Care and Feeding

My Son Is a Disgusting Slob at the Dinner Table

I love him! But I am sick of wiping up macaroni and cheese.

A son who is a messy eater!
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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,

My 8-year-old son is a very messy eater. Naturally, I blame myself for using baby-led weaning instead of spoon-feeding him baby food, because he still wants to eat everything with his hands. Yogurt, cereal, spaghetti, macaroni and cheese—he starts out with the utensil but eventually starts eating with his fingers. Then he unconsciously wipes his hands on his pants. He is a bit too short to be comfortably above the table when he sits on his bottom, so he sits on his knees, which makes it difficult to a) keep a napkin on his lap and b) lean over his plate when he eats.

After every meal, I have to sweep under the table and wipe down the table and chair, which he had been touching with his disgusting hands. He also frequently knocks over cups of milk, which are not fun to clean up. I thought this would all be over by now! He’s in third grade, and his other friends are not like this.

Additionally, he has other issues. His therapist says she thinks asynchronous development (cognitively gifted, emotionally average) is what causes his extreme moods and quick temper. He takes any criticism very hard, to an almost nuclear level. We end up having to have a conversation about how he’s not a bad person just because I asked him to clean up his room or mentioned that he could clean up his handwriting. So trying to address his table manners ends up in tears and tantrums.

I’m so tired of nagging him to sit over the plate or to stop eating with his hands or to use a napkin. I know he’s trying, but his mind is just elsewhere, not on the mundanity of eating thoughtfully. It also ruins my appetite. Any advice?

—He’s a Slob!

Dear Slob Mom,

Ignore me if this is something you’ve already done, but has he ever been evaluated for fine motor deficits? I didn’t get diagnosed for my own fine motor deficits until I was an adult, and it really helped me understand why handwriting was such a frustrating nightmare for me, not to mention my childhood struggles to not hold my utensils like someone was trying to steal them every moment. What you’re describing sounds as likely to be a physical-development issue as a behavioral one.

Either way, allow me to give you a pass on feeling as though your baby-led weaning choices had anything to do with your 8-year-old’s issues with table manners. There’s no reason to think there’s any kind of connection here, and if there is, who cares? We’re well past that.

I think you need to decide which of his table-manner issues can be ignored and/or overlooked, and which ones are of vital importance for him to be able to participate in society. Focus on the latter. I’m also spotting some low-hanging fruit in your letter: If his chair makes him too short to sit properly at the table, get a new chair, or at least a firm pillow! You need to set him up for success, even when you’re hugely frustrated by his behavior (which you are).

On a similar note, he needs to be the one cleaning up under his chair and around his place mat after meals as well as wiping up milk spills. That’s absolutely an age-appropriate chore and a natural consequence for his actions, and you should enforce it as you would any other rule. I also suspect this will cut down on your own sense of annoyance.

Please ask his therapist about addressing these issues in his sessions, and also inquire about advice for dealing with them in the moment; some of this is garden-variety sloppy kid, and some of this is clearly more complex.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 2½ and has extremely strong 2-year-old feelings about what, when, and how things should be done. Sometimes it’s manageable (she won’t leave day care until she has drank from both water fountains BY HERSELF, which, fine, whatever) and sometimes it is a huge hassle. (She will never voluntarily allow a dress to be taken off, and I can only let her wear that thing for so long before I have to forcibly remove it.) I don’t have much experience with small children, but her teachers at day care have also noticed this about her. The words bossy, clever, and a strong personality (yikes) were used to describe her.

When things don’t go the right way for her, she is defiant and throws what I think are pretty normal toddler tantrums (meaning they last a short time and she isn’t hurting herself or others). By design I guess, this behavior is pretty disruptive, and my husband and I have been struggling to find a consistent way to manage this at home. I tend to be more indulgent and like to let her make her own decisions, although I have some firm lines. (Go to bed on time, no hitting, etc.) My husband thinks we need to be more assertive in forcing her to follow household routines to teach her that she needs to listen to us.

