If I could wave a magic wand and change the way most parents approach the problem (yes, the problem) of feeding their kids, I would give parents the power to see what lessons their kids are learning about food and eating. Not the lessons parents think they are teaching, but the lessons their kids are really learning.
The gap between the lessons parents think they are teaching and the lesson their kids are actually learning is where eating problems are born. It is where they fester, where they grow.
For instance, parents think "two more bites of broccoli " teaches kids the value of eating vegetables, but that is not the lesson most kids really learn. Instead, kids learn some (or all) the following:
- "I have to eat veggies even if I don't want them. This makes me dislike them even more."
- "Mommy knows better than I do how much I should eat. I should always look to others for clues about portion size."
- "Dessert is usually eaten on a full stomach. Feeling full isn't a sign to stop eating; it's when I let the good times roll!"
- "How much I eat is always open to negotiation."
These underlying lessons subvert your best intentions because none of them teaches your kids to love, or even to like, vegetables. And so, the struggle continues.
According to one interesting study, the tactics parents regularly rely on to control their kids' food consumption are more likely to foster superior negotiating skills than to promote positive eating habits.1
- "You can have dessert if you eat your broccoli."
- "I know you don't like milk but you have to drink some. OK, eat some cheese instead."
No wonder living with a toddler is like living with a little lawyer!
The solution is to practice what I call conscious parenting: Become truly aware of the impact you are having. Recognize that if your feeding problems persist then the lessons you are trying to teach aren't hitting home. Start seeing the world through your children's eyes. Adjust your strategies accordingly.
Conscious parenting isn't just for parents of picky eaters, or for people whose kids refuse vegetables. Almost every parent I know has problems feeding their kids right. Not because parents don't have sufficient knowledge about nutrition, but because the nutrition culture pits parents and kids against each other.
It's a shocking thought, but consider this: Once you buy into the idea that your parenting job is to get a certain selection of nutrients into your kids—and there's no denying that this is the dominant nutrition message—you can't help but see your kids as adversaries. If they would just eat the way you want them to you could get your job done! Your kids would eat well. They'd be healthy. If only your kids would comply.
To be clear: I am not suggesting you disregard what you know about nutrition, and I wholeheartedly support feeding your kids healthy foods. (I'm not some renegade wacko!) But what I know from helping lots of parents teach their kids to eat right is that you've got to dial down your devotion to nutrition to be successful.
Ironically, turning away (ever so slightly) from the nutrition mindset will help your kids eat better because it leaves you room to consider your children's habits. And just as the nutrition model makes you and your kids adversaries, the habits perspective turns you into partners. Why? It shifts your goal away from getting the goods into your kids and towards teaching them the skills they need in order to eat right. In short, the habits perspective puts you and your kids back on the same team—a happier and more productive place for you both to be.
1 Paugh, A. and C. Izquierdo. 2009. "Why is This a Battle Every Night?: Negotiating Food and Eating in American Dinnertime Interaction." Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 19(2): 185-204.
© 2012 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.