Friday, November 30, 2012

Food and consequences

One place where If I Have to Tell You One More Time did not part ways with Parenting with Love & Logic (even though I really wish they would have) was on the subject of losing meal privileges. There are a couple things I am hypersensitive to. One is spanking kids (full disclosure, it is way more important that you are loving and consistent as a parent, than you refrain from spanking your kid. But I still feel very, very strongly about never spanking my kids.) Another is feeding kids (full disclosure, eating disorders are way more complicated than how you structure your family meal times; in fact, I doubt anybody has even studied such a nuance of family life as a risk factor. But still.) 

I feel very strongly that kids are born with an innate sense of hunger and satiety and that it is our job as parents to support their autonomy in that area. That doesn't mean we let them call all the shots when it comes to food. It is our responsibility to provide healthy options, to structure meals as a positive/family time, to model healthy eating, etc. But it is their right and responsibility to eat.  

On a day-to-day basis that means, first and foremost, I respect their satiety; so no “clean the plate club.” My kids are full? They can and should stop eating. Conversely, I respect their hunger. If they are hungry, they can eat. If it isn't a regular meal time, I just try to offer healthy snacks (apples, carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, etc.). Or if they get hungry after a dinner that they didn't finish, they can eat more of that dinner. {The only time I am allowed to override these feelings of hunger/fullness is when they have a stomach bug.} Teaching a child to ignore their own feelings is always risky. Whether those feelings are emotional or physical, they are still providing important information that we should listen to.

I feel VERY uncomfortable using food as a consequence; e.g., you are misbehaving? Then you are done eating until the next meal. Do I think they will starve to death? Obviously not. But do I worry that they will learn that food can be used as leverage to control people or situations to get what you want? Yes. And the danger is that a crux of eating disorders involves using food as a means of asserting control. And I think that the notion that food/eating can be used to establish control over anything besides your hunger is a terrible lesson. 

If a kid is misbehaving at the table, I try to take a more tailored approach. You are eating really slowly? (an example used in If I Have to Tell You One More Time) you might end up finishing up alone and clearing your own plate (instead of I take it out from under you). You are banging your fork? You lose your utensils. You are playing with your food? You lose your plate. But only for a determined amount of time that would get progressively longer for repeat offences. I like to think of it as a being analogous to graduated extinction versus rapid extinction. It might not get the results as quickly, but it feels a lot gentler {full disclosure, I've used rapid extinction sleep training}. In the case of food, the lesson is, "I'm not going to let you continue that behavior" instead of, "I'm not going to let you eat."

Update: by popular demand (just kidding, only two people asked), I wanted to mention my thoughts on asking for food as a bed-time-delaying tactic. I hate this because I feel like there is no answer I feel really good about. But two things that worked for me were giving a last call for unfinished dinner before the girls brushed their teeth. And if I forgot to do a last call, sometimes just saying, "you'll have to brush your teeth again." was deterrent enough. But yeah, that's not fun.


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