The short answer to the question of whether or not parents should control how much their kids eat is, no.
The longer answer is that parents need to shift the goal from reducing the amount of food their kids eat to teaching their children the habits they need to regulate their own food consumption. This isn’t about control. It’s about teaching the right habits.
A number of years ago, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni explored this question —what should parents do when kids have outsized appetites—in the article, Eat Your Peas. Or Don’t. Whatever.
Bruni writes from personal experience, not as a parent, but as a child with an insatiable love of food and eating. His book Born Round is also very interesting.
I have to admit upfront that I am a huge Frank Bruni fan. In this article, though, he got a few things wrong. The essential question shouldn’t be about control and how much control parents ought to exert, but about lessons and which ones parents ought to teach.
Here is a partial list of lessons all children, especially children who seem to naturally want to overeat, need to learn.
- How to know when you’re hungry and/or full.
- What you can do when you want to eat something but you’re not physically hungry.
- How to identify different kinds of hunger, such as emotional hunger.
Imagine a child has an aversion to brushing his teeth. Or an insatiable desire to brush her teeth excessively. Would we ever ask whether that child’s parents should control the child’s brushing?
I believe we would ask a different question: What skills does the child need to learn in order to brush her teeth properly. This question automatically frames the discussion differently.
Identifying the lessons children need to learn in order to eat the right amount of food helps parents too.
Controlling—or trying to control—how much kids eat is exhausting, demoralizing, and defeating for parents. It builds resentment and barriers between parents and their kids. It’s a paradigm that emphasizes and exploits power. And it feeds the sense that each meal is a do-or-die crisis.
Teaching is a paradigm that emphasizes compassion and understanding. It encourages parents to look at the world through their children’s eyes (and heartaches). It brings parents and children together as a team and it feeds the sense that learning to eat right is a journey.
So the question is, which sounds better to you?
For more read:
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~