…You can’t have any pudding!” This famous line would have some kids throw a brick in the wall of dinner time!
Some parents struggle too: “Dinners are hell in my family. My husband and I disagree on how to handle the kids, he is so strict! Our children have to sit down until they have eaten everything that’s on their plate. It can go on for hours. It is even worse now that our youngest son is showing strong abilities in soccer. It appears like my husband wants to engineer our son’s body. In most decision-making regarding our children we both have a say, but dinnertime has become his battle. I just don’t know how to get him into a conversation so he can see what he is doing. I would like us to enjoy mealtimes”, K. told me.
I often talk to parents who disagree on how to handle a fussy eating child. However it always surprises me to hear about a young parent being autocratic. The number of parents who use this parenting style has dropped substantially in the last 50 years, but they still are out there. Tough-love parenting, as it is sometimes named, is associated with exerting control over children. The autocratic parent has full power and may make new rules at will without any explanations.
It is easy to imagine how this can translate, but also escalate at mealtime. “Finish what’s on your plate!”. “Peas are not going to kill you, just eat”. “You will stay seated until you finish your carrots.” I think it is a mistake to assume that we can or even should control what children ingest and how much. Some of the research shows that this is associated with higher rates of obesity in adulthood. It is not conducive to raising competent eaters.
When it comes to young athletes it is important to consider the impact that controlled feeding may have in the long term. When Gymnastics America’s abuse scandal surfaced, many gymnasts told their story of being food-deprived for years. Many developed eating disorders as a result. It may help to talk to a sensible sport-dietitian. One who values non-diet and body positive counselling.
The research says there are 4 styles of parenting and we may oscillate between the 4. Yet it remains difficult to communicate to a partner that you feel uneasy about their parenting style. They may think that they are right and that you are wrong.
You could aim to have a conversation about both your wishes when it comes to parenting. Don’t we wish we had done this before the children came along? You could talk about how you were parented. You could make a list of what are children’s acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. You could establish what your children’s needs may be at mealtime. Understanding children’s and parents’ needs is key to solving difficulties.
One avenue could be to enrol for a parenting course, together or on your own.
On your own you may learn ways to accept your partner’s parenting style, together you may both discover how you parent and why. Thomas Gordon was a clinical psychologist who developed the “Parent Effectiveness Training” P.E.T. course. He simply noted that we are not trained to parent and offered a set of communication skills to help parents create healthy family relationships.
I was talking to Judith Richardson, an experienced P.E.T. instructor who tells me: “Parents feel terrible about yelling at their children. They soon realise that misusing power over a child is not going to change the child’s behaviour. Of course you cannot coerce your partner into taking the course. P.E.T. becomes a new set of values which will support you and make you feel better about your parenting. It’s OK to each have your own parenting style. It gives children a wide experience. Each parent has a unique relationship with their child.”
Parents who do the course will learn to develop active listening skills. They will aim for a no-lose conflict resolution approach for all involved. As they reconcile their needs and that of their children, they veer toward a more democratic style of parenting, which can help children develop emotional intelligence and resilience.
Mealtimes are an underestimated area of parenting. It can be very challenging, meal after meal, day after day. I view parenting as a very important aspect of what I do. Children who freak out at the sight of a plate of peas, need supportive parenting to overcome difficulties. Parents educate best when they understand their child’s needs, when they give room to their child for resolving challenges. Children learn best when they are relaxed and allowed to progress at their own pace.
I hope this gives you food for thought K, as you navigate these challenging times. As you learn new skills and gain confidence your partner may come along. Hopefully down the track we can all work together toward raising confident eaters.
If you have a fussy eating question you can write to firstname.lastname@example.org
 Have autocratic Parenting Practices and Roles Changed in the Last 50 Years?
First published: 03 July 2014 https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12124
 Front. Psychol. 14 December 2015
Shloim, L. Edelson, N. Martin, M. Hetherington
Parenting Styles, Feeding Styles, Feeding Practices, and Weight Status in 4–12 Year-Old Children: A Systematic Review of the Literature
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