Sapient Nature

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The Nurturer's Curse

Why force-feeding kids backfires and tips on kicking the nasty habit

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Despite rising rates of obesity, force-feeding continues to be a prevalent problem
All over the world, but particularly in developing nations, parents use physical or psychological force to get their children to consume food that the children do not want to eat. Specifically, children are told: 1) when to eat, 2) what to eat, and 3) how much to eat. In most cases, the children's fervent appeals to eat later, to eat a different (smaller) amount, or to eat a different type of food are either ignored, or worse, countered with psychological blackmail that evokes shame ("Look how much bigger and better looking Tommy is!"), guilt ("Think of all the starving children!"), and fear ("I won't talk to you if you don't clean your plate!"). 



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Why do some parents force-feed their kids?



Force-feeding stems from insecurities about physical size
If you ask parents, they will tell you that they do it because they want their kids to grow up to be healthy and strong. A critical—and often unstated—assumption that these parents make is that children do not instinctively know when or how much to eat. The truth, of course, is the opposite: human infants—like those of any other animal—are programmed to survive, and therefore, know exactly when and how much to eat. The real reason why parents force-feed is because they feel insecure about their kids' physical stature. Parents want their kids to get physically big so that they are not "eaten alive" by the other kids. In other words, force-feeding stems from a deep-seated insecurity about physical size.

The problem with force-feeding is that it ultimately leads to unhealthy food habits. Findings from a study in which over 100 individuals who had been force-fed as kids were interviewed revealed the psychological damage that force-feeding inflicts on kids. Despite the fact that it had been more than 20 years since these individuals had been force-fed—they were adults when the study was conducted—they could distinctly recall the emotional pain. 55% said that they had experienced nausea, while 20% said that they vomited at several points during their childhood on account of the force-feeding. (In comparison, less than 10% of those not force-fed experienced nausea, and none vomited regularly.) Also, half of those in the force-fed group recalled that they "cried frequently" during meals, whereas none of those in the non force-fed group recalled crying.

Parents may argue that inflicting such psychological trauma is necessary to achieve the desired effect. But, in fact, findings show that those who are force-fed end up developing healthier eating habits—and putting on weight—only after they leave home (usually for college or work).

Given the intense psychological pain that force-feeding inflicts on the kids, you would think that parents—especially those who pride themselves for being caring and nurturing—would give up the nasty habit. But in fact, the opposite happens: parents' resolve to force-feed intensifies over time; with each episode of vomiting and tantrum throwing, parents worry that their malnourished kids now have a lot more "catching up" to do.

Indeed, it's not unusual for parents to start following their kids with food so as to get them to consume whatever quantity of food they can shove down their gullet. Thus, the kids are never left without food long-enough for them to develop a genuinely healthy appetite; instead, with the constant offer of food—a snack here, another snack there—kids' hunger-levels are cut short before they can build up. So, come mealtime, the kids once again disappoint their parents by consuming insufficient quantities of food.

This generates a vicious cycle: parents realize, with growing desperation, that the "problem" has gotten out of hand and something "serious" needs to be done. So, they start using a system of rewards and punishments to get their children to eat larger quantities of food. For example, on the rare occasion when the kids do eat well, they are praised sky-high. "Great job on cleaning up your plate" little Charlie is told when he finishes his meal. When kids do not eat well—which of course happens more frequently among those who are force-fed—the bribes come out first. For example, kids may be offered a special treat (e.g., ice-cream) for finishing their meal. Many kids succumb to these bribes and wolf down the "main meal" with an expression of indifference or disgust on their faces, so as to "get it over with," as quickly as they can. Over time, as research on the presence of extrinsic rewards for doing intrinsically enjoyable tasks shows, these bribes start eroding into the kids' enjoyment of food; these kids grow into adults who don't particularly like food or have unhealthy attitudes towards them.

