There is a programme I try not to miss during the week at 4.00 p.m. on Radio New Zealand National called “The Panel.” The host has two guest panelists whose opinion he seeks on a variety of topical issues. At some point in the hour he always has a “What’s on your mind?” section where he asks the panelists to talk about anything that is particularly on their mind.

So that’s what I would like to do today – write about a few issues that are on my mind.

Outrageous behavior deserves an outraged response

I am often asked by parents what they should do about a child who keeps hitting – or punching, or biting or pinching – them when the parent annoys them in some way.

My first question will always be, “What are you doing currently?” The range of responses might be:

  • I explain to him that it is unkind
  • I explain that hands are not for hurting people
  • I try to ignore it
  • I calmly put him in Time Out

These are all reasonable and intelligent responses – mostly endorsed by people who have some knowledge about how to handle children. They work like a charm for easy-going agreeable children but for strong-willed powerful children, they simply have no effect.

The problem is that the behaviour is outrageous (I believe that that it is outrageous for a child to even contemplate striking a parent or grandparent), but the response is mild and measured. A mild and measured response to outrageous behaviour gives our child a “fake” impression of what the parent really means. Our children will see right through us when we fake calm but inside we are seething. They deserve far more honesty from us.

Let’s face it. None of us likes being hurt and, if we are the person that our child needs to respect for our child to feel safe and protected, then it is not good for our child to hurt us.

What is an appropriate response? The components need to include a strong verbal message and some sort of physical demonstration of our outrage.

If the child is on our lap or seated next to us, an appropriate response would be to scoop our child up, put them on the ground a little distance from us and say very strongly, “You know you never hurt a Mummy (or a Daddy)!”

If you are dealing with a toddler or young child, scoop or march them to a Time Out spot and leave them there with a very strong, “You know better than to hurt a Mummy (or Daddy, or Grandma or Grandpa or Auntie etc)” Over your shoulder, say “I’ll be back to see if you are ready to behave.”

With an older child – too old or too difficult to take to a Time Out spot – you be the Time Out. Square up to them – at your full height and ferocity – and say “You know that is completely unacceptable. Let me know when you are ready to apologise,” and remove yourself from their orbit. Be unwilling to connect or to supply goods or services until your child has taken full responsibility for their actions.

What is taking full responsibility? Contrition – an appearance of genuine regret –accompanied by an age-appropriate verbal indication of regret. “Sorry, Mum. I was way out of line.”

Outrageous behaviour requires an outraged response

It is easy, it is effective, but it’s so-o-o hard

Most of us struggle at some time with making a simple request of our child and having them do as asked.

There is a simple way of powerfully showing your child that you mean what you say, but we all find it very difficult to do.

Stop what you are doing (or get out of your chair if you are lucky enough to be sitting down) and go over to your child. Stand tall and tell them clearly and firmly what you expect.

The trouble is that all of us find it easier to shout from a distance than stop what we are doing and walk a few meters. Somewhere in our heads is the message “If I say it loudly enough and convincingly enough, my child will do as asked.”

The problem is that somewhere in their head is the message, “While s/he is still seated or still at the sink or still reasoning or still shouting…I’ve still got time and a safety barrier.”

It’s a big ask, but if you stop what you are doing and go over next to your child, you will be amazed at how often that is all you need to do.

Just one bite

Many of us have children who are very conservative about what they like to eat and/or are “air plants” who seem to live on very little.

The solution often offered is “The one taste rule.” This means that the minimum eating expectation is that the child tries one spoonful of every food on his plate.

The assumption behind this is rather bizarre and disrespectful to the child. It assumes that children don’t know what they like, but having been forced to taste it a few times, will grow to like the particular favour and texture.

The reality is that children’s tastes do change with age and with social pressure. If we insist on the “one taste rule” for long enough, we may well reach the time when they would naturally have grown to like the food anyway.

Tasting is not the best way to assess whether a food is pleasurable or safe. We are designed to look and sniff way before we have decided that it is safe to actually swallow.

I have found that there is a lot less fuss and a lot greater likelihood of experimentation, if you set up a “sniff plate” or a “tester plate.” If there are foods you think your child may not fancy, put a tiny amount on a separate plate and let her know that it is there for her to sniff and then to taste if it doesn’t smell “bad” to her. Respect her decision. Tomorrow or next week or next month, she may try it, like it and even ask for a decent helping on her plate.

Another way to introduce kids to a variety of tastes is to ask if there is anything on your plate she would like to taste. It is amazing how often food tastes so much more acceptable off an adult’s plate. In fact, most parents can tell you of some food that tastes excellent off a parent’s plate, but morphs into something disgusting once it is on a child’s plate. Go figure!

If I still haven’t convinced you, can I persuade you that you will have a much more pleasant meal if all you insist on is “Just one sniff!”

You must send your child to school with breakfast inside them

How many of us start the day with a guilt-filled fraught half-hour when we try to force something nutritious down our youngster’s throat? We are usually doing it on the basis that, if they go to kindergarten or school hungry, their brain won’t function and they will be seen to have come from a family who not only neglects them, but doesn’t care about their education.

If you want your child to eat breakfast, the first trick is to find out when, during the morning, their hunger kicks in. The most convenient time to test this is at the weekend.

Next weekend, try not offering them any food or drink (except water) and see when their natural hunger kicks in and they ask for food.. If they are asking for breakfast by 7.15am, the odds are high that you will not have trouble with your children eating breakfast. Alternatively, any fuss around breakfast will be because your child gets more mileage out of the fuss than of actually eating breakfast. Do what you can to take away the battle.

If, during your weekend experiment, your child doesn’t ask for food before 10.00 am, you are going to have trouble persuading her to eat breakfast at 7.15am on a school morning. Here are some alternatives. Try one at a time and see what gives you both a pleasant start to the day.

  • Offer to feed your child. They will often not feel like feeding themselves but will concede to being fed. Although it ties you down, the food will go down faster than any other way. Turn it into a few moments of pleasant togetherness before the start of a busy day.
  • Give your child a big-in-nutrition liquid breakfast through a curly straw. Whether it is a bought liquidized cereal and milk drink or whether you put food through a blender, drinking is a lot easier than eating and an easy way of getting the calories and nutrients in.
  • If your child goes to school by car, she may be willing to eat breakfast on the way in. Prepare a couple of sandwiches and look forward to a quiet trip.
  • Add an extra morning tea or an extra-large morning tea, so that when your child’s hunger kicks in, there is plenty to take care of it.


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Diane Levy’s warm, humorous, practical and commonsense approach to raising children is evident in her writing, her speaking and her private practice in Auckland as a family therapist. Her main focus is on coaching parents. She is also the author of the best-seller “Of course I love you…NOW GO TO YOUR ROOM”, “They look so lovely when they’re asleep” and “Time Out for tots, teens and everyone in between."

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