Parents of toddlers may be serving up stereotypes about body image that could contribute to eating disorders or behavioral problems later in life, according to a pair of new Florida State University studies.
Researchers found that parents of 3-year-olds worried that their sons but not their daughters were underweight—even though the weights and body mass index of the boys and girls in the study were nearly identical. They also said that their daughters ate enough food, but their sons did not.
The findings suggest that parents may be buying into gender stereotypes about appetite and body size even with children as young as 36 months old. The studies, co-authored by FSU’s Bright-Burton Professor of Psychology Thomas Joiner, graduate student Jill Holm-Denoma and post-doctoral student Ainhoa Otamendi, as well as colleagues from the Oregon Research Institute and Wesleyan University, were published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
"Parents are buying into the media ideal of thinness for girls and perceiving that their daughters may not be thin enough, even at this young age," Joiner said. "They also have stereotypes about male culture that boys should be big and strong and physical."
It’s what Joiner believes is part of parents’ increasing pursuit of perfect lives for their children. Parents want their children to have the right clothes, the right friends, the right activities and even the right body. The problem is that parents’ views on how their children should eat may affect their eating habits at very young ages, he said.
"While parents’ intentions are good, their worries about their children’s eating habits and body size are misplaced and not at all helpful," Joiner said. "The only time a parent should be concerned is if a young child is not eating at all or is under eating in a very noticeable way. With kids who overeat, restriction does not work. Instead, parents should offer them a variety of healthy foods to choose from and encourage exercise."
On the other hand, parents may be reluctant to admit their child has a weight problem. No mother or father in this study reported that their child was fat, despite the fact that approximately 20 percent of the girls and 18 percent of boys in this sample would be classified as overweight based on the body mass index data gathered from parents’ reports of their child’s height and weight. This finding calls into question parents’ ability to accurately describe their child’s body shape and size.
In a related study, the researchers looked at the most problematic eating behaviors of 36-month-old children- pickiness, food refusal and struggle for control—as well as positive parental behavior during feedings. While picky eating or refusal to eat specific foods is common behavior that most toddlers will outgrow, a struggle for control about food was linked to future problems.
"It’s a food-related signal of later conduct problems," Joiner said. "This struggle for control doesn’t seem to go away with age. It’s a rebellious personality trait that seems to predict trouble down the road."
In this study, toddlers with a higher body mass index were more likely to have conflicts with their mothers at mealtimes. The researchers theorized that mothers of heavy children might try to exert more control over the feeding situation than mothers of lean children. Again, the researchers found mothers have more of a struggle with girls than boys.
The most common problem among 36-month-old children is spitting out food during feedings (79 percent). They also are likely to become upset when they want something to eat and are told "no" (71 percent). Other common problems are throwing tantrums and accepting a certain food one day but rejecting it on another.
Both studies were based on assessments that 93 families (93 mothers, plus 54 fathers) in Oregon completed of their child at 36 months old. The researchers say more study of the eating and feeding behaviors of young children is needed.
"By studying children at this age, we might be able to get a handle on early characteristics that could be risk factors for bulimia or the more general issues of eating disorders and behavior problems," Joiner said. "The earlier you know about risk factors, the more likely you are to prevent problems."