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My 1.5 year old daughter is constantly carrying around her toys, and often a toy is in her hand when she comes to the table. We have already decided that no electronics will be allowed at the table, but should I allow her to bring a toy to the table?

Pro:

  • When she gets bored with eating, sometimes playing with a toy for a few minutes can be a nice break, and she'll end up staying at the table longer and eating more.
  • No tears resulting from having her toy taken away

Con:

  • It can become too distracting from the task at hand i.e. eating
  • The toy gets messy (e.g. a penguin went for a swim in her soup yesterday)

I find myself sometimes (depending on the toy and the food at the table) taking away her toy mid-meal, which is distressing and inconsistent. I'd like to set a standard and stick with it - even if it means her toys get sticky.

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We've found that having toys is much more of a net negative — particularly the distraction aspect. This is especially the case once the kids get a little older, and the toy of choice is more complex (e.g. Legos being assembled at the table) or expensive (e.g. a flashlight, a talking robot thing). Who wants to eat boring spaghetti when they could be literally constructing an imaginary world with plastic blocks?

However, there are also times when it is nice to have the child a little distracted/occupied, such as when we're at a restaurant. I often encourage them to bring along something to play with while we're waiting for food to come out.... but again, we're left with what to do once the food arrives?

The best compromise we have is putting the toy in the middle of the table. This works fairly well for a couple reasons:

  • It can be seen, so some of that imaginative engagement is still happening on an intellectual level even though their hands are occupied with food. "We're going to put penguin right here and he'll watch while you eat."
  • Depending on the toy/age, it might also be useful for encouraging tastes of new foods: "Ooooh, fish, penguin likes to eat that! Want a taste?"
  • The table is "holding" it, not me, so there isn't as much anger (it doesn't feel like "mommy stole my toy" in the same way).

It does need to be out of reach (or it's quickly picked back up), and being consistent and calm is important. Reassure her that this is just a mealtime thing, and as soon as she's finished eating she can have the toy and leave.

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