one free swing but it was next to a group of five or six middle school kids who were being really rowdy. I told them to be careful a few times because they kept shaking the swing they were on so violently that it was threatening to hit the swing we were on. The kids kept talking about cops for some reason and I think that was what planted the idea in my head. So at one point one of the kids walks in between the swings and shoves the swing my daughter was in. Not hard, but enough to make me really nervous. Anyway, I lost it and yelled at the kids that they were too old to be in that area and using the swings. That part I’m not embarrassed about. But what I said next … I basically yelled, “I will call the cops on you if you keep acting this way.”

That did get them to calm down and pretty quickly after that they left. But good grief, I’m so embarrassed and disappointed with myself. Who threatens to call the cops on a bunch of middle school kids? Apparently, I do! And the worst part is the kids were Latino and I’m Latina myself so I’m well aware of the policing and criminalizing of behavior that brown kids undergo. I feel terrible for even threatening to contribute to that problem, but I’m also at a loss for what I should have done. I had already asked them to be careful around my kid. What would you have done? Should I have just left? I don’t like the idea of giving up the playground meant for toddlers to older kids who are clearly not where they are supposed to be, but I also don’t like the way I handled it. Help!

—Am I That Lady?

Dear AITL,

Ugh. This sucks for everyone involved: for you and for them and for your kid. Here is a group of people running around a public space recklessly, getting out of hand, disregarding rules, not paying attention, and getting carried away. In other words, behaving like (squints, checks notes) kids.

This is the thing about shared public spaces: You have to deal with other people in them. You allude to this in your letter when you talk about other toddlers taking toys. You accept that as a part of the agreement to use a shared free space. But you have a much harder time with middle schoolers acting out of line. But that’s what middle schoolers do. You hope they have the sense to be careful, but they don’t always. Like the toddlers, they are still learning it. Just as you accept that dealing with toy-snatching toddlers is part of the experience, so should you come to terms with the fact that middle schoolers running around is also a part of it.

So how do you deal with children who aren’t your own behaving in a way that you don’t like? You remember that they are still children and, as such, deserve love, care, patience. And clarity. You ask them not to do whatever it is that they are doing, you explain why you’re asking that, and, if possible, you give them an alternative thing they can do: “Hey, could you guys not shake the swingset while these little kids are on it? I’m afraid one of these little kids will fall or get hurt. There’s a field over there. Maybe you guys could run around over there?” I get it. They’re not supposed to be in the toddler area at all. And you can mention that. But you don’t have to treat their presence as anything more than an inconvenience. It’s possible that they didn’t even see the sign. Ask yourself this question: If you were on a playground in a quiet suburban neighborhood and a group of white middle school kids were getting goofy on the swings after school, would calling the cops be one of the things you’d think to do?

I know the suburbs aren’t exactly the same as the city, but in terms of how much space we grant kids to be kids, they should be the same. We live in a society that more easily sees black and brown kids as threats than as children. The evidence that this distorted view exists is overwhelming, I don’t need to convince you. And as much as I wish that being a black or brown person granted us automatic immunity from holding these skewed beliefs, it simply does not. Anyone who lives in our society inherits our society’s disorders. The real difference comes with how stridently, soberly, and carefully we fight against them.

So fight against them. Calling the cops is crazy problematic (who knows what they’ll do) but threatening to call the cops is also problematic—at least at the level of transgression you’ve described here. It communicates to these kids that they are not wanted or cared for, and that their very presence is legally precarious, even in the eyes of the people they share community with. Who needs that when you’re also trying to navigate acne, algebra tests, crushes, and the fact that people are making fun of your ears?

So instead, try to communicate as you would with any kid. Clearly, kindly, lovingly. You recognize that you are in a shared space and you may not get everyone in that space to behave exactly as you want, and that that’s OK. You can make that work. And if after all that you find you are in immediate physical danger, then that’s what 911 is for. Nothing else.