Chapter One: Separating Our Own Food Attitudes from Our Children's Eating Behaviors
As soon as my daughter could walk, my mother started to comment on her chunky legs. "You better watch her, Carly, you don't want her to get fat." For goodness sake, my daughter is only two!
Carly, mother of two
My mother raised me to eat when I was hungry and stop eating when I was full. I am convinced that what she taught me has saved my life. As a professional actress I have watched both men and women in my field literally starve to death to maintain the body they think the entertainment world is looking for.
Samantha, actress and mother of one
Hundreds of parents, who are struggling with or worried about how their children are eating, have told me poignant stories about how critical they are of their own eating habits. And often, once I prompt them to examine the attitudes with which they were raised, they report that they have always felt they were either failing themselves by eating too much or making bad choices, or failing their parents because they didn't eat enough of the "food of love" they were offered.
If there's one thing I've learned from listening to these stories, it's that there is a direct connection between parents' food attitudes and how they deal with their kids' eating behaviors. As one mother told me, "I have an easier time talking about sex with my kids than food. My mother was so controlling and involved with my food that I always felt I was failing and ended up with a real weight problem. I still struggle with weight and my relationship to food, and because of that, I am terrified to interfere with how my kids eat. I feel paralyzed when it comes to saying anything at all about nutrition." Acknowledging and understanding this connection between our own food attitudes and our children's eating behaviors is the first step toward teaching our kids how to eat for life. And yet it's also one of the most challenging steps because it requires that we look at our own food history and eating experiences.
In this chapter, you will revisit your family food legacy and the tape loops (or food attitudes) this early experience created. As you become more familiar with your own food attitudes, you will automatically become better able to separate your own experience from what is going on with your children. Indeed, you may discover that what you perceive as your children's eating problems are really not problems at all, but rather styles of eating that are simply different from your own.
Taking the Fight Out of Food: Whose Problem Is It?
One of the most common complaints I hear from parents is that mealtime is one long power struggle. "My two-and-a-half-year-old won't sit in his high chair!" "My four-year-old incessantly demands dessert!" "My three-year-old throws a fit if I don't give her a cookie!" Parents come into my office completely at their wits' end.
In one such case, a mother came to see me because she could not understand her three-year-old son's picky eating behavior. Jennifer is thirty-six, with an engaging wit and the ability to turn even the most mundane incident into a stand-up comedy routine. She always has a twinkle in her eye and has a lot of great ideas about feeding children. Indeed, she knows that when she "lets go and relaxes" around food, her kids relax and eat better. Her first son (she has two) was a "foodie" like her. He loved exploring new foods and ate almost anything she offered, which is why Jennifer was surprised by her younger son's food issues. From day one, he was a very picky eater and often simply refused to eat at all. When she consulted her pediatrician, however, he assured her that her son was perfectly healthy and right where he should be in terms of growth. His advice was simply to "back off" and "let him be."
But even though knowing her son was in good health helped to allay Jennifer's fear that he would end up with scurvy, she still could not ignore everything she'd heard about encouraging him to eat. It was very difficult for her to sit by and watch her son refuse food.
Jennifer's reaction is not very different from that of many parents whose feelings of competence come from nurturing and feeding their children. When our children eat, we have concrete evidence that we are doing a good job, helping them make their way in the world with strong, healthy bodies. And when they don't eat well, or we think they are not eating well, we assume we must be doing a bad job. But we still need to ask, What was really going on between Jennifer and her son? What was the problem? Was it hers or her son's?
The first thing Jennifer and I did was to look at her own food legacy, and when we did that, we soon discovered that Jennifer had been raised as a dieter from the time she was very young. (Her joke is that her formative experience with religion was Weight Watchers, since she was sent by her mother at the age of nine to meetings that were held at the temple!) After years of diet camps and therapy to help resolve her food issues, she had come to terms with a way of eating that felt comfortable, and she was thrilled to be a mother who could let her sons enjoy their food. She was not going to repeat her own mother's mistakes by restricting what they ate.
So when Todd began refusing to eat, Jennifer found herself trying to fight back, almost force-feeding him, and frequently becoming angry at his resistance to her carefully prepared meals. She wanted him to eat and enjoy his food, but she was unwittingly contributing to the fight: the more she encouraged Todd to eat, the more he resisted.
