I have spent a long time noticing and reflecting on the different ways parents try to make their children eat. In my book, I split these into several broad categories:
- Cajoling - this is where we gently persuade, often involving comedy trains and aeroplanes....
- Incentivising - you know the one; if you eat your beans you can have a star on your chart / a sticker / your pudding...
- Pleading - "just one more bite... for mummy?"
- The authoritarian approach - "eat it because I say so"
- Reasoning - often invoking the god of nutrition; eat it because "you need vitamins" / "it will make you big and strong"
- Comparing - this is where we use siblings or friends to try to get a child to try something " Look - Jack LOVES his fish"
- Tempting -extolling the virtues of whatever it is we want them to taste, in the hope that they will be unable to resist
All of the above involve giving your child attention for not eating or being negative about food, and all of them are therefore experienced by your child as a kind of 'pay-off'. Small children, especially during the toddler and pre-school years, are all about experimenting with their personal power and the boundaries that they come up against. A child will relish getting a reaction from a parent, even if that reaction seems, from an adult's perspective, to be a negative one. If this is something you are interested in finding out more about, I recommend this short video by parenting expert Dr G (Dr Deborah Gilboa, MD).
Why do we give our children so much attention for NOT eating?
The answer is simple. The pressure we put on our children to eat is born of our own anxiety. It is completely understandable that you will be worried about how much your child is consuming if she is a picky eater. This anxiety comes from a good place - ultimately, it is about the fact that you love your child and want to nurture her. You want her to be healthy and to enjoy her food.
Giving your child any kind of attention for being picky = rewarding her for being picky = more picky behaviour.
The solution? Follow these two EAF rules
- Never praise or criticise how or what your child is eating
- Teach your child that it is unnacceptable to be rude or negative about their food
With these two rules in place, you can get to a situation where you child knows that she can quietly leave what she doesn't like - she will get NO reward in the form of attention for choosing to reject certain foods, mealtimes will become about enjoying one another's company now the focus is off getting your child to eat and you will find you have created a climate where your child is much more likely to start accepting and trying new foods.
The anxiety that drives parents to pressure children to eat will not go away by itself, though. To make this work, you need to get your child's weight and growth checked by a health professional (I know my regular readers will be sick of hearing me say this, but it really is a vital part of solving picky eating). Secondly you need to begin to process your feelings about your child's eating so that mealtimes can genuinely become more relaxed and positive. It's not easy, but it is achievable, and learning to stop giving your child both positive and negative attention for fussy eating is the first step towards happier mealtimes for everyone.