Paradoxical Parenting Practice in Children's Weight Management

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In the past few decades, childhood obesity has become a public health issue in most developed and developing countries across the globe. Several behavioural factors that cause obesity in children include excessive intakes of calories from food, lack of physical activity, and prolonged sedentary behaviour. Obviously, these factors are related to the family, especially the way parents manage their children's weight in the family. In addition to providing food or choosing food for their children, parents also determine their children's daily routines, including sports activities, games, break, and sleeping time. Parents can be their children's role models and authority figures and help children to develop healthy habits, attitudes and ideas on eating and exercise participation. It is worth noting that many parents often adopt some "paradoxical" practices when raising their children, and this deserves our utmost attention.
The most common parenting practice for children with weight issues is to restrict the amount of diet and unhealthy food. Parents who adopt this kind of parenting practice may think that it is good for their children's health, but scientific research does not support this view. Studies have found that restricting children's consumption of certain foods can arouse children's attention to the food, thereby increasing their desire to acquire and eat those foods1. Therefore, in the short term, although parents restricting their children's diet can reduce the number of unhealthy foods and total calorie intake of their children, they will try their best to break through and consume these foods when they fall under the radar. Studies2 have found that when children are allowed to freely choose their favourite food from dozens of choices, they would prefer a high proportion of unhealthy foods. However, when children know that their parents will monitor what food they choose, they will reduce the amount of food they preferred, or choose fewer unhealthy foods. Since the studies have proved that restricting diet may have negative effects, parents need to use this strategy with extreme caution.
Coercive feeding is also a common practice adopted by parents. Such practice includes not allowing any meal leftovers or demanding children to eat certain foods. This method may indeed help increase children's intake of vegetables and fruits, but studies have shown that parents' forcing their children to eat may lead to a prolonged negative impression of certain kinds of food3. For example, former US President George H. W. Bush publicly stated that he hated broccoli very much, and such an open statement had provoked the broccoli farmers and caused an uproar. He claimed, in his own words, "I hated broccoli when I was a child, but my mother forced me to eat it. Today I am the President and I will not eat it again!" Forcing a child to eat a certain food is probably not an ideal parenting strategy.
Using food as a prize is another practice customarily employed by parents. However, encouraging children to behave well in this way will allow children to eat without being hungry, which will affect children's self-perception of hunger and a full stomach. Using certain foods to reward children's good performance will also reinforce their preference for that kind of food4. If this measure is adopted for a long time, it may hamper children's ability to administrate their energy intake as they might become too dependent on external stimulus when deciding how much they should eat, instead of appealing to their perceptions5.
It is beyond doubt that the role modelling of parents is very important for children. Compared with children whose parents do not actively participate in sports activities, children whose parents participate actively are more likely to participate in sports activities6. Another study also found that those parents taking the initiative to eat fruits and vegetables regularly can motivate their children to eat more fruits and vegetables, therefore increase their nutrient intake and reduce the fat intake7.
After all, parents are the primary cause and the determining factor of children weight's issues. Different parenting practices will impose different effects on their children's weight and development, and these effects will often extend to their adulthood. A careless mistake may result in a great misfortune in a child's life, so parents should be extremely cautious of their decisions. 

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  1. Fisher JO, Birch LL. Restricting access to palatable foods affects children's behavioral response, food selection, and intake. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1999;69:1264-1272
  2. Klesges RC, Stein RJ, Eck LH, Isbell TR, Klesges LM. Parental influence on food selection in young children and its relationships to childhood obesity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1991;53:859-864
  3. Batsell WR, Brown AS, Ansfield ME, Paschall GY. "You will eat all of that!": A retrospective analysis of forced consumption episodes. Appetite. 2002;38:211-219
  4. Birch LL, Zimmerman SI, Hind H. The influence of social-affective context on the formation of children's food preferences. Child Development. 1980;51:856-861
  5. Rhee K. Childhood overweight and the relationship between parent behaviors, parenting style, and family functioning. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 2008;615:11-37
  6. Moore LL, Lombardi DA, White MJ, Campbell JL, Oliveria SA, Ellison RC. Influence of parents' physical activity levels on activity levels of young children. The Journal of Pediatrics. 1991;118:215-219
  7. Fisher JO, Mitchell DC, Wright HS, Birch LL. Parental influences on young girls' fruit and vegetable, micronutrient, and fat intakes. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2002;102:58-64