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Categories: Parenting

Alyson gives advice to a mom who can't get her son to eat his lunch at school.

I had an email from a mom this week who had a little guy starting kindergarten that refused to eat his lunch at school.  At first she was very concerned but then she realized that he might be doing this for attention because he would keep talking about it. Wisely,  she began ignoring it.  The question she had for me was what to do about his request to eat the lunch she packed when he got home from school.   Should he be allowed to eat from his lunch box at 3:30pm?  OR - do you use the whole "the time to eat has come and gone - you made your choice at lunch time - now you need to wait until dinner"

What do you think?

Let him eat it?
Make him wait for supper - the logical consequence?

This is a question for all you out there that have taken my course or who have been studying Adlerian child guidance practices.  Its also the kind of question that keeps us working with the theory all the time. Can you see it both ways?

So do you want the answer I gave?

I start always by trying to step inside the mind of the child and find out the usefulness of the behavior.  I believe the boy was refusing to eat lunch as a kind of hunger strike, hoping that it would maybe get him withdrawn from kindergarten.   Which of the 4 goals of misbehavior is that?

  • attention
  • power
  • revenge
  • avoidance

I think the boy has a goal of power in his hunger strike. Often eating, sleeping and toileting is where children discover they can make a bid for power because parents can't control the child's biological functions and kids like to remind parents of this!

If we agree that there is a power struggle between mom and the kindergarten student, then apply a logical consequence is NOT recommended.  Why? because so often when we use logical consequences as a discipline technique we inadvertently do so in a way that is simply a camouflage to wielding our autocratic power over our children and it backfires! 

Repeat - do not use logical consequences for dealing with power struggles!

So what do we do instead?  In this case, I would recommend that if mom's goal is to end the power struggle so her child will eat at regular times, the best way to get him eating like the rest of society is to make a non-issue out of it.  The fighting over lunch eating needs to end.  I say, let him eat his lunch when he gets home, and I predict that in a few days when he sees that mother doesn't care about either his hunger strike or his after school eating that he will commence eating lunch at school like everybody else. He stands to gain nothing by doing it any other way.  NOT eating at lunch is no longer making a statement that anyone cares about.  Who would sit hungry and NOT eat if there was no benefit to be gain? Mom's lack of concern over her child's eating schedule will more quickly allow him to adopt a regular one.   Insisting he eat at school and not at 3:30 will add fuel to the fire of this fight and no doubt create the opposition he enjoys. By trying to manipulate his choices by a consequence only serves to further the power struggle and will actually delay his interest in adopting regular eating habits.

It might feel permissive to you, to allow the child to eat their lunch at 3:30 - but I think it will not be for many days if you have ended the power struggle.



Ayson Schafer is a psychotherapist and one of Canada's leading parenting experts. She's the author of the best-selling "Breaking the Good Mom Myth" (Wiley, 2006) and host of TV's The Parenting Show a live call-in show. Visit Alyson's blog at