Most parents teach their kids to lie about food and eating. Not intentionally, of course.
No one wakes up one morning and says, “Right, it’s time to turn Lucy into a liar.” But our cultural obsession with nutrition puts enormous pressure on parents to get the right nutrients into their kids, and that pressure makes most parents resort to a host of tactics that don’t exactly open the lines of communication.
Under the watchful eyes of pediatricians (and sometimes at their behest), parents resort to bribing, begging, bartering and conning to get calcium, protein and other nutrients into their children.
Research shows these tactics are only marginally successful at getting kids to eat more peas. They are wildly successful, though, at teaching kids the lesson that healthy foods are necessary but undesirable, and unhealthy foods are really desirable. Period.
In their pursuit of desirable foods—sweets and treats, chicken nuggets, macaroni and cheese, etc.—children learn to lie.
They’re motives aren’t malicious. Children know they have to satisfy (or avoid) their parents to get the job done, and so they resort to the tools they have. Kids lie about food and eating in two different ways.
- Kids lie about what they’re eating when we’re out of sight. (Lest you think this is a problem that plagues only older children, let me bear witness to the fact that even 3 year olds are capable of cramming chocolate into their mouths when they think you’re not looking. I once walked in on two tots crouched upside down on the couch—faces buried in the crevices, butts in the air— doing the dirty deed. I’m certain they would have denied everything had I not caught them red-, rather, chocolate-handed.)
- Kids lie about their hunger and food preferences by relying on two statements, “I don’t like it,” and “I’m not hungry, “ when they mean other things such as: “It looks weird, and I’m scared to try it,” or “I’d rather play than eat.”
Though most parents probably think the first kind of lie is the more serious offense, I would argue it’s the second sort that’s driving much of the current childhood obesity epidemic.
When your kids lie about what they eat in their wanderings away from the nest, they’re trying to scam you, but they still know the truth. When your kids lie about their hunger and food preferences, however, they start out trying to trick you, but they end up deceiving themselves.
As a result, kids not only end up craving (and eating) more high calorie, nutritionally anemic foods (Lie #1), but they also start to become confused about their food preferences and hunger (Lie #2).
Self-deception at an early age might seem harmless, but the consequences are real.
Research shows that overweight and obese adults often habitually eat foods they don’t really like, and that they have trouble discerning physical from emotional hunger. When do these eating habits begin? In childhood.
The solution is to change tactics.
Instead of focusing on nutrition, consider how you interact with your kids, and become more conscious of the lessons those interactions are teaching.
- Talk to your kids about food and eating in a way that encourages open dialogue, and learn to problem solve together. Read The Hunger Dilemma.
- Recognize that “I’m don’t like it,” and “I’m not hungry,” are stand-ins for other thoughts and feelings.
- Identify what your children need to learn to become better eaters, and then teach them those skills. Read Treating the Symptoms, Not the Cause.
- Instead of pushing your kids to clean their plates, teach them to eat some of everything on their plate before they eat all of anything. Read Playing for Peas.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~
Read Dr. Rose’s follow-up “The Eating-Honesty Bind: Truth vs. Treat?“