Thursday, August 19, 2010

Helicopter Feeding: parents, you're working too hard and it's not helping!

We can't escape it, it's all around us. Pressure, power-struggles, picky eating, over-managing children's eating. Here is a great, succinct piece from Ellyn Satter on what I have come to call, "Helicopter feeding." It doesn't have to be so hard! I have also reprinted the article below, with permission. Thoughts?
By the way, this photo cracks me up. It's from an article on how to "get your kids" to eat veggies. Notice the "dad" is trying to feed some to the kid and she has her arm up pushing him away. Classic! A great unintended visual example of how pressuring kids to eat more fruits and veggies backfires...

July 2010 • Family Meals Focus #47 • Pressured on All Sides

The Feeding with Love and Good Sense Video and Teacher's Guide, published in 1987, is being revised! The Childhood Feeding Collaborative of the Santa Clara County Public Health Department in San Jose, CA funded the videography and recruited parent volunteers. I produced 30 hours of footage with as many families and am well on my way to turning the footage into about an 80-minute video that addresses feeding the (infant, transition, toddler, preschooler). I have lots of plans for making further use of this footage, but enough of that. Let's talk about what I saw.

To put a positive spin on it, parents work way too hard! To put a not-so-positive spin on it, parents are interfering. They sit down to a lovely meal and spoil it right away by telling the child, "you know the rules-you have to eat your vegetables." Often the "eat your vegetables" admonition reverberates, with one parent picking up the words of the other and the first amplifying the second and back again. Parents peer and arrange and wipe-wipe-wipe and scrape together the child's food. They tap the child's plate and interrupt her conversation to remind her to finish whatever-it-is. They insist on one bite of everything and reason and praise and feed children who are old enough to feed themselves and explain about nutritional superiority and make bargains about "first this and then that." They keep up a rat-tat litany: Use your fork, use your spoon, use your napkin. For their part, children do not easily give up their rights with eating. They argue, whine, cry, resist and evade, become defiantly messy, throw anything within reach, and press their parents to make increasingly ridiculous food bargains.

As a result of all this static, children are so stressed that they lose touch with themselves: their internal cues of hunger and satiety, their enjoyment and curiosity about food, and their pride in learning to do well with eating. But parents are stressed as well. They do not enjoy making their child miserable, but they do it anyway because they think it is good parenting with food. Why all the fuss? If children get the support they need - enjoyable family meals - they push themselves along to learn to eat the food their parents eat. Eventually they even do it neatly. Where do parents get the idea that they have to micromanage children's eating? This pattern is not confined to San Jose, CA, nor is it new. Thirty years ago, an experienced Pediatric Nurse Practitioner observed to me, "If a child eats, parents think it is all their idea."

Given this pressure on their eating, little wonder that children who are at all cautious and limited in with respect to eating develop extreme food selectivity or bizarre food behaviors. If fed according to a division of responsibility and allowed to move along according to their own tempo, slow-to-warm-up children learn to enjoy a variety of food. Really cautious kids, such as those with sensory integration disorders and autism spectrum disorders, still push themselves ever-so-slowly along to learn to eat. To do that they need structure, opportunities to learn and no pressure. Children with neuromuscular limitations struggle to manage the nipple or the spoon and eat until they run out of energy and it stops being enjoyable. Then they need nutritional support delivered in some other way so they and they and their parents don't have to wear themselves out satisfying their nutritional requirements.

The take-home message is that we have work to do. We must let these poor parents - and these poor children - off the hook by teaching parents the division of responsibility in feeding. Along with that, we must help parents identify when they are putting pressure on feeding, and give them the good news about how much happier they and they child will be if they stop it.

Copyright © 2010 by Ellyn Satter. Published at

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DISCLAIMER: The information contained in Family Meals Focus is intended to inform our readers about issues relating to feeding dynamics in general and family meals in particular. It is not intended to replace specific advice from a health care professional.


  1. Katja, this article isn't quite formatting right with your page; I can't quite read to the end; it's cutting off about a word or two to the right each time.

    I think it's true that parents work too hard; the thing is that little kids are all about finding out exactly what they can exert control over, and it's perfectly reasonable for them to do; they are small people, of course. Brains not quite developed, but just as much worthwhile as any adult. They know that adults get to make all the choices in their world and one of the first things kids want to do is make those choices for themselves...

    Sitting a kid down to dinner and immediately saying "Now eat your vegetables" sets up a battlefield; now the kiddo can exert control over his or her dinner by refusing to do, taking that control -away- from the parent who just told them what to eat.

    Although, some kids of course will gravitate away from vegetables and never asking them to eat them would just result in a kid who never did. Hmmmn...

    As in all things that involve people, it's all about the individual, right?

  2. i think i fixed it, try refreshing the page...