How do you know what your responsibilities are when it comes to your child’s eating? For many parents, this question can be a challenge. Feeding a child can be one of the most stressful times of the day; the good news is that it does not have to be. The feeding process may seem one-sided, but both parents and children bring their unique qualities, strengths, and challenges to the table when eating. This feeding relationship is a joint effort with shared responsibilities that, once recognized, can make the feeding process less stressful and more enjoyable for everyone.
What is the parent-child feeding relationship?
The feeding relationship is the complex interactions between parent and child as they engage in food selection, ingestion, and regulation behaviors (1). This relationship depends on the level of trust from parent to child. The parent must trust their child’s feedback during feedings; timing, amount, preference, pacing and eating ability (1). During the feeding process, either a positive or negative relationship can result. In a positive relationship, parent and child get to know one another, and the child learns to demonstrate how they feel and trust that the parent will provide for their needs.
Conversely, a negative relationship can result from a parent’s lack of understanding of what the child needs and thus not providing for these needs; this confusion can lead to unsuccessful feedings and an unhappy child. If you have experienced this type of unsuccessful feeding before, know you are not alone. Fortunately, a theory called the Division of Responsibility can help strengthen the parent-child feeding relationship.
The Division of Responsibility in feeding
The Division of Responsibility is a term proposed by feeding expert Ellyn Satter. This term acknowledges what both child and parent are responsible for when it comes to feeding. The Division of Responsibility theorizes that with support and an appropriate eating environment, children can naturally decide what they eat and will self-regulate around food (2). Acknowledging that your child is responsible for one or more aspects of their feeding is vital for successful mealtimes. Once recognized, it can relieve some of the pressure you may feel during feedings. It would help if you kept in mind that your job as the parent is to choose what, when, and where to eat, and it is your child’s job to decide how much to eat and whether to eat (2). In the following list, Ellyn Satter classifies what the parent’s responsibility is and what the child’s responsibility is for feedings (2):
Parent’s Feeding Jobs:
- Choose and prepare the food
- Provide regular meals and snacks
- Make mealtimes pleasant
- Step-by-step, show children by example how to behave at family mealtime
- Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes
- Not let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times
- Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them
Children’s Eating Jobs:
- Children will eat
- They will eat the amount they need
- They will learn to eat the food their parents eat
- They will grow predictably
- They will learn to behave well at mealtime
Holding up your end of the relationship with providing leadership, structure, and trust during mealtimes, your child will naturally hold up their end with eating the food provided (2). As a parent, it is imperative to offer foods that promote good health regularly. Children learn a lot from what they see others doing; setting an excellent example of what good health looks like can help your child learn how to make these healthy choices as they become more independent. By following the guidelines provided by Ellyn Satter, we can teach children to eat intuitively and listen to their bodies when they tell them they are hungry or full.
- Satter, E. M. (1986) The feeding relationship. J Am Diet Assn. 86: 352– 356. Retrieved from http://www.adinapearson.com/kvpaHB2WmRY5/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/The-feeding-relationship.pdf
- Satter, E. M. (2016). Ellyn Satter’s Division Of Responsibility In Feeding. Retrieved from https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/handout-dor-tasks-cap-2016.pdf