Recently, my post 15 Tips for Raising Kids With a Positive Body Image, has received a lot of comments. I’m so glad people are finding the post and discussing this important topic! I have two follow-up posts: Big Fat Myths About Fat and this one.
Many commenters had problems with #6 and #13 in my list;
- Do not label foods as “good” and “bad”
- Avoid talking about a nutrionalist approach to food – disassembling “food” into fat, carbs, calories, and other things that need to be obsessed about and counted (difficult since it is explicitly taught in many schools).
For example, one commenter said, “I think this is ignorant regarding food options. It is highly important to educate your children about proper food intake & nutrition.”
So, let’s talk about why you don’t want to label foods as good and bad and then I’ll look at if there actually are good and bad foods.
Why You Shouldn’t Call Foods Good/Bad
The dichotomy of Good v. Bad is one that children learn very early on. If you have a preschooler you’ll hear them talk about the good guys and bad guys in tv programs. My daughter has even said “my good” when she helps pick up toys and this is with a very strong intention on my part to NOT label her (or her behavior) as good or bad. When she is “good” I’ll say “thank you! You were so helpful.” And, when she does something “bad” I’d say “If we rip pages out of a book then we can’t read the story any more. Let’s tape it back in.” This isn’t a post about gentle parenting but needless to say labeling kids with value judgments is not a good thing. Even good labels are bad (ha!) for two reasons; 1) kids know the opposite of good. If you say they are good then they know that they have a capability of being bad, and 2) placing a value judgement as vague as good becomes an external pressure on your child. If you want to read more about this concept you can start here.
What does this have to do with food? Before we can get there we need to look at another aspect of child development called moral reasoning. The pyramid on the left is Kohlberg’s Six Levels of Moral Development. Children start at the bottom self-preservation and move up to adult moral reasoning at the top. Up to age 10 children fall into the three lowest levels while middle schoolers tend to be very black and white in a “law and order mentality” it is only in the later teen years (or older) that principled morality, recognizing shades of gray, is developed.
A young child can clearly understand good and bad based on the effect it has on those around them but they can not differentiate between a good person and a bad deed. The idea that the bad guy on Monday can do something very good on Tuesday is too complex. You are either good OR bad.
When you say “Twinkies are bad” and your child thinks, “I think Twinkies taste good and Twinkies are bad therefore I must be bad.” And, even worse, “well I’m bad so I might as well just eat bad foods.”
And don’t think just sticking to good works! If you say “fruits and vegetables are good” they are going to deduce that other foods are bad. AND they won’t eat their veggies. Oh, and don’t think trading another word works. Kids know the opposite of healthy is unhealthy and the connotation intended.
It is too important to me that my kids develop a self-image that is positive for me to label them even indirectly.
But Twinkies ARE Bad!
Twinkies are horrible. They aren’t even food they are “food-like substances”. I don’t want my kids to eat Twinkies. I want them to eat fruits and veggies and lean protein, etc. The fear is that if you don’t scare your kids with “DOOM for all Twinkie eaters!!” then they will eat nothing but Twinkies forever and ever.
But the opposite is true: Research has shown that creating forbidden foods actually increases poor eating habits in kids (see twinkies are bad therefore I must be bad above). Other studies have shown that authoritative feeding styles in caregivers increases children’s consumption of healthy foods.
How To Encourage Healthy Eating Without Labeling
Authoritative Feeding is a style of parenting the eating relationship with the ultimate goal being your child making healthy food choices. Parent-controlled feeding (Authoritarian Feeding) has the opposite of desired effects (as in the forbidden food research). If your goal is to make your child a good choice maker then you need to give them choice. There are 3 great ways to do this:
1. Have a Division of Responsibility.
You are responsible for providing options, a place, and a time to eat. Your child is solely responsible for what they eat and how much. SOLELY RESPONSIBLE. That means stop with the nagging or commenting on how much they eat or what choices they made. Remember that children learn food likes and dislikes through nurture not nature. They eat what they see eaten; what they see served.
2. Provide Choice.
With young kids a choice between two things is best. ”Do you want an apple or grapes for snack?” This gives them control over their food choices. A caveat here that drives some parents batty: kids waste food. My daughter eats half an apple a day…and leaves the other half to rot. This drives my husband crazy! But what are you going to do? Tell them they can’t have an apple for snack? Yell at them to finish their apple? Anything you can do is counter intuitive You could maybe give a sliced apple but my daughter likes to eat whole ones like a big girl. I chalk up wasted food to the cost of raising a healthy eater. Let it go.
3. Give Trust and Control When Possible.
I recommend having a “junk food” stash that your kids can get to. Talk to them about how much candy they should be eating in a day (negotiate don’t tell) and then let them decide when to eat it. With little kids it might be a “now or later” choice but as they get older it can be a weeks worth of candy that they are responsible for. They can binge in one hour or make it last all week. Little kids and those new to this control will always choose NOW and ALL but they won’t forever. They will learn to delay gratification, space out treats, and trust their gut. Stick firm to the limit and discuss the choice they made (“honey, you ate your candy for today this morning. Maybe tomorrow you want to make a different decision and keep some for after dinner?”).
But Are Some Foods Bad?
A Twinkie really is a bad food in my book because it isn’t food at all. I’d rather make a fattening, sugary confection from real food and let my kids eat it than to let them eat a bunch of chemicals disguised as food. My kids will learn from me about chemical dyes, artificial flavors, etc. That is much more important to me than their ability to count calories or fat grams. Humans can learn to trust their eating instincts – you won’t eat yourself to death with butter – but chemicals are like any drug in that they trick your body into thinking you need that non-food. I trust humans but not drugs and that’s what food-like substances are.
I still won’t use labels of good and bad, and with all my kids being under 4, I don’t talk about this explicitly much but I will as they get older. And even then, I will trust them to make their own choices. (as long as they don’t have a dangerous sensitivity) I will let my kids pick the Twinkie if that is the choice they make. Why? Because I’m not afraid. Because bad foods don’t make bad people. Because they love apples and eating is joy for them not a landmine field. But mostly because their relationship with eating is so much more important than what they eat.
This concludes my follow-ups to the original article. I know that our culture is firmly entrenched in;
a. fat is unhealthy
b. shame helps people get skinny
c. losing weight is easy with diet and exercise
so I’m probably not going to change anyone’s mind with three posts. However, if you look at the research I’ve linked to and maybe read a few books you will see that the evidence is overwhelming in favor of intuitive eating and against the dangerous mentality we currently have toward food. I hope I’ve piqued your interest to learn more.