Despite thinking that she handled food differently from her restricting mother, Jennifer gradually began to realize that, in her own way, and despite having the opposite goal, she was being just as controlling as her mother had been. At first, all she could see was her son's resistance to her efforts to help him. When he would "simply not listen," Jennifer reacted sometimes in anger, sometimes out of anxiety and frustration. It took a while for her to see that her reaction was actually fueling the power struggle with her son.
Once she realized that, we were able to address her need to give up trying to control the situation, so that she would be better able to let go of the outcome. Meanwhile, at a deeper level, she also began to separate her own fear of being restricted (a holdover from her mother's attempts to restrict her own food intake) from her son's seemingly self-restricting behavior. Only then could she see that Todd was, in fact, reacting to the pressure she was putting on him to eat. When Jennifer backed off, Todd began to eat more regularly though never with the same adventurousness as his older brother.
Children at any age seem to be masters at detecting our agendas: they know exactly what we want them to do and then often do just the opposite. What is our agenda when it comes to food? We simply want our children to eat well that is, eat the food we have lovingly and painstakingly put before them. And know this: even if you think you're being discreet, cheerful, or absolutely blasé as you serve breakfast, lunch, or dinner, even a ten-month-old in his high chair can detect your concern, worry, and anxiety that he get that broccoli down the hatch.
I met Carolyn when she attended one of my workshops because she was concerned about her nine-year-old son, who had become quite overweight. She herself had struggled with a weight problem in the past and resolved it by sticking to a diet that was totally free of sugar and junk food. She herself ate plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, and every meal she prepared for her two sons was made up of a variety of nutritious, organic foods.
Although her younger son seemed to enjoy whatever she put in front of him, the older child wanted only starchy carbohydrates, such as potatoes, pasta, and bread. He wouldn't touch vegetables and also fought with her to eat chocolate bars and other sweets, none of which Carolyn allowed in the house. From the time he was two, she told me, their every interaction about food had been adversarial. Now she was even more worried because he was really gaining weight and clearly hoarding the foods she'd never allowed him to have.
As we explored the situation, two issues became clear: one was that Carolyn had a food legacy associated with very health-conscious eating that went back three generations. Her mother and grandmother had both eaten only "healthful" foods and had restricted foods deemed "bad." The other was that both Carolyn and her mother had weight problems and frequently felt guilty about how much they ate. Her mother was not happy with her figure and had constantly berated herself for failing to restrict her food intake. She also criticized Carolyn when she was growing up by focusing on her weight. In fact, Carolyn said that when she returned from a trip to India, during which she had become very ill with dysentery, her mother had joked that she looked great because she had lost so much weight.
Like her mother, Carolyn believed that in order to be a good parent she had to make sure her children ate nutritiously ALL THE TIME. And because of this food legacy, Carolyn felt completely stymied by her older son's eating behavior and had no tools for dealing with his determination to make his own decisions about food.
Did he, in fact, have an eating problem? Or was he simply reacting to Carolyn's rigidity about food and eating? Had her son internalized his mother's fears about gaining weight? These were the questions Carolyn and I began to unravel as we worked together. Indeed, once Carolyn saw how her food legacy had affected her own eating habits and attitudes toward food, she began to realize that her son's weight gain had triggered her fear not that he would become fat but that she herself could not control her own food intake. Once she was able to be more objective about her fears and associations with food and weight, she was better able to deal with her son's situation. In the end, Carolyn decided to try to be more flexible, allowing her son to have some sweets and candy. Predictably, once she made these foods available instead of forbidden, her son stopped hoarding them. And as Carolyn began teaching him how certain foods impacted his body, he began slowly but surely to try vegetables and protein to round out his diet. As you will see in the upcoming chapters, even the most willful children can learn how to increase their range of foods if they are taught in a palatable manner.
What Is Your Family Food Legacy?
Most negative attitudes toward food begin at home. Therefore as you prepare to help your children become good eaters, you need to be clear about the kind of environment in which you were raised. Use the questions below as a way to consider the rules, tone, and values that pertained to eating in your family.
