"No Broccoli Until You Finish Your Ice Cream!"
Meals can be a challenging time for parents of young children. Because proper nutrition is so important for a child's physical and emotional health, it can be tempting to take control of their diet through the use of parental rules and food restrictions. Unfortunately, the use of force, no matter how subtle or well-intentioned, often fails, because children, like adults, have a strong need for personal autonomy. This can quickly escalate into a battle of wills, and damage the parent-child relationship.1
It's only natural for parents to worry if they think their child is not receiving proper nutrition every day, but studies have shown that children given complete freedom to choose from a wide selection of food items will select a balanced diet, not necessarily in each meal, but over time.2,3 As with so many other parenting issues, we can trust a child's built-in eagerness to learn and to make good decisions.
It's the parent's job to provide the food; it's the child's job to decide when, how much and which foods to eat. Naturally, the child cannot choose nutritious food if it is not provided, but strictly limiting less nutritious foods and snacks can backfire, creating life-long cravings for the forbidden treats.
That doesn't mean the parent should do nothing. We can model sensible food choices and share our own experiences, beliefs and concerns about food, just as we do with any other important information. But we need to let the child make the final choice, so she can build her decision-making skills. If we make all the decisions for her, she won't learn how to make them. Unless a child's safety is involved, we should avoid making decisions for her, and let her learn from her mistakes. Parenting is much more difficult than it needs to be when we neglect to trust the child's inborn capacity to learn.
Parents naturally wish their children could have a perfect life, but not only is that not possible, it would limit their learning. Mistakes are often the best teachers, because we take those lessons to heart and learn first-hand why we should not make that mistake again. We remember those lessons better than when we are simply told what to do or what to think. If parents make all the decisions, they may keep their children from making bad ones, but they also keep them from making good ones, preventing them from learning from their own direct experience.
Ideally, parents should be role models, not supervisors. To avoid damaging power struggles, we can share our knowledge, but give the child the freedom to make her own decisions. How else can she learn how to make them?
Any kind of rule, no matter how sensible it may seem, makes it harder for the child to learn how to make her own choices and decisions, and to trust her body's intuitive wisdom. Without this kind of practice, that intuition will be dimmed. Many adults have lost the ability to know what to eat and when to eat it, and when to stop eating, that they were born with.
Developing good judgment requires direct personal experience. That doesn't mean the parent should do nothing, especially with something as important as health. We can keep nutritious foods available, set an example of healthy eating, trust the child's intuition, and share our wisdom in a respectful way. We can help our child to be healthy and happy without endangering our connection or interfering with the child's learning.
The use of force in parenting always has negative outcomes, either in the present or at a later time.
I've often wondered what would happen if we told a child, "No broccoli until you finish your ice cream!"
Would the child crave broccoli and avoid ice cream? Of course, even if that worked, it would not address
the real issue: children need and deserve to make their own choices, good and bad. They need years of
practice to become a responsible adult. That can only come about in an atmosphere of respect, freedom,
1 Clinton, Sarah. Children Feel Most Positively about Mothers Who Respect Their Autonomy
2 Birsinger, Barbara. Intuitive Eating - The Magic of Knowing
3 Strauss, Steven. Clara M. Davis and the wisdom of letting children choose their own diets
Suggested reading: How Children Really React to Control by Thomas Gordon
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.