There are many aspects of the advice I give to parents of picky eaters that cause them to do a bit of a double-take. For example, when I say that it’s okay to let children make their own decisions about how much of their meal they eat... Or when I teach that persuading kids to try ‘just one bite’ of a new food, is not the way to go.
Perhaps the piece of advice that gets me the most raised eyebrows though, is this one:
“Don’t praise your kids for eating”
In the last few decades, we have come a long way in terms of how we approach parenting. No more Victorian attitudes where children are ‘seen and not heard’. No more controlling through fear, where parents rely on physical punishment to elicit good behaviour. Of course, some parents do still smack their children - and this is a topic which would merit an entire blog post of its own - but in the main, there is much more emphasis on communicating with children and prioritising their emotional wellbeing.
One of the cornerstones of modern parenting is a behavioural approach to raising kids (think Supernanny). We praise or reward the behaviour we want from our children, we ignore or sanction the behaviour we do not want. And really, praising and ignoring are the same as a reward or sanction, it’s just that the currency involved is our attention.
This works really well in most contexts. I love the notion (I think this came from parenting author Steve Biddulph originally) of ‘catching children being good’: We walk into the kitchen and find Cathy sharing her toys with her sister. We can praise the behaviour and let Cathy know we think it’s fantastic. This is the opposite of waiting for the sounds of screaming before we finally go into the kitchen and discipline Cathy, because she has decided she has had enough of sharing. In this situation - where being considerate to a younger sibling is a behaviour we want from Cathy - positive and specific feedback (praise) is great.
If we want Cathy to tidy her room, it’s okay for us to hope that she bothers to pick her clothes up off the floor in order to please us. Intrinsic motivation (doing something for its own sake) is important too, but in a functional and caring environment, there is nothing psychologically unhealthy about children changing their behaviour in order to gain adult approval. Think of the warm and kind teacher who makes the kids feel amazing when she pins their work on the wall and tells them what she loves about it. So long as we are labelling the behaviour and not the child, communicating approval is a healthy part of raising children.
Eating is different
So… you may be wondering at this point, why I don’t advocate praise for eating. Well, eating is in a category all of its own, for the very simple reason that we want children’s eating decisions to be driven by their body NOT through adult approval. A healthy relationship with food is one where children effectively self-regulate (eat in response to their body’s cues). This is different from tidying, or saying ‘please’ or helping set the table… none of which are physiological processes.
Three reasons why I don’t advise using praise in relation to food:
- If a child is a picky eater, praise can be experienced as pressure, which makes picky eating worse. Read Leah’s story for a powerful insight into what pressure to eat can feel like.
- If a child is eating in order to please adults, this can get in the way of their ability to self-regulate (see above).
- If a child views eating as a behaviour we want from them, this leaves scope for them to use their eating decisions and behaviours as a way of striving for attention or to engage in power battles. Remember - boundary testing is a developmentally normal part of early childhood, but we don’t want it to play out at mealtimes.
Don’t just take it from me...
Internationally renowned feeding experts, Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin, in their fantastic book, Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating, write:
“It may seem counterintuitive, but try not praising your child’s eating even if she makes progress. Praising her today communicates that if she doesn’t feel brave tomorrow, she has disappointed you. Praise can be another form of pressure. Children do best relying on internal motivation to eat, rather than eating for approval.”
I love their point about how praise can set children up to feel that they have disappointed us. Children progress at their own rates and will have some days where they feel more confident and resilient than others.
The alternative to praise
I am not suggesting that if your child pushes themselves beyond their comfort zone and tries something new, we all turn our backs and pretend it never happened. We don’t want eating to become the elephant in the room! Instead, help your child engage with their experience in a pressure and expectation-free way. Talk about the sensory qualities of the food. Try it yourself and reflect out loud, on what it feels like in your mouth.
Instead of “Wow - you tried a pea! Good girl! Well done!” quietly take a pea yourself, pop it in your mouth and say “peas feel really smooth and round in my mouth, like little balls”. Instead of “Well done for biting into your carrot stick!” ask: “does the carrot make a sound when you crunch it?” Keep it descriptive, non-judgmental and emotionally neutral.
I totally get that you want to celebrate when your child makes progress with their eating. Even the tiniest step forward can feel huge. In Parenting Picky Eaters (my Facebook group, which I run with Australian feeding specialist, Simone Emery) we have a very popular #winsday thread, where every Wednesday, people can post about the little wins they want to celebrate. So next time your child tries something new, keep it chilled, do an internal happy dance and come into the group and tell us all about it!