1. Did your parents ever tell you to stop eating before you felt you were full?
2. Did either of your parents ever pressure you to go on a diet?
3. Did a friend ever show you how to diet?
4. Was anyone in your household ever on a diet when you were growing up?
5. Did anyone binge and/or restrict foods in a regular way?
6. Did anyone "eat like a bird," always picking at food and never sitting down and enjoying a meal?
7. Did your mother, father, or any of your siblings go from diet to diet, always trying to lose weight but never feeling comfortable with their body image?
8. Were their diets successful only temporarily?
9. Did you eat predominantly "healthy" food?
10. Did your family eat a lot of bread, pasta, and other starchy foods?
11. Did your family consume a lot of fried food?
12. Did your parents let you snack on junk food?
13. Did your family keep soda in the house?
14. Were there any foods that were forbidden or only served on very special occasions?
15. Was there an emphasis in your household on making sure you ate enough?
16. Do you come from a culture in which food was scarce and, as a result, eating was believed to assure health and happiness?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Rather they are intended to help you become more aware of how you were raised with relation to food. They are not intended to evoke either blame or self-praise. As a general rule, your food legacy will fall into one of four categories.
1. You were raised in an environment where food was equated with love. Such an environment can create a situation in which you might feel that you are letting someone down if you don't eat all the food she or he has prepared. It can also lead you to use food to process emotions rather than to deal with your feelings directly.
2. You were raised in a restrictive environment where the types and amounts of food you ate were closely monitored by your parents. Often this environment is characterized by dieting and maintaining weight and tends to evoke one of two reactions: either you were comfortable with these restrictions and want the same for your kids, or, once out of your parents' control you rebelled, eating whatever you wanted without regard to nutrition or balance, which could make you uncomfortable with setting limits and establishing parameters around food and eating for your children.
3. You were raised in an environment where one or more of your family members went on restrictive diets and lost weight only later to regain it. Such a legacy may cause you to believe that you are not in control of food, which can then lead to restrictive/binge behavior and yo-yo dieting.
4. You were raised in an environment where meals were enjoyed, a variety of foods was offered, and there was little or no emphasis on how much or how little one should eat of any particular food. Meals usually consisted of a balance among healthy nutritious foods, with an allowance for some sugar or junk food. There was an emphasis on eating for enjoyment instead of a focus on rigidity. This environment is the most likely to produce a healthy attitude toward food and eating.
Whichever environment you were raised in, it is likely that you have internalized your legacy, and that it has subtly but powerfully influenced your present attitudes toward food. It is these internalized, unconscious food attitudes, or what I call tape loops, that can unwittingly influence the way you are dealing with your own kids about food.
What Are Your Tape Loops?
Examining and disrupting your tape loops, those voices in your head fueled by your attitudes toward food and eating, is the next step toward separating your own food attitudes from your children's behaviors. Have you ever heard a voice in your head berating you when you ate that second piece of cake, and then said to yourself, "Now I have really blown it! I am totally off my usual diet, and I better not eat anything tomorrow." The internalized attitude that you don't have control over what or how much you eat helps create the feeling that you have "blown it," leaving you at risk for deciding that the only way to compensate is to not eat anything at all the next day. When you begin to restrict what you eat, you put yourself at risk for creating or continuing a restrict-binge-restrict cycle. What happens with such an attitude? You may eat two, then maybe three pieces of cake, and the chips, and then the cookies, and the ice cream, and whatever other food you deem "bad."
Indeed, experts are now beginning to understand that this negative cycle impacts metabolism and can result in weight gain rather than weight loss. During a binge, the body responds to the influx of food by storing body fat, as if readying itself for a future famine.
This physiologic reaction is the reason why people with a history of yo-yo dieting can end up regaining more weight than they lost. With each attempt to lose weight, they begin to trigger the mechanism that leads to storing more and more fat. Scientific research supports the idea that people who chronically restrict their food intake not only disrupt their metabolism and wind up gaining more weight and a percentage of body fat but also become more preoccupied with thoughts about food. For more on the metabolic impact of yo-yo dieting see Debra Waterhouse's book Outsmarting the Female Fat Cell.
Another tape loop might lead to your needing to feed your children in order to make you feel that you are loving them enough. People who come from backgrounds that emphasized eating as a way to show community within the family as well as love and appreciation for the chef (frequently the mother) often carry tape loops that cause anxiety if a child doesn't eat "enough." They might fear that their children won't be healthy, that their children don't love them, or that they themselves are not being good parents.
