Subjecting children to shame, fear, and guilt is a societal norm that I’m desperately trying to abolish. The negative outcomes are numerous. But when shame, fear, and guilt are tied to food, it creates a uniquely tragic situation.
What we say and do to children around food causes mental, emotional, and physical ripples. Depending on the frequency and severity, these ripples can become tsunamis that cause tragic destruction in a child’s life as they enter adulthood. The consequences range from minor disordered eating habits that people struggle with for decades to full blown eating disorders that lead to hospitalization or worse.
The unfortunate stories are not uncommon. I’ve talked to thousands of people about this. Most adults with disordered eating habits were regularly subjected to shame and guilt as children. And people who end up with full blown eating disorders will tell you that the eating disorder started around puberty. In the worst cases, well before that.
Disordered eating habits and clinical eating disorders don’t just happen. They’re symptoms of trauma — trauma that the vast majority of children in today’s society are subjected to routinely (not just at meal time, by the way). Some deal with it better than others, but the goal is to eradicate it.
The following is a list of 11 eating messages that are extremely common. They might seem innocent at first glance, but they have profound implications. If you want to create a better outcome for your children, cross check this list and work to make improvements.
“You didn’t eat enough. Take a few more bites and you can be done.”
Children are younger than you. They’ve been interacting with society for far fewer years than you have. Do you know what that means?
It means you’re more broken than they are. It means that their body still works in ways that yours might not. For example, they’re better able to determine when they’re hungry and when they’re full.
Telling a child, “You didn’t eat enough” is the same as telling them, “Don’t listen to your body, listen to me instead.”
Even if the child hasn’t eaten much at all, it’s not up to you. The need for food is programmed into their nature. If they’re hungry, they’ll eat. It’s perfectly normal for children to go days without eating much. That will often be followed by periods of abnormally large consumption.
Since nobody has insight into their current state of cellular nutrition, the current rhythm of their growth and development, or a detailed list of their activity intricately matched with the corresponding caloric need based on their height, weight, and genetics, I’d say nobody is qualified to determine how much they need to eat except them.
Trust your child and they’ll learn to trust themselves. Interfere, and they’ll lose the ability to listen to their body (like many adults have).
“Clean your plate (there are starving children in Africa).”
Even worse than egging your children on to take a few more bites is the arbitrary rule set by many families that plates must be clean before children are dismissed (always watch out for authoritarian language — it’s a symptom that someone is being manipulated) from the table.
This is a catastrophe.
First of all, the reason there’s an obesity and preventable disease epidemic is that we’re part of the first era that’s facing an evolutionary mismatch: a complete abundance of food that takes little to no effort to acquire. On top of that, 80% of the food didn’t exist 100 years ago. It’s food that’s breaking our bodies.
We’re not developmentally prepared to deal with this. Our bodies are programmed for specific types of food. On top of that, it’s programmed for dealing with famine.
Carrying that programming into a society where food is available around the clock — most of which we’re not designed to metabolize — is a dangerous proposition. Add to that the reality that movement has decreased to a level that’s pathological and what you have is a perfect storm of obesity and disease.
Instead of preparing children for this by teaching them what real food looks like, how to connect with that food, and how to listen to their bodies, we’re choosing manipulation. We’re teaching forced overconsumption and using the tragic stories of people in a country they’ve never been to as a guilt manipulator.
Waste not, want not!
No. Our kids deserve better.
“If you do/don’t do [task], you can/can’t have [treat].”
It’s popular to use food as punishment or reward. This can be for eating some other food, like vegetables, or for other tasks like cleaning your room, getting good grades, or achieving some other accomplishment.
Your goal is to get a great behavior to continue or to diminish an undesirable behavior. I get it. But there’s a better approach than using the reward/punishment system.
We have to be careful with how we try to accomplish our goals (that’s the underlying theme of this entire site, by the way). “Doing what’s best” for our children often means that we’re doing what WE think is best. When it comes to raising children, the ends do not justify the means because the means have massive consequences on developing human beings.
“…good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.” ~ Albert Camus
The punishment/reward paradigm is a form of mental and emotional manipulation that erodes intrinsic motivation wherever its employed. Using food within this strategy is just taking the damage to a whole new level.