When the bribes don't succeed in increasing food intake, the sticks start coming out. "If you don't finish your meal before I finish counting to 10," poor Johnny is told, "I am going to ask the police to put you to jail!" Or, "If your plate isn't empty by the time I come back from my chores in 2 minutes," little Rani is told, "I'm not going to take you to the playground!"

Being sweet-natured, powerless, and dependent on parents for support, these kids cooperate, but even as they do so, real damage is being done to their psyche. They are learning to equate food with punishment.

Even if parents learn—say, from research findings, books, or doctors—that force-feeding is harmful and counterproductive, they will find it difficult to control their urge to force-feed. There are many reasons for this. One reason is that, because the bad-effects of force-feeding unfold over a long period of time, it is difficult to recognize the damage that they are causing to their kids. Typically, it is not till the kids are teenagers or even young adults that their bad food habits start having a real effect on their health.

In addition, there are other subtle forces that work to encourage parents to continue to force-feed their kids. One of these forces, ironically, is that force-fed kids turn out to be thinner and more malnourished than those that are not force-fed. This leads to a vicious cycle: parents seek to force-feed their kids because they are thin, and the children continue to remain thin because they are force-fed. A second force that perpetuates the habit of force-feeding is a more self-serving one. Parents who force-feed their kids tend to think of themselves in more glowing and noble terms. Force-feeding, as we have seen, is not easy: it takes a lot of physical, emotional, and intellectual effort (think of all the clever ways in which carrots and sticks can be used to get kids to eat their food). Indeed, forcing kids to eat food can be such taxing work that those who do it think of parents who don't as lazy bums who shirk their parental responsibilities. In some families, one of the parents may be heavily in favor of force-feeding while the other is vehemently opposed to it. And usually, the parent who force-feeds "wins" because he or she arrogates the moral high-ground on account of being the "harder working" or more "caring" parent.

Perhaps the most important—and certainly the most treacherous—reason why force-feeding continues is because of culture. People (particularly those from families at or lower than middle class in terms of socio-economic status) tend to equate healthiness with being plump (or even fat). Thus, a kid with a rotund belly and fat limbs will be thought of as being healthier looking than one whose ribs are showing. In reality, the latter kid may be stronger, more athletic and also have a better sense of balance, but all that will count for nothing if the kid doesn't "look" healthy. This excessive—and unhealthy focus on looks—is a very important reason why many parents are feverish in their desire to force-feed their kids.

If you are prone to force-feeding your kids, you probably agree with some, perhaps even most, of what I have said. But you are also likely to have generated several counter-arguments in your head about how force-feeding has its merits. You may think, for example, that had you not force-fed your kids, they may not have turned out to be as "healthy looking" as they currently are. You may also continue to believe that kids do not know when and how much to eat. It is difficult for me to offer you convincing evidence against your views in this article. My suggestion for you would be to read up on what the latest and best scientific evidence is showing on the effects of force-feeding. If you read up on the research with a truly open mind, I have no doubt that you will be convinced—at least an intellectual (vs. emotional) level—that if you did not force-feed your kids, they would turn out to be healthier.

You may also feel that there are certain occasions when you have to force-feed your kids. For example, you may argue that your kids sometimes get so excited by something (like playing a game of cricket with friends) that they forget to eat. Or, you may have noticed that they sometimes fall asleep (e.g., during a drive back home from a movie) and no longer want to eat. Under these circumstances too, my recommendation would be to let the kids eat when they want to, and how much they want to. (I'll get to what they should eat—and how you can influence that—shortly.) A very important reason why force-fed kids do not want to eat when they get caught up in an exciting activity is because they know that food will always be there when they want it; by contrast, having a fun time with friends is relatively rarer. In other words, if you weren't so desperate to feed the kids whenever they want to be fed but instead were cooler about it, they would realize that, unless they satisfy their hunger when they need to, they won't be getting any from you. And if, on occasion, they do get so caught up with something (or are so sleepy) that they miss a meal, so what? Findings show, in fact, that skipping a meal once in a while is very good for the digestive system. (Recall that, in our evolution as a species, we spent eons going hungry for food; the conditions of abundance of food in which we currently live is a new—and in an evolutionary sense, a morbid—condition. In other words, our bodies are built to experience food-deprivation once in a while, which is why fasting is such an integral part of any long-standing tradition.)