These tape loops, as I've said, are a direct result of the internalized messages created by your family food legacy. Consider these four general attitudes toward food:
1. You tend to eat when you are feeling stressed, anxious, bored, lonely, or in need of comfort. You use food to celebrate an event or to reward yourself.
2. You categorize foods as either good or bad, which often causes you to be preoccupied with closely monitoring what you are eating on a daily basis.
3. You feel you don't have control over food or eating; you are prone to dieting and/or restrictive/binge behavior.
4. You don't think about food. You eat when you are hungry, reaching for whatever is around and available. You are not overly concerned with nutrition or eating in moderation because you trust that your body is getting the nutrients it needs for optimal health and well-being.
If your general attitude toward food is characterized by either (1), (2), or (3), you have internalized a negative attitude toward eating, which may in turn be determining how you are dealing with your children's eating behavior. On the other hand, if you feel your attitude is most akin to that described in (4), you more than likely have a healthy, objective way of addressing your children's eating issues. In essence, tape loops whether they voice admonishments to eat more or eat less can interfere with your ability to deal with your children's eating behaviors objectively and clearly. Therefore, you need to become aware of your own tape loops and separate them from your children's behavior with food.
How Your Tape Loops May Be Affecting Your Children
Not surprisingly, there is a direct correlation between how parents treat themselves and how they treat their children: parents who are more relaxed about how they eat will be more relaxed about how their children eat. These parents will also have an easier time if the pediatrician tells them to "back off" when they begin to worry about their toddler who never seems to eat anything, or about their five-year-old who eats only peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Parents usually fall somewhere on a spectrum of attitudes about eating. At one extreme is a very rigid approach toward what foods their kids should eat, and at the other extreme is allowing kids to eat anything that interests them. If you have a hard time forgiving yourself after eating fattening foods, then you might have a hard time relaxing when your children eat those foods, and you might worry if they have days when they eat mostly cake and ice cream. On the other hand, if you are relaxed about food and have never dieted a day in your life, you might not even give a second thought to your child's sugar intake. You might focus on other things, like getting him to sleep so he will wake up feeling fresh in the morning. The more easygoing you are about the way you eat, the easier it will be for you to go with the ebb and flow of your child's eating because you will be confident that his nutritional needs are being met. Indeed, as you will see in chapter four, pediatricians and nutritionists agree that for children nutrition is achieved on a two-week basis, not day to day.
Let's see how flexible or rigid you are about eating, and how that corresponds to your response to your child's eating behavior.
1. Visualize a line that contains four points, A, B, C, and D.
2. Imagine that you are attending your best friend's fortieth birthday party, where your favorite birthday cake is served. You:
A. Look at it and say to yourself, "I am definitely not having a piece; I cannot do that!"
B. Take one piece after deliberating for ten minutes, and it tastes so good that you have another half. You then figure you blew it, so you might as well have three more pieces, and then you move on to eating the other foods you didn't taste because you know you will not have this stuff again starting tomorrow.
C. You eat the piece of cake but spend a lot of the evening feeling fat and thinking about how you shouldn't have done that and you certainly won't have any more fattening food.
D. You have and enjoy the cake, knowing that one piece of cake will not affect your weight.
3. Imagine that your beautiful baby is now ten months old, you are still nursing a bit, and you find that you are also still struggling to lose those last ten pounds. You are really getting fed up with how slowly the weight is coming off. Despite integrating exercise into your schedule, you are noticing that the weight is taking a long time to budge. You:
A. Decide to go on a low-carb, high-protein diet and restrict all fattening foods: you are determined to stay on this for several months, and you do, ignoring all tempting foods.
B. Decide to go on a low-carb, high-protein diet, but then after several weeks start to eat carbs in higher quantities again, spending alternate days bingeing on carbs and then returning to high-protein, no-carb eating.
C. Decide to really diet but end up cutting back just a little on your food intake, all the while feeling mildly guilty and uncomfortable and wishing you could diet better and be more disciplined.
D. Decide that the next ten pounds will most likely come off in time as you stop nursing and return to your usual activities. You continue to have a relaxed attitude about your food intake.
