black and white 1930s mother tries to make child eat dinner

Food For Thought (Part 1)

I was part of a conversation recently with a group of friends who were complaining that kids today had it easy – sound familiar?

Their complaint had to do with parents literally catering to children's every whim, especially at meal times. Parents became short-order cooks who were at the mercy of their kids. It was said these kids felt entitled to 'place an order' and get whatever food they felt like eating, no matter if another meal had already been prepared and it was quite an inconvenience.                     

Another friend said she knew of parents who'd let the kids eat sweet treats before a meal, only to have the child then refuse their dinner. Another woman shared that she knew of a family where, apparently, the child would frequently refuse the meal that had been prepared because they preferred burgers instead. The whole family would jump into the car and head to the nearest drive-through! (I won’t mention which one, but feel free to guess.)

IN MY DAY…

Before long, there was talk of how this would never have happened ‘back in the day’ —  and you know how people always have this idealised version of the past! But the main concern was what message does this send to kids? Does it teach them that the world will always adjust to them? Does it stop them from ever experiencing things that are different or not to their liking?

“In the olden days,” the conversation continued, “parents would say you get this one meal or you don’t eat anything.”

It sounded like people were saying there were only two options: parents could either lay down the law, perhaps letting the child go hungry, or kids would just run over the top of their parents and ask them to just fix whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted it.

IT’S NOT ONE OR THE OTHER

There are real problems with both of those extremes. At one end of the scale, you’ve got the very controlling authoritarian type of parenting: “Just do as I say, or else”. At the other end you’ve got parents who are too lax, where anything goes. And we know, not just in our hearts but through extensive research, that neither of these are likely to produce well-adjusted, successful adults.

We can’t let kids go hungry — feeding our children is a basic parental responsibility — but we can’t spend our lives running in circles around our kids, either. So is there anything parents can do besides becoming overly controlling, or else feeling overwhelmed and controlled by their children?

Absolutely. But first, let’s step back a bit and think about how this kind of situation arises.

“BUT WHAT DO PARENTS DO, THEN?!”

In Part 1 of this blog, I’m going to talk more about the 'my way or the highway' approach, and why it’s problematic. Then in a few weeks’ time in Part 2, we’ll look at the problems at the other end of the scale, the 'short-order cook parents'. And I’ll also give ideas for alternative ways of looking at the issue.

CONFUSION CAN LEAD TO EXTREMES
Many people rely very heavily on how they grew up, because it’s all they know. But now, it’s also pretty easy for somebody to go online for information, and find an 'expert' (and for all we know, their advice is based on not much more than personal opinion). Even television can be confusing. So we’ve got a situation where you’ll be watching morning TV one week and there’ll be somebody telling us one thing, then a few weeks later it can be someone else saying just about the opposite.

ARE YOU SURE IT’S RESPECT?
Some parents feel like they have to take a hard line with kids because they want children to 'know their place'. They believe it’s a parent’s job to always be in charge of everything, even if this means they have to overpower the child either physically or mentally or both. I’ve heard parents say this kind of thing, and it becomes tied to the parent’s personal sense of worth in an unhealthy way: “This child is going to do what I say, and eat whatever I give them, because they’re going to respect me!”

But a lot of times when we explore this idea of 'respect', they’re not talking about a respectful and a loving relationship where the parent sets boundaries and a child cooperates and learns pro-social behaviour skills. They’re really talking about controlling somebody through fear. Sometimes, this need for control escalates until it goes too far.

When parents have the attitude of “what I say goes, no matter what!” the child may obey, at least for a while. But what does the child learn?

  • They learn that the bigger and more powerful you are, the more you should use that to control other people. (What’s going to happen when they’re older and bigger?)
  • They learn that controlling other people by force is a normal part of relationships.

Kids may also learn some other unwanted messages about food, connecting it to guilt, shame, control and power. Coupled with other factors, this could lead to eating disorders. In a similar vein, forcing kids to ignore their body’s message that they’ve had enough to eat can make it harder for them to control their weight in later life.

What kids don’t learn when you get angry or force them to eat are things like:

  • How to make healthy food choices on their own, because they want to.
  • How to regulate their own emotions when they’re feeling frustrated or impatient with somebody.
  • How people cooperate in an atmosphere of real respect, as part of a loving relationship.

STRESS CAN MAKE IT WORSE
I think also that rule of “you’re not allowed to leave anything on your plate” is related to tough economic times and a parent’s feelings — often quite anxious feelings — related to food scarcity and wastefulness. I’m not saying people should encourage kids to routinely skip healthy meals and fill up on unhealthy (and expensive) snacks and desserts. But a financially stressed parent might be inclined to over-react to a kid not wanting to eat whatever is in front of them.

IN A NUTSHELL
I think the kind of confusion created by mixed messages is partly what drives people to take a harsh line with parenting. It seems easier: there appear to be no grey areas. You don’t have to think things through or adjust to different situations. Whereas in reality, there’s no one right way to parent and there’ll be times when you need to evaluate, learn new skills and adjust accordingly.

When it comes to these kinds of mealtime battles, parents may be confused and believe there are only two options: letting the kids run over the top of their parents or having to really come down hard on the kids. They don’t want to be walked all over, so they take a hard line instead. But we need to remember that both of these options are extreme and ineffective methods of dealing with the problem. It’s worth thinking more about how it’s often really an issue of power rather than the issue of eating.

In my next blog, I’ll talk more about the ways in which people can fall into the trap of appeasing their children with food, and also about how we can find some middle ground and develop better ways of handling these kinds of situations.