One of the fascinating aspects of being a feeding therapist that works with children in their homes is that I get to see first-hand the variations in parenting styles.
One particular family was memorable because both parents were security guards and they seemed to bring an element of their jobs to the family dinner table. They contacted me because their 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, wasn’t gaining weight and was a “very picky eater.” When I arrived at their home, both Mom and Dad were completely engaged with their little girl, all three laughing and playing together on the living room floor.
Interestingly, the atmosphere shifted the moment everyone sat down at the table. There was practically no conversation except to announce what was for dinner and how much the little girl was expected to eat “Remember to eat all your corn, Elizabeth,” her father stated. The parents watched over her vigilantly and occasionally reminded her to “keep eating.” When the couple had finished their meal, and Elizabeth was staring at her not-so-empty plate, her father reprimanded her for “not eating her corn…again.” Noteworthy to me was the fact that both parents felt the need to set stringent eating rules, enforce them and remind Elizabeth if she did not follow dinner time guidelines. Clearly, their concern for her growth and nutrition were in the forefront of their minds, but why did they feel this directive style of parenting was going to be helpful? What happened to those engaged, interactive parents I had just witnessed playing so beautifully with their little girl in the living room?
Parenting styles evolve over time and are dependent on not only the child’s temperament, but the parent’s personalities as well. We’ve all learned certain parenting practices from the way we were raised and adjust those over time as our relationships with our own children changes. As I got to know this nice couple better in the course of feeding therapy, I learned they both had grown up in very commanding households. Their authoritarian nature at the dinner table (interestingly the same attitude needed in their jobs) was exactly how they were raised years ago. “It must be the right thing to do” they reasoned, because “they ate just fine” and had no memories of mealtimes being a struggle while growing up. Still, these parents recognized that the watch-dog approach wasn’t a good fit with their daughter’s hesitant eating style. For the naturally adventurous eater, this works because there really is nothing to enforce if the child is an eager eater anyway.
Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist, identified three different types of parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive. Many parents shift in style according to specific events or the environment, being more permissive in certain settings and stricter in others. This particular family adopted stricter rules with high expectations for eating vegetables and finishing what was served, requiring young Elizabeth to accept their rules without discussion. Authoritarian parents leave a child with very little room for independent decision making and responding to internal cues (e.g. lack of hunger) to drive personal behavior (e.g. eating corn).
While the authoritarian style lies at one end of the parenting spectrum, the permissive parent (otherwise known as the child’s best friend) lies at the other. Permissive parents set very few limits. In my practice, permissive parents let kids graze on whatever the kids want to eat, all day, any day. While nurturing and loving, these parents avoid conflict with their kids and are comfortable indulging the child’s whims, as long as their kiddo is happy. They become short order cooks, justifying their own behavior by saying “Just make her chicken nuggets again – at least she’ll eat them!”
In the middle of the spectrum lies authoritative parenting, characterized by parents who set safe boundaries for their children while providing opportunities for their kids to make autonomous decisions. This parent prepares healthy meals for children, presents the food in a relaxed manner and allows the child to listen to internal cues to determine how much they need to eat. Authoritative parents align best with Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility model characterized by these guidelines: The parent is responsible for what, when and where food is served and the child is responsible for how much they will eat and whether they eat it at all. Parents provide structure and opportunities to explore food while modeling healthy eating.
What type of parent are you at the dinner table? Do you adopt a different style away from family meals? Take a close look at what’s working in your relationship with your child throughout the day and consider why those moments feel comfortable and relaxed. Are the outcomes what you desire as a parent, helping your child navigate life within safe perimeters? Perhaps those moments are when you’re an authoritative parent and with some flexibility, you can adapt your style to other moments in the day.