What Your Responses Mean
If most of your answers were As, you are probably quite rigid and used to feeling comfortable with the control you have over food. Controlling your food has quite likely worked for you in the past, but you might have a harder time as your child starts to fight with you over control issues and uses food as a forum for doing this. It is useful to understand your tendency to be controlling because it is possible that your children will detect this trait, especially as they enter the developmental stages in which their main task is to differentiate themselves from you, establish their will, and test their power. At such times, they will most likely use food as an issue or grounds for a fight. It may also be hard for you to figure out how to be less controlling with relation to food.
If you responded mostly with Bs, you are quite likely a chronic dieter who has spent much of your life alternating between eating excessively and restricting your food. If you eat one food more than you'd planned, you have a hard time forgiving yourself; the only way out is to promise yourself that you will restrict your intake tomorrow. You continue eating in this on-and-off-again manner and may have difficulty dealing with those days when your child has been to a birthday party and then the circus and has eaten mainly cake and ice cream. You may feel that you did a terrible job as a parent by allowing this to happen.
If you answered mostly with Cs, you, like most of us, live in a culture that bombards us with the idea that we should feel guilty when we are eating dessert and fattening foods, but you remain relatively relaxed when you do indulge in those foods. You can forgive yourself, because you realize that your generally healthy habits will make up for your day of overeating. You may have a relatively easy time if your child has a day of bad eating, but you will be sure to integrate more healthy meals during the week.
If you answered mostly with Ds, you are probably relaxed about food and diet. You don't really worry much about whether your kids are getting enough nutrition because you trust that you are giving them access to a complete range of foods. You let your children make a lot of their own choices, and it is not stressful for you if they have a day of junk eating.
Rarely do we fall neatly into one category; more often, we float from one to another on the continuum. You may not always be an A or a D, and you may find that you plot yourself somewhere between A and B or between C and D. As you begin to see how flexible or rigid you are with yourself and your kids consider this: the more flexible you are able to be, the more likely it is that your children will learn to make good decisions about food.
Overinvolved, Underinvolved, and Unrealistic Standards
In addition to evaluating how flexible or rigid you are, it is also helpful to see how involved you are in your children's eating behavior. Generally parents deal with their children in one of three ways. Again, you will probably fall somewhere along a spectrum rather than at one extreme or another. Once you figure out where you tend to fall, you will be better able to see how you've been dealing with your kids and their eating behavior:
Are you overinvolved?
Overinvolved parents have a hard time relaxing and not worrying about how their child is eating. They tend to hover and make comments.
Are you underinvolved?
An underinvolved parent tends to ignore his or her child's eating behavior whether the child is always asking for a third helping or seems fixated on losing weight. A parent's underinvolvement often stems from a wish not to replicate her or his own parent's overinvolved behavior, or it can be a result of not having developed the tools to deal with these issues.
Do you have unrealistic standards for how your children should be eating?
A parent who sets unrealistic standards usually does so either because she has set such standards for herself or because she feels guilt and dread at not upholding such standards of "good" eating. Additionally, a parent may have unrealistic ideas about their child's body type, which can, in turn, result in the parent having difficulty accepting that child's natural eating habits.
The Overinvolved Parent
The overinvolved parent usually has not established enough distance between his own food legacy and how he is dealing with his children's eating behavior.
Tom and Nancy are two high-powered lawyers in New York City. They are attractive, bright, and articulate, and both of them are short; he is five six, and she is five two. They came to see me about their five-year-old son, Alex, who they said had almost always been on the low end of the chart for height and weight. (No surprise to me, given their stature.) They were worried that Alex, who had always been an extraordinarily picky eater, was not getting proper nutrition. As a result, there was a great deal of tension in the home, and it was often difficult for them to eat with other families. "All the other kids eat well enough, but our son barely eats anything," Tom said in exasperation.
Not only did Alex hardly eat at all, but he also often insisted on eating the one food he had picked that week. It might be cheese puffs or peanut butter the food of the week varied but he ate only a very small amount and rarely more than one food at a time. Tom and Nancy said they were being pressured by well-meaning friends and relatives to be more strict with Alex. And they also felt stressed by always having to make sure they had Alex's food of the week with them wherever they went. Most important, Tom and Nancy worried that Alex would never get the nutrition he needed, and that he would certainly never learn to eat well.