With food, the reward mindset becomes programmed to a greater degree than other types of rewards. Food has a direct influence on the reward centers of the brain and is difficult to break free from.
Aside from that, using the strategy in the context of dessert in exchange for eating real food (“eat your veggies and you can have dessert!”) creates a warped good vs bad mentality. Nutritionally poor and metabolically destructive food becomes the prize (good) while wholesome, nourishing food becomes the chore (bad).
Lastly, you’re creating an automatic over-eating situation. If a child is full, but has “done the work” of eating the veggies, there’s no way they’ll forego dessert now because they earned it.
There’s so many negatives to this type of manipulation and no positives other than the short-term feeling of accomplishment if your child agrees to the manipulation and eats his veggies today. And it makes it harder to get them to eat healthy tomorrow, especially if there’s no prize.
You’re creating a laundry list of long-term consequences for short-term cooperation or the appearance of healthy eating. That’s a losing tradeoff.
“Your brother is eating it, why aren’t you?”
The comparison game is popular, but it’s shame and guilt city.
Really, it’s nothing more than a cop out. You don’t know how to get your child to eat something healthy (or to eat at all) so you resort to showing one child how deficient they are compared to another based on an arbitrary measure of who is eating what or how much.
That’s not your intention, but it’s how the child feels when she’s compared. It fosters sibling rivalry (something parents always complain about) and is unproductive, based purely on manipulation of emotions.
It’s also hypocritical. Are you suggesting that you love what all other adults love? Are you suggesting that you’re always hungry when other adults are hungry and full when they’re full?
Let me give you a real world example of why this is shaming and disrespectful.
My wife hates fish but my daughter loves it. I’d love for my wife to eat fish a few times a week because it’s healthy. But I would never turn to my wife and say, “your daughter is eating fish, why aren’t you?”
A general rule of thumb is: if you wouldn’t say something to another adult, think twice before saying it to your child. It’s probably a good sign that what you’re about to say is shaming or disrespectful. If you want to raise respectful kids, disrespecting them is a surefire way to fail.
“You don’t like it? Boy, you certainly are picky!”
This statement is another lapse in understanding that children are individual people with unique preferences. But this time, we’re using the labeling game to manipulate them with shame.
Labels, by the way, tend to backfire. Badly. You think that by labeling kids, they’ll realize that they’re acting “strangely” and change their ways.
Almost always, the child becomes exactly what you label them if it’s a negative label and the opposite of what you label them if it’s a “positive” label. Probably because feeling abnormal doesn’t suddenly make you act normal. And that presupposes that “acting normal” is right, much less authentic.
If you label a child “picky,” they won’t miraculously start trying new things, they’ll get pickier. If you label them “smart,” they’ll actually reduce their effort and risk and fall short of their potential. If you label a child “shy,” they won’t suddenly gain the confidence to open up and talk to everyone, they’ll withdraw further. Get it?
Labeling is manipulation based on hoping your child will conform to your expectations. Or, it’s a tool that helps you save face in public or that helps you try to dictate other people’s reactions. “Oh, she’s a picky eater (which is why she’s not eating the food you gave her — please don’t think less of me or be upset/sad/etc. because my child didn’t eat your food!)”
Worse, the child might be picky because you’ve used other shame and guilt tactics on them in the past. So you’ve created the outcome you’re now shaming them for. Can you quantify how tragic that is?
So, it’s never about the child is it? It’s not about having the child’s best interest in mind, it’s about having the parent’s best interest in mind. Or a stranger’s best interest in mind. It takes the full weight of your baggage and drops it squarely in your child’s lap.
That’s not fair. It’s not respectful. It’s not authentic.
This isn’t about you. It’s not about your mom. It’s not about your boss. It’s not about your friend. It’s not about the cook at a the restaurant. Your child is your number one priority.
“You’re such a great eater!”or “Good job, you ate [new food].”
When your children do things you’re happy with or proud of, the urge to state your approval creeps in, doesn’t it?
It does for me too. But it’s important to withhold these comments because they interfere with intrinsic motivation. What’s happening is that you’re levying your own judgements and assessments on the child.
