Updated: Jan 25, 2019
author Bethany Brenes MPA, LPTA
We know the health of our children can be seen as a direct result of our own eating habits, but it has now been linked to our parenting styles. A Harvard study found that mothers who modeled a healthy weight, regular exercise, and a nutritious lifestyle had children who were 75% less likely to be overweight. The children who were actively involved with their mothers in these areas were 82% less likely to be obese. It is not surprising to see the rise in obesity rates as we culturally enable emotional eating. Prior to age 2 a child seeks out food solely to satisfy hunger, but as they develop they begin adapting to the eating habits present in the home. As parents, we are portraying the standard that our children will develop when making independent decisions. Depending on the parenting style, the outcome will positively or negatively affect the life of the child and their future relationship with food. As food is a presence more common than any other factor, we need to recognize the weight it serves and what we can do to successfully shape it for them.
In the 1960’s developmental psychologist Diana Braumrind proposed 3 different parenting styles; Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative, with a fourth style Uninvolved, later added by Maccoby and Martin. Her research was developed through observation of the level of demand on a child and the responsiveness of the parent, producing either positive or negative outcomes in the development of the child. The four styles each carry specific characteristics and reactions you may find similar to your way of parenting, however they are ultimately archetypal and are to be used only as a guide. Each style will be reviewed with its specific effect on how food is used in the home and how that relationship impacts the development of the child. Identifying the style that best represents your home and learning to shape can be an imperative shift in the future of the child.
1. Authoritarian: high demand, low response
The Authoritarian parenting style sees in black and white, labeling good or bad. They enforce strict rules without explanation or sensitivity to the child’s response. Children are not seen as equals in the home, receiving minimal praise for fear it may cause the child to become too full of themselves. Concerning food, the authoritarian home may restrict junk food or force the child to eat healthy options. Either way the child is prone to develop a negative association with healthy food. These regulations and presentation of food produce children who experience difficulty with independent decision making, poor self-regulation involving food, and tend to be under or overweight. They are also more likely to battle emotional eating, leading to a higher prevalence of obesity. According to the CDC’s most recent statistics, 1 in 5 school age children (6-19yrs) are classified as obese, with higher rates seen in low income homes. Overweight or obese children fall prey to emotional struggles, eating disorders, and are 70% more likely to become obese adults. While rules and regulations are a positive influence in a child’s upbringing, the lack of emotional responsiveness in the authoritarian home fosters low self-esteem and higher rates of depression.
2. Permissive: low demand, high response
Unlike the rigid formatting and emotional distance in the authoritarian style, the permissive home demonstrates indulgence offering few rules and a friend rather than parent dynamic with the child. The permissive parent often feels limits are restrictive to the child, who is often placed in the center of the family. In place of discipline, parents use manipulation to coerce obedience, frequently using food as a bribing mechanism. With food used as a barter, we see results of high body mass index (BMI) and decreased activity levels in these children when compared to their peers. A longitudinal study found children of permissive parents were also more likely to develop depression and anxiety. These children often display high self-esteem and social skills as a result of the emotional availability of their parents, but were impulsive and demanding as they searched for limits that were not structured.
3. Authoritative: high demand; high response
Balancing between the authoritarian and permissive style with high demand and high response is the authoritative style. In this form of parenting we find the most successful outcome with even portions of discipline and freedom. Clearly defined limits are set as in the authoritarian home, but with explanation on the reasoning behind the rules the child is able to explore their potential. The level of response parents provide to the child’s feelings regarding boundaries should match the weight of expectations. Allowing the children to retain their autonomy assists in the development of social skills and emotional regulation. These factors are applicable with regards to food as well. Meals times are structured with family involvement allowing the children to observe modeling of healthy options by the parents. Food intake is monitored as the child is allowed to make decisions for snacks within the foods available. With unwavering limits, provision of healthy options, and nutritional education, the child is able to develop self-control for their future independent decision making.
4. Uninvolved: low demand; low response
Often labeled as neglect, the uninvolved style places little demand on the child with an insignificant response. In some circumstances the uninvolved parent may be able to fulfill the physical needs of the child, but any emotional involvement is absent. This is commonly observed with parents battling depression or other overwhelming factors. Studies have found healthy food is not accessible to the child in the home and mealtimes are not structured. Quick easy options are often common place, unfortunately providing little nutritional value. The importance of health may not be educated through the parent, as they themselves did not receive it. More often than not the parent is unaware they are portraying an uninvolved style, as they were brought up similarly without realizing any negative effects. Without boundaries in place, children struggle with moderation as seen in increasing rates of obesity. Without structure, modeling, and response from the parent, the child can develop feelings of insecurity with food, and may become overly focused on it leading them to find security though emotional eating.
Identifying the style of parenting that is most applicable to your home enables the ability for positive change. Without guidance the risk factors for emotional and physical disorders are unbridled. Poor nutrition and negative food relationships can be detrimental as overweight children are at greater risk for type 2 diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, types of cancer, and other preventable diseases. Along with the physical culprits, children who experience body shaming and hold a poor self-image, tend to withdraw and develop lifelong emotional issues. Our children’s eating habits and possible future eating disorders are established in a home where we, as parents control the availability, regulation, and modeling of food. Education and active change can prevent future struggles with food and in place produce positive relationships.
Establishing change may feel daunting without knowing where to begin. Using the authoritative style as a guide will help build the demands our children need and the emotional response they desire. While this style encompasses all aspects of upbringing, focusing on food can lay a foundation for a healthy life.
Set Boundaries: Concerning nutrition, clear rules need to be set and maintained with consistency allowing the child to develop self-control. Explain the reasoning behind the rules such as, the beneficial nature of healthy natural foods for our body, the importance of moderate portions, and why processed food is limited. With limits children are free to practice decision making within the set boundaries. Consistency is key. Breaking the rules while promoting healthy food, but rewarding with junk food, sends mixed messages to our children. Setting and explaining boundaries regarding food as well as keeping communication open and receptive to your child will allow them to feel involved and heard.
Provide Options: Children are without the ability to seek out food outside the home. At home we provide the options they have to choose from, instilling in them a baseline for what they will choose in an independent future setting. Keeping healthy options of fruit and vegetables along with avoiding junk food in the home will allow children to successfully choose nutritious snacks. The freedom to make their own choices creates a feeling of empowerment and provides a positive correlation with consumption.
Lead by Example: A study by Hendy and Raudenbush presented findings that children’s intake of a novel food increased when observing a caregiver eat the food enthusiastically. When parents are observed to have a positive interaction with healthy food it imprints on the child’s positive association with food for the future. The same study also found that children consistently ate more when served larger portions despite hunger. Modeling and educating correct portion sizes will aid in the child’s decision making and impulse control. Over the past 20 years are portion sizes have more than doubled, adding unnecessary calories and an epidemic of obesity. We need to educate our children on what foods should make up each portion size their nutritional value.
There is hope for our children’s health and parents are the greatest influence. We must first recognize our own relationship with food and how it is modeled to them. Educating our children on food and its role begins with educating ourselves. Once we have the knowledge we can involve them in the understanding of food and its fundamental function as nutrition.