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My 3 year old has a habit of not eating her dinner. It's been our policy to tell her if she's not going to eat, she can just go to bed. Sometimes she's happy to do that, so we wanted to further discourage the no-eating behavior by saying if you don't eat your dinner, you can't have a snack the next day.

So, we ended up making a little fridge magnet with a red side and a green side (since she knows colors and what red/green mean) and if she eats her dinner, we will turn it to the green side so that the next day she can look at it, know she can have a snack that day, and associate it to having eaten the night before. and of course, the opposite for not eating. She's picked up on the concept very quickly.

Is this a good technique? Part of me feels there's something about this that is going to backfire, or end up contributing to some negative behavior. Anybody tried this before? Anything in child psychology studies?? If it works for dinner time, could the same technique be used for other things like taking naps, cleaning room, etc?

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Torben - to be clear since you re-tagged, this question isn't just about eating. See my last sentence. Perhaps even more importantly, I wonder if this approach is good for encouraging/discouraging other behaviors –  qntmfred Jan 7 '12 at 17:06
    
Thanks for the clarification -- I see you re-added the tag. Good. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Jan 7 '12 at 18:51
    
So, let me get this straight: you're punishing not eating by not letting her eat? I'm sure this makes sense in some universe... I hope... –  Martha Jan 9 '12 at 16:48
    
by not letting her eat the snack food she prefers. thanks for your constructive question. –  qntmfred Jan 9 '12 at 18:13
    
possible duplicate of Should we use a smiley chart to reward/punish our toddler? –  balanced mama Nov 14 '12 at 0:12
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3 Answers

Never force a child to eat. If a child doesn't want to eat anymore, it's because he is full (biologically). It's an important biological response to preserve in order to prevent him from having eating disorders.

If you have a problem with wasting food (that's a problem I personnaly have), teach your child to collect the right amount of food in his plate. Start to teach that when (s)he getting older (from 5 to 6 year old when (s)he is at the concrete operational stage to understand).

Why force a child to eat anyway? Ask yourself the question.

  • Because you think he is still hungry? How can you do that? Because you feel it?
  • Because you have been teached yourself that you should finish your plate? Because it's like that in your family since decades? Are you repeating without trying to understand a procedure you learn in your education?

Here are how forcing your kids to eat when they are not hungry anymore can harm them:

  • You are creating a classical conditionning with the food making the problem worse. Force them to eat can help make certain foods repulsive. I was forced to eat tomato soup (cold, because I could not leave the table as I had not finished) and I have generalized this disgust at everything with tomato. What a problem for the kid of an immigrant Italian mother! This is called a generalized conditioned behavior (Hovland, 1937, can't find the link to the study, I'm sorry, but it's a "classic" one).
  • You are disconnecting your kid's physical satiety feelings from his neocortex (sort of rational mind). This means your are teaching him how to ignore those feelings in his body to replace it by rules you invented (or your are repeating). This can potentially harm him on the long term. If your kid doesn't listen to what his body is telling him ("Hey I'm not hungry anymore, stop eating those potatoes"), he will eat more than what his organism need. This will lead to potential overweight. In some case disorders can be much more problematic.

Your kids are the most important things in the world and it's normal that you want them to be healthy. But you should always question education "methodologies" you learn yourself with what really works in practice. In fact, I learnt that us, humans, replaced many biological behaviors by invented "rational" behaviors. We must (re)learn to trust our body.

Important note: in some particular cases (when health is in danger) it is recommended to force your children to eat, but that indication should always come from medical specialists. Also if you are unsure what to do, it's always advised to ask an expert (which I'm not!).

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children won't starve. You are just creating eating disordered behavior by forcing eating when unwanted and making snack into a reward when it is in fact a necessity. –  morah hochman Jan 8 '12 at 0:24
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You're right, many parts of this will likely backfire on you, but not the one you expect.

For a toddler at 3, the negative re-enforcement should be more immediate. Waiting an entire day for the punishment to occur does not tie the cause and effect together tightly enough. The red/green isn't going to be the part that causes the problem, it's the immediacy of the consequences.

Don't make the consequence 'going to bed'. You're creating another problem by associating negativity with what should be a happy, peaceful time.

Whatever usually happens right after dinner that your child enjoys, remove that privilege and make that a consequence of no dinner. Additionally, add a reward for when your child DOES eat dinner as you expect.

Finally, your child should be in control of how much they eat. They won't starve; I promise. Just make sure that after a non-eaten dinner that the only other option is water. If your child can eat a small amount and be satisfied until morning, there's no reason to force more food into their stomach.

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+1 at this age, responses need to be immediate or else no causal relationship exists for the child. –  Rory Alsop Jan 7 '12 at 15:05
    
in this case, the 3 year old turns 4 next month. she's getting to the point where she can understand longer term consequences en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_marshmallow_experiment, and we want to help encourage that thought process. Most of the time we do look for immediate consequences, but in this case we want to emphasize the longer term impact of eating behaviors –  qntmfred Jan 7 '12 at 17:04
    
I think the red/green light can work well as a proxy for long-term consequences, so that's pretty good in the cases the consequences must be long-term. Although in this case they don't have to be. Maybe you can put her to bed without a story instead? That's a short-time consequence. Also, I'm skeptic about using food as a reward. On the other hand, I agree that if she doesn't want to eat, she probably shouldn't be forced, but you know the situation better, so maybe it's necessary in this case. –  Lennart Regebro Jan 19 '12 at 12:17
    
As for the last part: What if your child doesn't want to eat dinner, but then complains that they're hungry for some junkfood (and when the meal is something they usually enjoy)? –  Earlz Nov 4 '12 at 5:14
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I don't know of any studies about these, but my gut says that these kinds of indicators or tokens (a "Yes/No" or "Traffic Light" indicator) are excellent for children who haven't yet cognitively developed the ability to defer rewards, because the token (or indicator) becomes indicative of the reward or consequence.

While she may not be able to associate "I didn't eat dinner last night, so I can't have a snack today", she can associate "I didn't eat dinner, so I got a red light" and "I have a red light, so I can't have a snack."

They're also good for passing indicators between places, for example as a sort of "daily report" of her behavior during the day at day care or a babysitter's.

The important part is that there's some sort of obvious visual or physical indicator that's presented immediately upon earning a particular reward or consequence.

For what it's worth, my daughter's Kindergarten teacher used to send "red/yellow/green" light reports home every day with every student. Since the kids colored their own circles (I'm sure she checked to make sure the correct circle was colored :-) ) and had them write their own names on them, it helped them with self-reflection and writing practice.

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she can associate "I didn't eat dinner, so I got a red light" and "I have a red light, so I can't have a snack." - AFAIK at this age, causal relationships don't yet exist in the child's mind. –  Péter Török Jan 7 '12 at 9:11
    
in this case, my daughter turns 4 in a month - she has commented on the red light means can't have a snack several times already. she definitely gets the connection –  qntmfred Jan 7 '12 at 17:09
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