Psychologic Dynamics of Feeding: The Role of Parental Behavior
Feeding gives infants, toddlers, and older children an opportunity to practice using No by using a primary feeding relationship concept: division of responsibility. The child is thus allowed to be in charge of how much he or she eats of the food that is offered--and even whether the child eats at all. Feeding also gives a parent the opportunity to practice accepting the No.
More important, however, is the parent's reaction when the toddler uses No by not eating a particular food or not eating any of the food. In general, parents react to this situation in one of three ways:
by accepting and supporting the child's choice;
by pressuring or forcing the child to eat the food; or
by withdrawing from the child emotionally.
If a parent withdraws emotionally because of hurt feelings, the child learns that he or she will pay a price for using No: The child will lose his or her emotional connection to a very important person in her life. This consequence is a big price to pay. Parents who force their children to eat teach them that they will pay a different price: They will be treated with disrespect while experiencing the powerlessness of their No.
These parental responses teach a child that eating the food is more important to the parent than the child's feelings. The child learns that using No is not safe and that this No is likely to be ignored. This early, perceived lack of support for the child's use of No can adversely affect his or her use of and trust in this important life skill. In contrast, by allowing their children to refuse to eat certain foods or to refuse to eat when not hungry, parents give their children permission and support for acting in a way that shows love of self.
By accepting their children's refusal to eat a particular food at a particular time or their lack of a big appetite at a particular meal, parents send the message not only that using No is okay in this family but also that you can use No and still be loved in this family. This method of parenting is powerful because it builds within children a deeper sense of connection with their parents as well as internal beliefs that differ from those of children whose No is ignored or overridden. A child whose parents accept No will later be much more likely to feel comfortable saying No to something that is not good for the child.
Equally important, the division of responsibility provides an opportunity for the child to learn to accept No. When a parent allows the child to eat only at (and not between) snacktime and at meals, the parent is using No with the child. Children must learn to accept No from a parent while maintaining a healthy relationship with that parent. Of course, developing this acceptance and its associated behavior takes repeated practice; it cannot be learned overnight.