I read an article from the US news channel CBS the other day, about Canadian research that explores the influence of parenting style on childhood obesity. The findings were stark:
"Kids with demanding parents who are rigid about rules, stingy with affection and won't discuss limits are far more likely to be obese than children whose parents practice a more balanced parenting style..."
This called to mind similar research I had read into how parenting style can impact upon picky eating. One study* found that, put simply, the nicer the atmosphere at the table, the less picky the child is likely to be. Another looked at how families interact and concluded that the levels of conflict at the table and how controlling parents were influenced how much children consumed, with higher levels of control leading to an increase in fussiness and food rejection**.
I think it's really interesting that the Canadian research pointed to the fact that children who are not used to having the freedom to discuss and question things (and are therefore unlikely to be in the habit of being empowered to make their own decisions) are more likely to be obese. And this is where I would speculate that these different findings converge - when children are not able to eat in a relaxed environment and when parents are trying to control children's eating choices, food starts to get used dysfunctionally.
Food and Feelings
For some children , they may overeat and gain excess weight. For others, they may choose to reject food. It's as though when parents interrupt the child's ability to self-regulate by being excessively controlling, children begin to make choices about what to eat for emotional rather than physiological reasons.
Self -regulation is such an important concept to understand when dealing with a picky eater (or a child who is clinically obese) that it merits it's own dedicated post... (it's on my list!) To summarise, self-regulation in relation to eating is the process whereby a child listens to her body's cues (hunger or fullness) and decides to eat or stop eating as appropriate. When a child eats in response to external cues such as feeling sad or wanting to gain a sense of control, healthy self-regulation goes out the window.
What can we take from this?
- Do your best to engender a positive, relaxed atmosphere at the table
- Don't try to control what your child eats
- Be relatively laid back about manners
- Think about your parenting style - is it rigid and authoritarian or are you authoritative and keen to develop your child's faculty for independent thought?
To find out more about the distinction between an authoritative and authoritarian parenting style, read this simple overview by Kendra Cherry
*D.Burnier, L.Dubois, M. Girard (2011) Arguments at Mealtime and Child Energy Intake, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 473-481
**B. Carruth, J. Skinner, K. Houck, J.Moran III, F. Coletta & D. Ott (1998) The Phenomenon of “Picky Eater”: A Behavioral Marker in Eating Patterns of Toddlers. Journal of the American College of Nutritionists, Vol.17, No. 2, pp. 180-186