This post is the second part of two posts to cover how we as parents can help our children to develop into healthy eaters. If you haven’t read the first post, then be sure to read it HERE before reading the rest of this post (otherwise you will be a little confused).
Meet Jeremy and Vicky. Jeremy was brought to Ellyn Satter (registered dietician and child eating expert) because he wouldn’t eat and Vicky was brought to her because she was obsessed with food and her parents worried that she ate too much.
Jeremy’s parents complained that meals were always a fight and a struggle. They would have to constantly coax him to the dinner table as he argued that he wasn’t hungry. Then when they got him to the table they would have to battle even more just to get him to eat.
They constantly had to entice him to eat with bribes:
“We can’t play catch until you eat your dinner.” “If you don’t eat your dinner then you can’t play video games or watch TV.”
Most times they would be forced to feed him.
Dinners became unpleasant and the parents dreaded almost every meal time. They hated that it was such a fight to get Jeremy to eat and they absolutely despised the fact that they still had to feed their son who was clearly old enough to feed himself.
The worry was that if they didn’t feed him or push him to eat that he would never eat.
They were tired and needed help.
Vicky on the other hand posed a problem for her parents that was on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.
Where Jeremy didn’t want to eat, Vicky was obsessed with it. She was constantly looking in the fridge, scouring the cupboards and pantry, and sneaking food into her room.
When she sat down at the table and her mom dished out the portion she thought Vicky should be eating, Vicky would always complain, “Is this all there is?”
Her parents weren’t tired of trying to get their child to eat, they were tired of trying to keep food away from their daughter.
They knew that she was already slightly overweight and were worried that if they didn’t restrict her food that her obsession with it would cause her to eat uncontrollably. They worried about her weight and her health.
Even though both nutritional problems experienced by these two kids were on complete opposite sides of the spectrum the parents of the kids were making the same mistakes.
Neither of them respected or followed the division of responsibility of feeding.
When you hear about situations like these it is very easy to think that the problem springs from the child. However, more often these eating issues are spawned by actions of the parents.
Ellyn found out that both parents made mistakes with the division of responsibility of feeding with their kids earlier on in their lives. The mistakes they made were different, which is why the problems displayed by both children were so opposite.
She found that Jeremy’s parents tried to push solid foods on him before he was ready. They felt like he was old enough to eat solid foods and worried when he wouldn’t eat them. This then led to tricks and battles to get him to eat food back when he was just a baby and from then on they viewed him as an unwilling eater. The pattern continued into his toddler years and had remained since.
They got into a habit of forcing their child to eat when he was not hungry. This then backfired and made Jeremy begin to avoid eating. His parents’ actions were telling him that he couldn’t be trusted to know when he was hungry or when he wasn’t. They knew better than him. He then grew up thinking that he wasn’t capable of successfully feeding himself and this was the very reason why he expected them to feed him.
The problem that his parents grew to abhor was created by their own actions. They did a great job at making nutritious meals, but they never allowed Jeremy to decide for himself if and how much he was going to eat–a crucial aspect of the division of responsibility.
They took over his responsibilities in the feeding relationship.
When Ellyn Satter brought this up to their attention, she told them that they needed to back off and let Jeremy feed himself. They needed to be okay with whatever he decided. She warned them that he would hardly eat for the first few weeks, but that eventually he would learn that they trusted him to take responsibility for feeding himself and that he would gradually move to a healthier and more balanced eater.
His parents decided to follow her suggestions and sure enough he hardly ate a thing for the first little while, but at the same time noticed him slowly taking responsibility. He eventually began to eat more and is now a healthy eater and the mealtime battles are merely a memory.
Just like Jeremy’s parents, Vicky’s parents did a great job of keeping their end of the division of responsibility, but they too made the big mistake of not allowing their daughter, Vicky, to decide how much she wanted to eat.
Vicky was born a chubby infant and ever since then her mother restricted her food. She didn’t want her daughter to have to grow up being overweight so she portioned out her food.
Even though Vicky’s mother felt like she was helping by always giving her the “proper portions” she was actually doing damage and causing the very thing she was trying to keep her daughter from.
Because Vicky’s mom was restricting her food, Vicky soon became obsessed with it. She was never allowed to eat until fully satisfied. This hunger she felt was constant. She never felt like she would get enough so she would battle at each meal to get a little more and then worry when the next meal would be.
When her mother stopped portioning the food and instead placed the serving dishes on the table and let Vicky decide how much she wanted it was very difficult at first. Vicky over ate at almost every meal for the first few weeks, but eventually she realized that her mother was no longer going to restrict food, and she relaxed and began to eat much smaller portions that her body wanted all on her own volition.
By asking these parents to respect the Division of Responsibility, Ellyn suggested for both parents to show forth faith in their kids and in their ability to decide if and how much they should eat.
She asked them to be very consistent at having three big meals prepared and ready on a reliable schedule with set-out snacks between those meals.
She asked them to not allow any snacking or grazing from their children, but instead to let them know that if they wanted to eat that they needed to do it during one of the scheduled meals or snacks.
She warned them that it would be difficult at first, that Jeremy wouldn’t eat very much and that Vicky would more than likely eat too much for the first few weeks. However, she then stated that they would soon see that they were trusted by their parents to know how much to eat and would begin to demonstrate normal eating behaviors of children.
They would reconnect with their intuitive eating abilities. They would eat a lot some times and eat hardly anything at others, but overall they would get in the proper amount of food for their bodies and reach a healthy weight for themselves.
Both parents followed her counsel and sure enough both children developed into healthy eaters all by themselves.
When we take away our children’s choice of how much they want to eat we do not allow them to develop the ability to know how much they should eat. If we want to raise healthy eaters then we must adhere to the Division of Responsibility.
We as parents are in charge of the what, when, and where of eating. Our children need to be in charge of the if and how much of eating.
By following the Division of Responsibility we demonstrate leadership and at the same time give autonomy to our kids. We let them grow. We let them develop. We let them gain the necessary confidence in their ability to eat healthy and in the proper amount. This is the recipe for success when raising healthy eaters.
We must show leadership and then trust our children.
Here is a video that teaches these principles beautifully. It is not about eating, but instead is focused on helping our children to make proper moral decisions in their lives and to draw nearer to God. It spiritually lays out how we as parents should help our children to grow into who God would have them to be. Even though it isn’t about nutrition, the principles remain the same and are what the Division of Responsibility is based upon. We have to provide strong leadership as parents and at the same time give our children autonomy. Not only is it crucial when teaching moral matters to our children, but it still applies in the mundane task of trying to raise healthy and confident eaters. It is very informative and I would highly recommend watching it:
April 2012 General Conference
If you would like to learn more about the Division of Responsibility of Feeding then I would highly suggest you read the book “SECRETS: of Feeding a Healthy Family,” by Ellyn Satter.