When this happens, the child is robbed of the opportunity to judge and assess themselves. It also turns their focus to praise-seeking rather than behaving in ways they naturally enjoy or avoiding things they naturally oppose.
We already talked about reward manipulation using dessert or treats. If you offer a cookie as a reward for eating vegetables or for cleaning their plate, or anything else for that matter, that creates negative outcomes. But get this: your verbal praise is like a verbal cookie.
Soon, they’ll be eating a certain amount or certain foods simply for your approval. “If I don’t eat all of this or eat [this particular food] my mom won’t be happy with me. It won’t be a good job.” Even worse, they may fear other manipulative language that usually follows, such as the bribery and other shame tactics in this list.
Instead of focusing on food, they’re now focusing on your approval or disapproval. They’re not listening to their body, they’re aiming to please. Often, that means acting against what their body is telling them. Yet, as adults, we wish we could consistently listen to our bodies and leave food on the plate, don’t we?
So, is your goal for them to please you or to nourish and trust their body? If it’s the latter, then your assessments are interfering with your goals for them. Besides, it’s demeaning. You wouldn’t go to lunch with your coworker and then say, “Great job Dan, you ate all your food! You’re such a good eater!”
If children knew how to respond to this, they’d probably say, “Yes, I did. I was hungry. That’s what hungry people do. Can we stop talking about my eating habits now, I’m feeling really scrutinized.”
“I bet some [treat] would make that all better.”
I was at a park the other day with my daughter and a boy who was probably around two years of age tripped and fell. He mostly caught himself, but his face hit the ground a bit and he started crying.
The mom picked him up and started talking to him. The dad promptly swooped in with a bag of crackers, using the food to distract the child, hoping he’d quickly shift gears.
This is all too common. Crying children trigger adults. It’s uncomfortable and parents try everything to quiet it: “shhhhh…you’re okay,” or “here’s some [treat],” or even worse, “it’s not that bad, stop being a baby.”
Food isn’t just used to stop crying, it’s used to numb all kinds of pain. Treats are offered to children when they’re frustrated, sad, or recovering from some sort of trauma. Parents take kids for ice cream after they get a cast on a broken arm or give “boo boo treats” to “make kids feel better.”
The question is, what are the repercussions of this strategy?
One of the biggest issues facing society is emotional eating. Rather than eating when we’re hungry, we’re eating to dull pain. Where do you suppose we learned that fancy technique?
If you give a child food to distract from pain or distress, you’re creating a future adult who uses food to do the same. It may seem to help at the time and it might help you feel better, but it’s doing your child a great disservice.
Tears happen for a reason. Pain needs to be felt, not numbed. One of the greatest gifts you can give your child is a safe shoulder to cry on. And no, they don’t need to “grow up” and “get over it” anymore than you do when you’re hurting.
“Don’t eat that, it’s bad for you.”
A lot of my Total Body Reboot clients come to me stuck in the paradigm of good food and bad food. Diets are based on this paradigm as well.
While it’s true that some foods are nutritionally rich and some are nutritionally poor, that’s not the only way to measure food. Everything has to be put in context and we have to explore the why behind certain behaviors and labels.
What’s the goal of labeling a food bad? Is it to teach your child what healthy food is? Is it to program them to not eat something? What is it?
If your goal is to teach them what healthy food is, calling foods good and bad is a poor way to do it. That’s not education, it’s just labeling.
If your goal is to program them to not eat something, labeling is a poor choice here as well. Even adults can’t adhere to these labels, right? So why should we expect kids to?
What is effective?
With adults, I’ve been very effective with changing their relationship with food and then showing them how certain foods make them feel.
When humans connect the dots between how certain foods make them feel, they’re intrinsically motivated to include rich foods and shun poor foods.
That can’t happen until the connection is re-programmed. Almost everyone who is currently overweight or otherwise unhealthy is deaf to the immediate consequences of their food choices.
By the way, this doesn’t mean that you never eat candy or ice cream or gluten. It just means that you naturally limit these things in your life and don’t engage in the shaming and power struggle mindset when you do choose to enjoy a dessert or treat.
The same paradigm can be created for children. Actually, it must be created for children. I talked earlier about the evolutionary mismatch they’re facing. If your child doesn’t have a healthy relationship with food, our food supply will absolutely make them sick and eventually kill them.
