Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on February 3, 2011
Claire McCarthy, M.D.
Boston Children's Hospital
A strict or authoritarian parenting style is strongly linked to a risk of obesity in young children, according to a study published in the June 2006 edition of the journal Pediatrics.
Imagine that! It's not just about diet it's about parenting.
The researchers looked at four different parenting styles: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and neglectful. They found that the children of authoritarian mothers those with high expectations for self-control in their children and a low sensitivity to the developmental and emotional needs of their children had a much higher risk of being obese in first grade.
Children with the lowest risk of obesity were those growing up with authoritative mothers those who had the same high expectations for self-control, but were sensitive to the needs of their children and more open to compromise (as opposed to strict disciplinarians).
It's hard to know exactly why the parenting style had such a strong impact. It could be that the authoritarian parents insisted that their children finish meals even if they weren't hungry and were dogmatic about exercise in a way that made the children feel negative about it. The authoritative parents, on the other hand, might have been more flexible about meals and about choosing exercise options that the children enjoyed, while still maintaining the expectation that the children had healthy habits.
Whatever the reason, this study brings up an important point: when it comes to childhood obesity, there's much more to the story and the solutions than just food. Given the epidemic of obesity among children, parents need to be aware of this, and think outside the cereal box. Here are some tips to help.
Your child's opinion matters. Yes, Junior needs to eat his vegetables. But instead of staring him down until he finishes every last carrot, talk to him about which vegetables he likes or how to make the ones he does't like more appealing. If he likes salad, give him salad every night. If dipping those carrots into Ranch dressing makes them more palatable, buy the low fat kind and let him dip away.
Treat all children in the family equally. Even if little Jessica is thinner than not-so-little Jimmy, it sends the wrong message if Jessica can have cookies for a snack and Jimmy can't. Neither is learning about good lifelong eating habits (giving Jessica a slim chance of staying slim!), and Jimmy is likely to feel resentful and less motivated to make other snack choices. Which leads me to the next suggestion...
The whole family should be on the same diet. Think about what you have in your kitchen cabinets. Soda? Chips? Cookies? Take them out they're not good for anyone. If the only food options in the house are healthy ones, it takes away the temptation problem, and allows parents to...
Set an example. We can say whatever we want; it's what we do that kids notice. It simply doesn't work to tell kids they need to have fruit for snacks if you never eat fruit for a snack yourself. Load your plate with veggies at dinner, pour yourself water instead of soda when you're thirsty, stop smearing butter on your bread or taking second helpings of pasta and your child will be more likely to do the same.
When it comes to exercise, think easyand fun. Take the stairs, walk to school, park in the furthest spot in the lot. Make it a game with your kids to think of ways to include exercise in daily life. Play "I Spy," have a scavenger hunt, or make up stories as you go for a walk in your neighborhood. With a little creativity, exercise can become something your child looks forward to. And setting an example is important with exercise, too. If you get out those jogging shoes or go to the gym with some regularity, your child will learn to think of exercise as a normal, good thing to do (and you'll be healthier too.)
Watch your words. Don't call your child fat, don't compare him to others, don't talk about his eating or weight when others (especially peers) can hear you. Doing so will make him feel bad about himself and make your diet and exercise interventions feel like punishments. And feeling bad about himself puts him at risk for depression, which increases his risk of obesity! Instead, talk about wanting him to be healthy and be sure to notice and celebrate his strengths and accomplishments. Your child needs to know that there's more to him than what a scale says, and that you love him no matter what he weighs.
Diet and exercise are part of the bigger picture of your child's life. How you interact with your child about diet and exercise are part of the bigger parenting picture. If you keep that in mind and keep a positive outlook, your entire family will have a much better chance of fighting obesity and staying healthy.
Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.