QUESTION: Should a parent try to force a child to eat?DR. DOBSON: No. In fact, the dinner table is one potential battlefield where a parent can easily get ambushed. You can't win there! A strong-willed child is like a good military general who constantly seeks an advantageous place to take on the enemy. He need look no farther. Of all the common points of conflict between generations ... bedtime, hair, clothes, schoolwork, etc., the advantages at the table are all in the child's favor! Three times a day, a very tiny child can simply refuse to open his mouth. No amount of coercing can make him eat what he doesn't want to eat.

I remember one three-year-old who was determined not to eat his green peas, despite the insistence of his father that the squishy little vegetables were going down. It was a classic confrontation between the irresistible force and an immovable object. Neither would yield. After an hour of haranguing, threatening, cajoling and sweating, the father had not achieved his goal. The tearful toddler sat with a fork-load of peas pointed ominously at his sealed lips.

Finally, through sheer intimidation, the dad managed to get one bite of peas in place. But the lad wouldn't swallow them. I don't know everything that went on afterward, but the mother told me they had no choice but to put the child to bed with the peas still in his mouth. They were amazed at the strength of his will.

The next morning, the mother found a little pile of mushy peas where they had been expelled at the foot of the bed! Score one for Junior, none for Dad. Tell me in what other arena a thirty-pound child could whip a grown man?

Not every toddler is this tough, of course. But many of them will gladly do battle over food. It is their ideal power game. Talk to any experienced parent or grandparent and they will tell you this is true. The sad thing is that these conflicts are unnecessary. Children will eat as much as they need if you keep them from indulging in the wrong stuff. They will not starve. I promise!

The way to deal with a poor eater is to set good food before him. If he claims to not be hungry, wrap the plate, put it in the refrigerator and send him cheerfully on his way. He'll be back in a few hours. There is a little mechanism in his tummy that says "gimme food!" several times a day. When this occurs, do not put sweets, snacks or confectionery food in front of him. Simply retrieve the earlier meal, warm it up and serve it again. If he protests, send him out to play again. Even if 12 hours or more goes by, continue this procedure until food - all food - begins to look and smell wonderful. From that time forward, the battle over the dinner table should be history.

QUESTION: Since almost every couple fights from time to time, what distinguishes a healthy marriage from one that is in serious trouble? How can a husband and wife know when their conflicts are within normal limits and when they are symptoms of more serious problems?

DR. DOBSON: It is true that conflict occurs in virtually all marriages. That is how resentment and frustration are ventilated. The difference between stable families and those in serious trouble is evidenced by what happens after a fight. In healthy relationships, a period of confrontation ends in forgiveness - in drawing together - in deeper respect and understanding - and sometimes in sexual satisfaction. But in unstable marriages a period of conflict produces greater pain and anger that persists until the next fight. When that occurs, one unresolved issue is compounded by another and another. That accumulation of resentment is an ominous circumstance in any marriage.

Dr. Dobson is founder and chairman of the board of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, Colorado Springs, CO 80995(

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