I asked them what their pediatrician had said in answer to the questions, "Is he on the growth curve? Is he thriving? Does he have energy?" They reassured me that he found Alex to be in perfect health for his size and was not at all worried.
They further described their son as having abundant amounts of energy and told me that he was very involved in sports and hardly ever got sick. We then talked about the foods Alex did eat: while his menu was limited (his diet consisted mainly of soy milk, cheese puffs, peanut butter, apples, and orange juice), it was clear that he was receiving significant protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals all of which are the building blocks of sound nutrition. (You will learn more about specific food requirements in chapter four.) But despite my reassurances that their son was obviously healthy, Tom and Nancy remained concerned and uncomfortable with the fact that Alex ate so little.
I then inquired about their own eating habits as children, asking them if they too had been small kids. Their responses? Yes, they had similar picky eating habits, and yes, they were both small. It quickly became apparent that Tom was very ashamed of how his child ate. When I pressed him a bit, he admitted that Alex reminded him of himself as a child, when he was teased for being small and called "a skinny wimp." Despite all Tom's success as an adult, he still cringed at the idea of his son's being teased and made to feel ashamed, as he had been when he was a child. Additionally, Tom was very sensitive to the judgment of other parents who he thought were being critical of his parenting. Tom felt that they wanted him to simply lay down the law and force Alex to eat the foods that all the other kids were eating. In fact, he had often tried to bully Alex into eating more and admitted that his son ate far less with him than with Nancy.
As we began to work together, it became clear that the first order of business was for both Tom and Nancy to become more comfortable and accepting of both their own food legacies and their issues regarding their son's body type. Once Tom, for example, understood that his son was happy, healthy, and not being teased, he was able to separate Alex's experience from his own past.
If you tend to be overinvolved in your child's eating behavior, you may be turning food into a battleground more often than is necessary. Your concern may be based more on your own food legacy than on your child's actual eating behavior. As a result, you may actually be helping to create a problem when no problem exists. Knowing when to back off and give your child more choice will help take the fight out of food.
As you will see, once parents are able to separate their own food legacies from their children's eating behaviors, they have a much easier time guiding children to eat in a balanced, moderate way from all the food groups which is one of the goals of teaching your kids to eat for life.
The Underinvolved Parent
This next scenario illustrates the challenge of a parent who is underinvolved. Jan is a thirty-five-year-old mother who laughingly calls herself "the obese mom," which is quite ironic, given that she is diminutive and without an ounce of body fat. When she came to consult with me about her overweight son, she told me that when he was born she read the books, felt confident that a child could never overeat, and she did what the books recommended. She laid out a variety of foods on his tray, feeling certain that he would stop eating when he was full.
Jan had a very demanding job, but she trusted her nanny, and her son seemed to be happy and was developing beautifully. What she did not know, however, was that her nanny was constantly feeding him. When he was in the stroller, there was always a bottle in his mouth, and the nanny, an overweight woman herself, was constantly feeding him chocolate bars and cake, giving him the clear signal that food is love.
Jan's son was very attached to the nanny, connected food with love, and soon became a habitual overeater. Jan told me that while she had noticed he was certainly chubby, she figured he was just a large baby. He was thriving, and it was not until when, at the age of three and a half, his pediatrician stated "this child is obese!" that she decided to take action. "That was my wake-up call," Jan explained.
Despite her reluctance to deprive her child of the caregiver he adored, Jan was constantly fighting with the nanny about the way she was feeding him. Jan had even begun to suspect that the woman, while outwardly agreeing with Jan, was sneaking him food. The difficult part, however, was that Jan too equated food with love; to her, being a good mother was nurturing her child with a lot of food. Her mother had been completely uninvolved with her children's meals, and the kids pretty much fed themselves, mostly relying on junk food. So when Jan became a mother, she was determined never to deprive her child of food and to offer him anything he wanted. Although she worried about her nanny's overfeeding of her child, she also saw this as an expression of the nanny's love and concern and doubted her own ability to set up the structure he would need to break his connection between food and love. (See page 207 for more information on how to deal with babysitters, nannies, and other caregivers.)
She also knew that she needed help from someone who would be able to provide the structure she feared. Her solution was to hire a new nanny, who completely changed the household. This new nanny was outraged by the boy's eating habits and believed strongly that children do not need to eat all day long or to constantly have sippy cups of juice at the park. Her attitude was that a child needed to learn to wait, eat at snack and mealtimes, and certainly eat less sugar.
