When I was working in the Marriage and Family Therapy field, we had a guiding principle when it came to treating children: generally speaking, children’s problems are best addressed at the family level. This doesn’t mean that a family is always to “blame” for the child’s problems. Rather, it means that the solution will be most effectively implemented at the level of the family. Children are not agents of change in their environment. Adults are.
This principle also applies to childhood obesity-–especially when it comes to prevention. This study, by University of Buffalo researchers, highlights the importance of establishing early habits around food. By habits, the researchers were looking at the rules and boundaries that parents set surrounding which foods a child can and cannot eat as toddlers. They found that the children who were raised with parental rules about food had healthier eating habits later, along with greater self-regulation, than children who were raised in more lenient households. They studied the dynamic between self-regulation and boundaries set by parents. They discovered that in the presence of parental rules about food, the child’s self-regulation was improved.
These days it seems that parents are afraid to set rules about food portions and food types for fear of making their children obsessive about food, or giving them food/body image issues. There is one very important factor to consider when it comes to setting rules: self-compassion. If the rules come from a place of fear (obsessive calorie counting, deprivation) or negative self-image within the parent, that could turn what could be a positive parenting practice into a negative one. However, if the parents have a mindfulness practice that combines awareness with compassion, telling a child that one child-sized piece of birthday cake is enough (for example) is exactly the type of rule-setting that will lead to lifelong healthy eating habits.
This becomes very challenging in our everyday culture. Portion sizes have become larger than anyone needs. Supersized has become the new normal. At most restaurants, even a “child” portion is beyond reasonable. I took my kids to a local restaurant recently for a celebration and was shocked to see a child meal that had nearly 1,000 calories. (See here for daily calorie needs for children to put this number in perspective.) So in this climate, it is even more important for parents to set the proper limits. And yes, sometimes onlookers will give you the evil eye when they hear you tell your child she can have half of the 400 calorie cookie at Starbucks and save half for tomorrow. And that is okay.
It is important for parents to know that it is okay to say no. It is okay to say “have the apple instead of the fries” or “you’ve had enough” or “just have ONE” or “no more snacks until dinner.” These boundaries–when offered from a place of mindfulness and love–will provide the foundation for healthy eating in later years when parents are not able to exert as much control.