Thursday, 15 December 2011


One of my abiding memories is of my dear (but ill-informed) brother spreading a tarpaulin under my daughter's dining chair when we came to stay with him.  She was five, and whilst still learning to master her fine motor skills, she was fully conversant with the use of cutlery and as clean and tidy eater as any other five year old.  After that meal, the tarpaulin went away and was never seen again....

In my job as a learning support assistant, I am always baffled to discover the children in my charge are initially rarely able to sit and eat a school dinner without using fingers and getting in a right old mess.  Forks and spoons seem to be a hindrance, or completely alien.  This makes the child a potential target for ridicule when sat on a table with 7 other children who (generally!) are tucking in without ending up wearing their dinner.  As the mother of a child with Down's,  I always felt that any risk of my child being made fun of or singled out as different was to be avoided if at all possible - obviously allowances have to be made for abilities, but if there is the remotest chance your child can learn a skill along with everyone else, then it should be taught as early as possible.

When my daughter was tiny, obviously I fed her with a spoon as you would with any toddler.  But as soon as she was old enough to wield a spoon or fork, she was given the chance to feed herself - it didn't matter if she got in a mess to begin with, the first steps to independent eating had been taken.
Of course her food was cut up into manageable pieces, right up until adolescence when necessary - choking is still a hazard even now.  But she was taught to sit at a table and eat 'properly'.  Perhaps it helped that she spent her early years living in Greece where the culture is to go out to eat as a family along with other families and the children are expected to join in with the grown ups - no special chairs, kiddy meals or ball ponds in a taverna!  It was wonderful to be complimented on both my children's manners when out to eat.

I do not think it is impossible to teach the above at an early age - a little boy I worked with a while back had a lot of difficulties with just about everything in mainstream school, including lunchtimes.  But it didn't take very long at all to teach him to use the same cutlery as everyone else, and once he discovered how much more efficient that made him at getting the food into his mouth, he was off!  From being on a table on his own after everyone else had gone out to play, smearing yoghurt over himself and everything within reach, he went to being able to sit and eat impeccably along with his peers - to the point where he was getting the compliments too. And it only took a matter of  a few weeks.

It may be easier at home to spoonfeed your child, but it does become another 'learned helplessness'  - and this has to be considered particularly if your child is attending mainstream school.  There is not always the support available to help them fully during the lunchtime mayhem, and if your child can eat on their own it is a big advantage all round.  Also, think of the washing you save!