While her advice made sense to Jan, she still had difficulty with what she saw as depriving her son of his favorite treats. As a result of growing up drinking Coke and eating Twinkies, Jan had never learned much about nutrition or about integrating sweets and treats in a balanced way. And never having had a weight problem, she had never been forced to confront the negative effects of eating such sweet, fatty foods.
In fact, as she eventually came to realize, Jan herself had reinforced her son's food-as-love connection. One of her favorite activities had been making cookies with him, after which they'd both eat the batter and then the cookies. Her son also loved this cozy, warm time when Jan was nurturing herself as well as him.
When her new nanny witnessed this cookie-baking activity, she was outraged: "Why on earth would you choose making cookies when your child is overweight?" This was yet another wake-up call for Jan, to see how clearly her own food legacy was impacting her vision of how to be a good mom.
Following the nanny's lead, she began to set up clear standards with regard to eating and to teach her son about nutrition (see chapter four for more information on this). But it was still a struggle. During the first two weeks, while he was withdrawing from sugar, he had headaches, he was cranky, and he had difficulty sleeping. But once he'd broken his attachment to sugar and sweets, he began to eat a variety of foods. Within a year, he had lost twenty-five pounds and matched his percentile for weight. His physician no longer considered him to be overweight.
Jan not only learned how to set limits with her son but also how to talk to him about food and nutrition in a way that he was able to understand and follow. And she realized that, given some choice about when he could have his treat, her son soon became less demanding and learned to incorporate sugar into a healthy diet. (You will find such instructions in chapter four.)
Interestingly, when I asked Jan whether she would have been more concerned about her child's weight in the early years if her child had been a girl rather than a boy, she said vehemently, "Yes! I would never have allowed my daughter to be overweight like that!" Jan's comment is consistent with a general prejudice in our culture: we tend to be much more concerned about girls (and young women) being overweight than boys (and young men).
If you think you are underinvolved in your child's eating behavior, first assess her nutritional intake. Is she getting enough balance in her diet? Does the pediatrician think she is growing consistently in height and weight? Have you begun teaching your child about nutrition, or are you simply hoping that she will figure it out on her own?
These are just some questions that you can use to help you assess your child's eating behavior, especially if you suspect she may be overeating. Again, in part two, you will learn the four steps of eating for life, which will give you tools and exercises to help you become more positively involved in your child's eating behavior.
The Parent with Unrealistic Standards
Not unlike the overinvolved parents, those with unrealistic standards tend to be more restrictive about the foods they want or will allow their children to eat. They are so focused on controlling their child's food intake that they tend to ignore or overlook the child's particular behavior, stage of development, temperament, or eating style.
When Casey came to meet with me for a few sessions, she was very upset about the fact that her seven-year-old son was beginning to put on some weight. In fact, she had already consulted with her pediatrician, who had reassured her that although he was looking a bit "chunkier" than usual (he'd always been a bit stocky but was also muscular and never had much fat), this was typical of boys who were about to enter a growth spurt. The pediatrician then reminded Casey how to provide good nutrition for her son and help him stay away from junk food.
When I asked why the doctor's response hadn't allayed her fears, Casey said, "I have been feeding Ben the healthiest food you could imagine for his whole life. How could he be gaining weight? It's impossible!"
Casey claimed that she gave Ben a lot of freedom to choose the range of foods he wanted at mealtimes and always prepared healthy foods he could have at his disposal in the fridge and the pantry. Up to that point, things seemed to have been working out just fine. So when he began gaining weight, she became very frustrated.
"Could he be eating junk food when he's at other kids' homes or at school?" I asked.
At first Casey was reluctant to admit such a possibility. But when she questioned him afterward, she learned that even though he had completely understood her and her husband's feelings about junk food and sugar and had absorbed their attitudes, he had started to eat these foods outside the house. But why hadn't he told his mother? Simply because he knew it would have upset her. And, as a result, he was also showing signs of feeling ashamed about both his sneaking behavior and his weight gain.
