A recent article in the New York Times by Maryann Jacobsen reminded me of an old blog post that I wrote 4 years ago when I worked for a school district in San Diego. I decided to repost it here with a few additions based on my work now.
During a site visit to an elementary school, I sat down with a group of children during their lunch. The lunch hour is always quite the event and this one was no exception. A boy and a girl ran around as the noon duty coaxed them to return to their lunch, a little boy sat alone picking the bread off of his grilled cheese and another little girl cheerfully munched on her fluffy wheat PB and J. The girl eating her PB and J was pleased with her meal and unbothered by all of the commotion around her. I turned my attention away from her for a few moments and started talking with one of the school counselors that was visiting with the kids as well. As lunch wrapped up, I turned back to the children to say goodbye. At that moment I overheard a noon duty saying, “Now I have to tell your mother you’ve been a bad girl. Why didn’t you finish your PB and J? It looks delicious to me. I’d eat it. What am I going to tell her?” The satisfied look quickly fell from the little girl’s face and was replaced with shame and sadness.
Witnessing this type of interaction was very difficult. I’m saddened by the fact that this scenario is commonplace in many lunchrooms and dinner tables. There is not doubt that this noon duty meant well. Adults have good intentions when we try to encourage children to eat certain amounts and types of foods. However, it is imperative that we start educating ourselves on why that can be debilitating to a child’s development as a healthy eater. If the young girl is repeatedly scolded for not finishing her meal how do you think she is going to respond? This is going to push her to ignore her body’s fullness cues in order to please the noon duty, her mother and whoever else wants her to eat “one more bite.” Furthermore, telling a child she is “good” or “bad” based off of the food she eats is confusing for her. Young children want to please. If she gets praise from an adult for what or how much she eats that is another reason to ignore her internal cues and rely on external cues and praise to guide their eating. Even if this results in children eating their fruits and veggies in the short term, research shows it does not lead to healthy eating habits in the long term and can even bring their bodies to a weight that is not right for them. Now, as a specialist in eating disorders and disordered eating, I have never encountered a client who says, “My family members made me eat my veggies so now I eat plenty of veggies, feel great about it and feel confident feeding my body!” And isn’t that our hope for our children in the first place? Not to mention the emotions (negative and positive) that can begin to form around food. Children are “good” because they treat their friends and family with love and kindness, not because they can finish their sandwich.
The Division of Responsibility provides a solution to this parenting dilemma. Parents are responsible for the what, when and where and children are responsible for the how much and whether. This means taking and step back and trusting your child to eat the amount that is right for her. Ellyn Satter developed, taught and researched the Division of Responsibility (and although “retired” continues to do so much work in this area). You can find her books in my resource section and learn more about her work at www.ellynsatterinstitute.org.
Nutrition Instincts offers supportive workshops for mothers on pregnancy self care and child feeding and utilizes much of Ellyn Satter’s work. Check out www.nutritioninstincts.com/groups-workshops/ to register!