A few weeks ago, I was sitting at dinner with my mother, my niece and my two-year-old daughter Daecklyn. Ducky was jumping up and down in her seat at our dinette and generally causing a ruckus. I reminded her that we sit down at the dinner table and that if she was done, she could get down from the table altogether. After another minute of moving around and jumping, I put her on the floor and said “Ok, we’re all done”.

I expressed some frustration with her lack of grace and courtesy at meals, and my mother gave me a look. You know, that look…the one that says, “Well…maybe this is the result of something you did?”

I said outloud, “You think I should have used a highchair, don’t you.”

And yes, that is exactly what she thought. We had a good laugh about it because altogether my mom is extremely supportive in all of my decisions…even the bad ones. But she’s a good enough mom to also not let me get away with fooling myself about who is really in control of our own destinies…OURSELVES.

And she would be right, in a way. I don’t actually agree with her. I didn’t use a traditional highchair, and I don’t regret it. But…and it’s a BIG but…

A highchair comes with it some routines and consistencies. Without these routines and consistencies around meals, you do end up with a child like mine: stubborn, active, jumping all over the place and expecting to still eat at her own pace. A highchair indicates to the child “This is meal time”, “We sit in this special place while we eat”, and “When we’re done eating we get down”.

I didn’t use a highchair, I used a Tripp-Trapp chair (which I will discuss a little later). If I were to do it again, I still wouldn’t use a highchair. But, I would do things differently. This article does talk about why I didn’t use a highchair but it mostly explains the mistakes I think I made which landed me with a child that won’t sit down for meals. And I end the article with what I’ve done in the last weeks to try to fix it.

Highchairs, Montessori, and Independence

If you’ve read the first part to this article, No Crib, you may have heard me talk about Montessori’s philosophy on independence for the child. When it comes to mealtime, this independence is not only important but fun! Very young children can learn to set tables, cook meals, serve meals, clean up and even do dishes. They do this work with joy as it appeals to their helpful, organized manner and is most certainly a big part of their development.

If you use a highchair, you are taking away this experience. I would like to say here, though, that every parent has to do things exactly his or her own way. What you decide is based on your own lifestyle choice. You may not want to trade the messy highchair tray for the messy table and jumping kid. Trust me, I understand.

But the truth is that when you lift your child into a highchair, strap them in, and give them a tray, you are not preparing them to have a sit-down meal at the table. The proof is in how many videos you can watch of children throwing their pea soup in parent’s faces or wearing spaghetti wigs. The preparation comes later when you feel that they (and you) are ready for it.

In an ideal world, as soon as the child can walk he will be learning to set the table, sit and enjoy a meal, clear his place when he’s done, and help clean up. I’ve seen countless young children capable of this in a Montessori young child environment. I know it sounds far-fetched, but you would only have to tour a Montessori school for the proof.

At home…this seemed ten times more difficult. With all of my best intentions, I simply failed to provide the consistency necessary for my daughter to really understand mealtime etiquette Montessori calls Grace and Courtesy.

Ducky Setting the Table

My Own Issues with Food

Ducky Eating a Sandwich

The root of my daughter’s bad habits lies in my own issues with food. I have overeating, binge eating, and mindless eating problems. When life is stressful, I binge eat the junkiest food I can get my hands on while watching television so I can zone out. I find consistent meals and preparation of food tedious and I avoid it. I enjoy eating when no one is home and have a hard time not pigging out when my husband takes my daughter on adventures.

And so, I would serve my daughter her meals at her little table or her little desk. I would sit with her for a while, but mostly I would let her get up and down as she pleased and eat like a nibbling little squirrel. Insert visitors, or going out for meals at a restaurant, and it becomes super obvious that we were not practicing good table manners at home. Now insert my mother reminding me that maybe using a highchair would have been better.

See? She’s not wrong.

What I Should have Done

I had something called a Tripp-Trapp Chair. It has straps for when the child can’t sit up and you can buy it in a bundle so it’s more like a traditional highchair. For the most part, though, it’s a way for the child to be independent at the adult-sized dinner table. It looks like “stairs” that they can climb and sit right up to the table. As the child grows, you can lower the seat and footrest to accommodate their new height. I know families whose teenagers still sit in their Tripp Trapp chair, making it an amazing investment.

Our number one problem was not the chair we used. It was that we didn’t have

consistent meal times

We didn’t sit down, with the rules of mealtime in place, regularly 1-3 times per day. I didn’t have a way for her to set the table, eat her meal and clean up afterward. I was more concerned with her nutrition than with her etiquette and I let a lot of things slide. The funny thing was, and still is, she’s nursing! So, a large number of her vitamins and nutrition are being handled by my milk. I didn’t need to worry about her nutrition and could have felt free to focus on loving the food we eat and using proper manners.

How I’m Fixing the Problem

Well, if my number one problem is a consistent meal time then…I suppose I should have consistent meal times!! And I am working on it. Mostly, though, I sat and imagined what I would like our mealtimes to look like. What do I enjoy about eating with my family and what can I do to get us there?

These are the things I started with:

  • I set the table with placemats
  • Ducky sets the table with plates and silverware
  • We cook together as much as possible
  • Food gets dished out before sitting down so we eat appropriate portions
  • We all sit without distractions—no TV, no phones, etc.
  • When Ducky gets down, she’s done. Period. Her plate goes in the sink.
  • As adults, we stay at the table during the meal until we are done. No getting up and down to get a bunch of stuff or do anything
  • We try to converse with her as much as each other so she doesn’t feel left out

When she gets better about sitting with us at meals, we will work up to the next few things:

  • Ducky setting the table from start to finish
  • Eventually, she’ll clear her place at the table when she’s done
  • Ducky helping with dishes and wiping the table as soon as we’re all done
  • Understanding that when we are at someone else’s house, or at a restaurant, we socialize while waiting for our meal, and we stay seated until everyone is done.

So far, so good. She’s definitely better. She isn’t jumping on me, or her seat during meals. She loves putting out the plates and silverware. And she’s actually eating more than she was before. It’s a work in progress!

Next time! “No Crib, No Highchair, No Pacifier” gets it’s final article in the series when I talk about not using a pacifier with my daughter and the seriously hurtful things some people said to me about it.