Living with a toddler is like living with a lawyer.

Everything is a conversation, a compromise, a counter-offer.  What to wear. What to eat. What time to go to bed.  You propose one thing, your child noodles for another.

Did you ever wonder how your kid got that way?  How your once-placid peacock became such a skilled negotiator?

Recent research proposes a shocking answer: the dinnertime dance.

  • “You need to eat more…just two bites.”
  • “You can have dessert if you eat your broccoli.”
  • “I know you don’t like milk but you have to drink some. OK, eat some cheese.”

Yes, our best efforts to instill some healthy eating habits are doing something else instead: they are creating little lawyers.

When parents negotiate with their kids over food they are not just socializing their children about food and eating. They are also teaching their children how to interact with others around food.

“What do you want to eat?” sets the stage for bargaining—particularly if your child asks for Jello when you had something more substantial (such as chicken) in mind.

  • “No, you can’t have Jello for dinner. How about chicken?”
  • “But I want Jello.”

And so it goes.

Similarly, by using dessert as a reward for eating something else, parents create desserts (and sweets) as a source of conflict, something to be negotiated.

(Alternatively, giving desserts away for free in the appropriate quantity and frequency or providing fruit for dessert are strategies that eliminate conflict. Read Dishing Up Dessert.)

Of course, Trading Peas for Pie has many pitfalls—primarily that it teaches kids to prefer ice cream and other sweets above anything healthy—but if you’re stuck in a battle with your little babe, think about this:
Transmitting the idea that dessert is the most desirable destination, and that it comes with strings attached, sets the stage for only one kind of interaction: a bargain over how many bites of broccoli earn a brownie.

Teach kids to bargain and they will.

”She’s had more than me.”

Parents negotiate with their children over many aspects of eating, not just over types and quantities of food.  Sibling fairness, for instance, can be a huge area of contention.

I know fairness is an important lesson for kids to learn, but let me ask you this: How will your child figure out how many cookies are healthy for her if she can bargain up successfully simply by pointing to her sister?  Never mind that her sister is bigger, more active and didn’t just down a bag of chips…

Negotiating over food muddies the healthy-eating lesson and can leave kids confused.

Put another way: When you mix up messages about sibling equity with eating right you dilute and distort the lesson about food.  You can’t teach kids how many cookies they should eat if you’re also teaching them everyone gets the same amount.

(By the way, teaching kids to match consumption to body needs is a different way of teaching sibling equity: it’s fair that we all get what we need.)

Researchers speculate that negotiating can diminish your parental authority.

After all, if you can be talked out of milk and into cheese, talked into two bites instead of four, or convinced to serve macaroni and cheese yet again, how much weight does your word really carry?

Muddied lessons aside, this is the real stinker! (I don’t know about you, but I need all the clout I can muster.)

The solution, then, is to establish a clear set of boundaries and expectations while remaining empathic and respectful of your children’s opinions.   Want to know how to do that? Read The Goldilocks Approach.

Of course, parents only negotiate because we panic when our kids won’t touch their peas.

But researchers suspect there is something else going on too: there is a tension between parental authority and control and two other widely held American values—child autonomy and individual choice.

So take heart: Each negotiation shores up your child’s skills, self-confidence and assertiveness, and those are important traits for successful lawyers to learn!

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~



Paugh, A. and C. Izquierdo. 2009. “Why is This a Battle Every Night?: Negotiating Food and Eating in American Dinnertime Interaction.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19(2): 185-204.