Getting Your Kids to Say No to a Second Cupcake

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Throughout the animal kingdom, parents guide their young about what's good to eat and where to find it. In our temptation rich and junk-food plentiful society a lot of nourishment education has shifted into guidance about what not to eat, and direction to ignore food although it's there. It's quite an unnatural task that I doubt parents enjoy.

Should parents comment about what their kid puts on his plate at a party? Evidence suggests that efforts to restrict kids' intake are actually associated with childhood obesity. The expert committee on prevention and treatment of child and adolescent overweight and obesity advised to "allow the child to self-regulate his or her meals and avoid overly restrictive feeding behaviors" -- parents are guided to try to overcome the urge and to use other, non-restrictive, ways to influence kids' choices.

But how we parents frame the restriction must matter, too.

A new study, led by Megan Pesch, in the journal Appetite, looks at the tone and emotion, as well as the actual words, mothers use when their kid is faced with an opportunity to overeat.

Mothers and children -- 237 pairs -- were given the opportunity to try chocolate cupcakes. They were served with large portions, 2 cupcakes each, and their interaction was videotaped. The mothers' cupcake restricting comments (both words and tone) were then categorized as either neutral or positive (gentle, caring, humorous), or negative (harsh, critical, unkind). Examples of a positive affect restriction were: "One's enough," or "Honey, you don't have to clean it up, ok?" Negative urges sounded like: "Are you starving or what? Eh, stop acting like that. Get a napkin and wipe your face off or I'm going to call this off right now if you don't stop. You're acting like a little piglet," (said critically with exasperation after child gets some chocolate on face) or "Don't you think they're gross? Of course not," (said harshly with sarcasm.)

The researchers found that the majority of restrictive comments were positive, and only about 15 percent of moms made negative ones. 53 percent of moms urged their kid to eat less but in a positive tone, and these kids were more likely to be obese. The kids of moms that admonished their kids to eat less were even more likely to be obese.

This, of course, does not necessarily mean that you're-eating-too-much comments cause obesity, or that shaming kids with these kind of comments has an even stronger effect. It is, though, quite plausible that parental regulation hampers kids' self-regulation - directed by appetite and satiety - and that negativity causes over-eating as rebellion and defiance. Indeed, there are experimental studies that show that the mere act of prohibiting foods elevates their desirability and consumption. But the association might also be in exact reverse. Maybe when kids get chubby their mom and dad urge them to eat less. And maybe when gentle reminders don't work, and kids continue to gain weight parents resort to harsher tones.

Guidelines aside, it's almost impossible to shut up when you think there's a better choice for your kid. The authors suggest that telling us parents not to speak is asking for the unmanageable:

"Mothers need guidance on how to effectively and sensitively restrict their child's intake of unhealthy foods, not to simply be told not to engage in restriction at all. There is a need for research into which types of restrictive approaches may be effective to decrease food intake while not promoting maladaptive eating behaviors."

It seems intuitive, and this study supports the notion that negative comments and tone of voice are even more counterproductive diet-wise, and they certainly lead to a bad atmosphere and hurt feelings.

What should a parent do? Here are a few of my tips:

  • Lead by example: what you eat matters much more than what you say they should eat
  • Protect your space: Make your home a sanctuary of nothing but healthy wholesome foods
  • Eat home-made/-provided: Make or provide as many of the meals your family eats that you can manage
  • Explain, don't preach: provide an explanation for your objection to foods/quantities you think aren't good to eat
  • Make healthy pleasurable and tasty: Junk food will look more and more like the cheap imitation it really is if kids know good food
  • Patience: Try not to worry about imposing your rules out of home. Out of home kids should know what their parents think, but then use their own judgment. Know that making better choices might take a while.

Dr. Ayala

This is a crosspost of my blog, Healthy Food & Healthy Living, where you can reach me at