I knew that before we could focus on helping Ben manage his weight, we had to address Casey's own attitude toward her son's eating habits and what his "chunkiness" seemed to mean to her. In other words, before she could deal with Ben's weight gain and his desire to eat junk food, she had to admit that her own food legacy was exacerbating the situation. She then told me that she had been raised by an extremely progressive mom who fed her children organic and health foods, emphasizing this way of eating as a way of life. There had never been a bit of junk food or sugar in their house, and Casey had accepted that rule. In fact the rigidity and structure actually appealed to her temperament, and she had been raising Ben the same way. Further, she herself had never had any problem with overeating or weight gain.
I counseled Casey that she needed to get over worrying that she would be a bad mother and become more flexible about junk food and sugar for the time being, because Ben was, in fact, overeating these foods. I advised her to open up and try to be a bit less rigid about allowing some of these foods in their own house. I also encouraged her to allow her son to experiment with these foods within her sight so that he would feel less guilty about eating something that was forbidden.
Casey then came up with her own parameters: she was comfortable with letting Ben have some junk food, but he had to eat healthy food first. She also found another way to reduce her son's need to overeat these foods outside the home: she designated one dinner a week as Silly Supper, when Ben could decide what he wanted to eat, and she was not allowed to comment on it.
I was also helping Casey teach Ben about nutrition. Although she had always fed him the healthiest of foods, she had never thought about teaching him how or why to care for his own body. Once he understood that Casey respected his own feelings about sugar and junk food, even though they were different from hers, Ben was motivated to listen to what she had to say about nutrition. The more information and freedom Casey gave him, the less he overate, and eventually he stopped asking for snacks from other children.
If you think you may be setting unrealistic standards, you need to take a hard look at your rules and parameters. Are they too rigid? Are they causing your child to sneak or hoard food? If so, try to become more familiar with the essentials of nutrition (see chapter four), so that you will feel more comfortable as you ease into giving your child more responsibility for making choices and decisions.
It's also important that you are honest with yourself about your child's unique body type. Is your son small like Alex? Might this be why he tends to eat so little? Is that painful for you to see because you struggled with your own stature as a child and adult? Is your daughter larger than her brother? If so, do you worry that she will not feel comfortable in her body because you yourself struggled with weight as a child? Does your daughter have a larger frame than you? Are you uncomfortable or nervous that she may be big or overweight?
In order to be realistic about your child's genetic inheritance, you must be honest in assessing your own feelings about your child's body. Are you uncomfortable? Ashamed? Worried? Be frank with yourself; these feelings happen. The important thing is to make sure you understand their connection to your own experience so that you can separate your feelings from the way you communicate with your child.
If you think you may be asking your child to live up to unrealistic standards, you may want to consider how your strictness could be contributing to the difficulty your child is having with following your rules. If a child continues to be unable to meet rigid parameters, she will end up feeling like a failure and have little sense of how to take care of her own body. So try and ease up on yourself and your children and build more Silly Suppers into your routine!
Are You Ready for the Next Step?
Separating your own food legacy from your children's eating behaviors is not always easy. It can be challenging to look at yourself in the mirror and see your own food habits and attitudes. Just know that even though you may not resolve your own food issues right away, you can still help your children learn to have a healthy relationship with food, unfettered by negative tape loops. Essentially, once you are able to be clear and objective in dealing with your kids' eating behavior, you will be able to replace your overinvolvement, underinvolvement, or unrealistic standards with a new attitude by doing three things:
Give up some control.
Give children some freedom to make their own decisions.
Observe your children and separate your feelings and behavior from theirs.
These three objectives require you to be flexible about your kids' relationship with food. You need to trust not only your own ability to teach and guide your children but also your children's innate desire and ability to take care of their own bodies.
The minute our children move from breast milk and formula to solid foods, they become very sensitive to the attitudes we parents have toward food. Without our even realizing it, we broadcast our own preferences, dislikes, and hang-ups loudly and clearly to our children, sending them, often unwittingly, messages that can contradict our intentions. By neutralizing such negative interference, you can and will accomplish the three objectives outlined above.
In the next chapter, you will begin to unravel what may be going on with your children and food by looking at them in terms of their developmental stage and temperament. Within this context, you might find that your children's eating behavior, though annoying or frustrating to you, is indeed perfectly normal for their age. And if you still want to help them change their behavior, you will also find helpful tips on how to make suggestions that are age appropriate.
Copyright © 2005 by Donna Fish