As is the case for any long-standing bad habit, breaking the habit of force-feeding can be very tough. The first step is to ask yourself, with as much courage and honesty as you can muster, whether you are guilty of force-feeding. Here are two simple things that you can do to check this. Ask your kids whether and how often they think that you make them eat when they do not want to eat, and whether and how often you also make them eat more than they want to. Then, ask yourself the question: do you worry about the fact that, in general, that your kids are thinner than they ought to be and that they do not eat as much as they need to?

The answers you get to these questions will reveal to you if you are addicted to force-feeding. The next step involves taking a leap of faith. You need to be willing to try out an experiment for a period of at least 30 days—it could be longer if your kids have been force-fed for a relatively long period of time, and have therefore developed unhealthy habits (such as apathy towards food, or the tendency to avoid fruits and vegetables and seek fatty, fried or processed food such as pizzas, fries or rice). During this time, you need to live by the following two rules: 1) you will control what your kids can eat, and may control when they eat, but you will not control how much they eat, 2) you will set a good example of eating habits that your kids can follow (e.g., you don't snack on unhealthy food between meals), and 3) you will do your best to evoke a healthy appetite before mealtime in the kids. The first two rules are pretty much self-explanatory, but the 3rd rule needs some elaboration. Parents who force-feed tend to order their children to eat at a time that is convenient for themselves (e.g., when they are themselves hungry). That is, parents don't usually bother to check with their kids on whether they are hungry before offering them food; parents make their plans (or follow the plans of other adults) and expect the kids to adjust to the plan. Thus, an important responsibility that we have—as parents—is that of stoking our kids' appetites before inviting them to a meal. I have found that nothing works better for inducing a healthy appetite than vigorous physical activity. In particular, swimming seems to work best; it never fails to evoke the most voracious appetite in my kids. Another strategy is to deny the kids snacks—particularly heavy ones like cheese—between meals. A third strategy is to give kids fair warning of what they may expect for the rest of the day. For example, before going on a hike, if I tell my kids that they won't be getting any snacks till after we finish the hike, they are much less likely to pester me for snacks between meals, and are much more likely to consume the fare that I offer them later.

There are, of course, several other strategies—many that you can easily find online, and others that you will generate yourself—for getting your kids hungry before mealtime. But these strategies won't produce the desired results unless you first resolve to never go back to force-feeding your kids, starting today. There is arguably nothing worse that giving your kids the hope that they will never again be cajoled or threatened to eat well, only for them to discover that the old terrifying habits have returned.

If you do choose the path of respecting your children and their bodies—rather than imposing on them what you would like—you will likely start seeing the benefits almost immediately. You will likely discover, for instance, that your relationship with your child improves when you stop force-feeding her. Because of a phenomenon known as co-dependence, people (that includes children) behave in a more mature manner if you treat them as mature individuals. So, when you respect your child's decision on how much to eat, she will reciprocate by listening more to you. You are also likely discover that have a lot more energy, since the energy that you once used to dissipate by chasing your kids or by devising devilishly devious plans to get them to consume more will now be yours to keep.

Perhaps the biggest-and most meaningful-benefit you will likely derive, however, will be this: you will discover that the fears you had about your children's physique and health were all in your own head: imaginary and unfounded. You will realize that children-and their bodies-are far wiser than you had given them credit. You will discover that not only are your kids aware of when and how much to eat, they can teach you a thing of two about how to not take out your fears, worries, and insecurities on others.

Interested in these topics? Go here.

Raj Raghunathan, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor affiliated with the Department of Marketing at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business.

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