Every night, we start with an appetizer. Do you want some cheese? No, you don’t want that cheese today? What if Mommy eats the cheese? Yum! Cheese is so good. Mommy loves this cheese. SHE LOVES IT. Why not watch her eat another piece?
Delicious! Do you want the cheese now?
Often, the answer is a grinning, adorable no — or a carefree hurling of the cheese onto the floor. While all this is going on, my 1-year-old son’s dad is at work. Our dog is poised near the high chair, tracking the ground for food-fall. He’s getting old, but the other week I saw him dash for a meatball and catch it between his teeth mid-bounce. When it comes to dinner in my house, those doing most of the eating are a 9-year-old dog and 32-year-old woman. And it’s not pretty: We cram scraps in our mouths like we’re both animals. The 1-year-old prone to being underweight, newly diagnosed as iron deficient: He’s inconsistent.
The same goes for the time of “dinner.” Every day I tell myself I’ll leave work promptly at 5 p.m., but you know how you sometimes have some caffeine in the afternoon and that gets you on a roll? Then it’s 5:20 and you’re sending day care a frantic text, again. Sometimes the train gets you there on time. Other times, it does not. When’s dinner? Somewhere between 6:30 and 7:30. When’s bedtime? I don’t know. After dinner?
Two recent studies highlight these sources of parent shame: One examines emotionally driven eating, while another looks at the effects of inconsistent household routines. Both seem not great for kids.
The first, out of Norway, tracked about 800 kids starting at age 4, then checking in again at 6, 8, and 10. Parents who eat to feel better emotionally, researchers found, are prone to feed their kids for the same reason. The better it works, the more parents do it.
Predictably, emotional eating causes obesity, plus makes eating disorders more likely later in life. Some sort-of-good news: Because the study was conducted in fairly homogeneous Norway, the authors say the results shouldn’t really be applied to more diverse populations or cultures. (Yet.)
Another recent study analyzed toddlers’ household routines and ability to regulate emotions. Researchers assessed just under 11,000 children in the U.K., asking parents of 3-year-olds to report on household routines and answer a questionnaire to determine their child’s ability to self-regulate. The more consistent the family’s routines, researchers discovered, the better the toddlers seemed to be at regulating their emotions.
Eight years later, the same researchers found a link between household routines — specifically bedtimes — and obesity: Kids who’d had regular and earlier bedtimes as toddlers were less likely to be obese 11-year-olds. Implementing routines, the study’s authors note, is much harder when you’re living in poverty and have limited resources.
My son is privileged. He’s white, and his parents are both educated, with office jobs that have an unusual amount of flexibility. Our resources are not limited in ways that should make domestic routines such a challenge.
And yet! Every day, I eat like a maniac in front of my son — edging bedtime later or earlier and emotionally stuffing my face because I’m tired; he’s not eating as much or the things I’d like him to; and just sitting there hoping he’ll eat seems like an insane thing to do, when there are so many other things wanting my attention. Should I do the dishes? Should I check my phone? No, probably not.
“Don’t make it stressful!” one of my son’s doctors told me recently, about dinner. “It’s okay to stop when it’s stressful.” The day she gave me that advice, I decided dinner would be a timed event from there on out. After 30 minutes, that’s it, bud, time to wipe your face and get your jam-jams on. We did it a few times before I realized it was yet another deranged idea.
Mindful eating and strong household routines seem crucial for our kids’ health and development. But like so much of parenting, the advice seems to be “remember, this is very important” and “freaking out about it will make it worse” in the same breath. I can’t be the only one trying but failing to land somewhere in the middle. Right?