Here’s how you use a fork. Sit up straight. Put your left hand in your lap. Put your feet on the floor. Cut your food this way. Chew with your mouth closed. For heaven’s sake child, get it together.
Parents often obsess over etiquette because of an underlying fear that their children will eat like savages if never “taught” to do otherwise.
Or, the parent is embarrassed because they care so much about what other people think. “If my kid doesn’t shape up, these other restaurant patrons will think I’m raising a neanderthal.”
There’s no faster way to destroy a child’s relationship with food than through shame, rule setting, and an obsession over etiquette that no child is interested in.
Here’s the deal: your child won’t eat like a savage when they’re older unless you eat like one. They’ll learn these things through osmosis.
Besides, they probably will have enough self-respect to eat decently on their own. I don’t know any 16 year old who wants to put their hand in the soup bowl and lather tomato basil all over their face and mouth. Just because your 3 year old does that doesn’t mean they’ll still do it later without your intervention.
Eating isn’t quantum physics. No education is necessary to “get it.” Besides, there’s far more important things to account for with kids and food that DO matter.
If there are one or two things your child hasn’t picked up on by the time they’re 10 or 12 or so, you can easily guide them to make those adjustments at that time. No shame or guilt necessary.
“Eat whatever you want, whenever you want.”
I threw this one in to cover the flip side of the coin: complete permissiveness.
Permissive parenting is just as damaging as authoritarian parenting. Instead of manipulative, ineffective leadership it’s absent, ineffective leadership.
Your child desperately wants an authentic leader to show them around this strange, scary, and crazy world. They don’t want you to train them the way you’d train your dog and they don’t want you to completely cut them loose and allow them to walk all over you and everyone else.
This is important to mention because alternative parenting methods are always attacked with this false dichotomy. “If you don’t show kids who’s boss, they’ll walk all over you!”
The truth is that you can — and should — reject both authoritarian parenting and permissive parenting. Neither serve you (in the long run) or the child. Authenticity is the third option and authentic leadership means having clear boundaries and limits.
Just because you’ve decided not to manipulate a child in order to get them to eat healthy (or do whatever), doesn’t mean you’re going to watch them eat cake and ice cream for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Exploring your options further for achieving a win-win is beyond the scope of this article, so for now realize that permissiveness is not a viable option, much less the goal.
“Wow, I was bad tonight. I’m going to have to workout extra tomorrow.”
This isn’t something you say to your child is it? It’s on the list because it’s critical that you realize that you’re always teaching, even if you’re not speaking directly to your child.
Dozens of my Total Body Reboot clients have recounted how they watched their mom or dad look at themselves in the mirror with disgust, step on the scale and immediately tear themselves down, or talk incessantly about their body at meal time. This is partially why they’re struggling with their own weight and body image issues decades later.
How you talk to yourself is just as important as how you talk to your kids. So this quote is representative of all of the negative things you say about your eating and your body in front of them.
You’re a parent that cares deeply about doing the absolute best you can. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be reading this. So realize that you can change how you speak to your children and make great progress, but if you don’t change how you speak to yourself it’s still going to leave a deep scar on them.
Okay, I’m guilty. So, what do I do now?
If you’ve used some of the phrases and tactics in this list, my first recommendation would be to take a deep breath and avoid shaming yourself. As I’ve said before and I’m sure I’ll say again, all that matters is what you’re willing to do to change the future.
The second thing I’d recommend is to apologize to your children. Yes, seriously.
You’re not perfect. Nobody is. And when you make a mistake with your children, you owe them an apology just the same as when you make a mistake with another adult.
Side note: by apologizing to them, you’re teaching them how to apologize when they’re wrong in the future. You’re modeling healthy behavior. That’s a giant leap forward.
Third, explain to them why you now realize that what you said was a mistake and vow to use healthier language and leadership in the future. Then take baby steps toward making those changes.
If you tend to say these things without thinking them through, it might help to set an audio recorder on the table or in the kitchen to record yourself and then play it back later. This way, you can really hear what you sound like when you interact with your children.
If you need help or if I was unclear at any point, I’d love to hear your thoughts and questions in the comments section below.