For example, if she’s throwing a tantrum at dinner because she wants to wear one gold shoe and one pink shoe, he will force her to stay in her booster seat at the table until he and I are done eating. In the same situation, I would let her down to find her shoes and tell her to come back to the table when she’s ready to eat dinner. Neither solution seems to work all that well: In his scenario, she is a screaming mess who hasn’t had any dinner (and I’m a wreck), and in my scenario, she has learned that she can have anything as long as she screams loudly enough. And the two tactics certainly don’t work well together (other than allowing her to play us off each other because I am a sucker).

Are there good general strategies for teaching toddlers boundaries while also allowing them to explore their independence? Am I overthinking this and should I just be putting her in time out?

—Am I Creating a Monster?

Dear Monster’s Mom,

You are raising a threenager. This is absolutely within the bounds of normal 3-year-old jackassery. I just want to reassure you about this before we even talk about strategies, because it’s clear to me that your kid is behaving in an aggravating and developmentally appropriate fashion, and you’re going to stumble through this phase and make it to the other side, sanity mostly intact.

Many, many parents report that they girded their loins for the terrible 2s, only to discover that 3-year-olds can be even more difficult. I think this is largely an expectation-management issue: You feel like they should be easier by now! Instead, you’ve got a kid who has all of the stubbornness but is also bigger and more difficult to physically redirect, and who also possesses a better vocabulary for arguing with you!

Here’s what I recommend: Harvey Karp’s The Happiest Toddler on the Block and Bunmi Laditan’s brilliantly titled Toddlers Are A**holes: It’s Not Your Fault.

Patience and consistency and time are the answer to almost all issues facing parents of toddlers, but I would also add that one of the easier ways to get you and your partner on the same page is to discuss these issues during neutral times. When the tantrum is happening? That’s not the optimal occasion to be playing the “who’s right” game. Sit down together, flip through the books, and try to come up with mutually agreeable strategies to deploy the next time things go south.

Dear Care and Feeding,

After watching one of my former students struggle with an emotionally abusive family and her own mental health for years, my husband and I finally convinced her to move in with us. She will have a safe place to live, and we are financially equipped to support her while she continues her education and gets on her feet. My student is a young adult but has a disability that prevents her from driving and has struggled with crippling anxiety and depression in the past. My husband and I are in our 30s and childless by choice, so we know that having another person in the house will be a huge change for us, but it’s the right thing to do. What should a couple of nonparents know about caring for a teenager with mental illness, or about caring for a teenager in general? We already have a good relationship and a history of trust, so some of the typical foster-parent advice doesn’t apply.

—We’re New to This!

Dear New to This,

You’re doing a wonderful thing. Thank you on behalf of society.

I recommend sitting down together, all three of you, and brainstorming some ground rules. The vast majority of issues in this realm come from unstated expectations and vague guidelines. And please do not make this discussion revolve exclusively around rules for her; make sure you find out what she needs in order to thrive and maintain independence as well. Talk about knocking before you enter her room. Talk about trusting her to keep her own space clean. Talk about curfews, ideally without using that word. Talk about groceries. Talk about dishes. Talk about how best to bring things up if you see that something that used to work has ceased working!

I also want to make sure that this young woman is in active treatment for her mental health issues. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for you and her to be in family therapy, either, at least for the initial transition to living under the same roof. In addition, if there are legal issues at play in what sounds like a fairly unofficial custody arrangement, don’t let them fall by the wayside. (Ignore me if she’s 18.) That’s a complication no one wants!

My only other piece of advice (I’m so glad you’re a teacher!) is to talk early and often about your mutual goals for when she’s ready to move on from this living arrangement. It’s highly likely that she’s terrified of feeling like a burden, and the more you can do to make her feel welcome and also on a positive trajectory, the better.

I’m cheering for all three of you.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a spirited 3½-year-old who up until recently has taken a solid two- to three-hour nap every afternoon. He has recently gone on a nap strike, but I have still been going through the routine, reading him stories and turning out the lights every afternoon. He then sits in his room and looks at picture books for the full two hours. I’m not too upset about this, as we both get some much-needed downtime and he seems happy to “read.” A few people have expressed concern (some horror) at me leaving him this long without interacting with him. Am I being neglectful?

—Afternoon Chill

Dear Afternoon Chill,

You are not. They are just jealous.