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Is it wrong to force a child to eat?

(iStock/María Alconada Brooks/Washington Post illustration)

Q: Is it psychologically damaging to force a child to eat? I was born in 1952, and my mother forced me to eat whatever she put on my plate for dinner every night. If I didn’t eat what was on my plate, she would make me sit at the dinner table until I finished, even if it was for hours. Or she would set a little manual timer for 15 minutes, slam it down in front of me and yell at me, “If you’re not done eating everything on your plate by the time this timer goes off, then you will be spanked and sent to bed!” Come to find out I do have severe food allergies. I still remember this to this day. It was awful, and I hated it. Do you think this is psychologically damaging?

A: The fact that you wrote to me (including many excruciating details from your memory) about being forced to eat, I would say that, yes, your experience of being forced to eat was psychologically damaging. You remember the details, and the details still haunt you. (That’s trauma.) But why? Why is being made to eat so awful for children, and why does it seem to leave such an indelible mark on them?

There are three main activities one person cannot force another to do without inflicting some pretty serious harm: sleep, eat and use the toilet. These are driven by deep impulses, and each human runs on their own internal clock. When parents take draconian measures to control their children’s eating, it is about more than just getting them to finish their chicken. The parent is saying or sending messages such as: “I don’t care about your feelings or impulses. I control them.” “You don’t get to say when you eat. I do.” “I will withhold love and affection until you eat.” “Not eating or not making me happy will make me hurt you, physically and emotionally.”

When you conflate hunger and mealtime with shame, fear, anger, aggression and threats, you end up with terrorized children, which can lead to serious psychological problems when they’re older.

Many parents reading this may feel relieved that they aren’t so harsh and unforgiving at mealtime with their children (slamming down timers, threatening spankings, sitting for hours), and although the coercion and abuse in this letter are obvious, it should be noted that bribing, counting bites, giving constant commentary and lectures, and withholding food (if they don’t eat what was served) can also create problems that persist for many years.

As a parent myself, I have sat in simmering disbelief as the nuggets/burger/pasta got pushed around plates. I created complex systems that I could neither remember nor maintain (a sticker chart/bites of certain foods), and I wasn’t above an Oreo bribe if they finished their broccoli. But as a parent coach, I knew I was on the wrong path. Although not as abusive as the letter details, my mealtimes were still exhausting, too long and disrespectful of my children and myself.

Before it becomes an all-out war over meals, it is important to change the focus to connecting and belonging to each other instead of the food. People are built to enjoy delicious food, but we are truly programmed for connection. So when children see their parents and caregivers smiling, nodding and eating, the children (mostly) join in. If you move the meal along, don’t substitute foods to please your children, don’t chase them around too much and end the meal without tears, you will find that the children will eventually sit, eat and chat with you.

The hardest part of raising children who eat well is that it can feel like an onerously long game. You are repeatedly serving good food that no one seems to care about, then one day: Poof! Everyone sits and eats. Commitment plus development and maturity equals good meals.

We should not be in the business of producing humans who are only obedient, who ignore their hunger cues, who sit in shame or rage while we lecture them over food. We should be raising children to slow down, savor eating and enjoy being with others while they do it. It is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

And, yes, you were wounded by your mother when it came to eating. She trampled your boundaries, threatened you and frightened you, even as your own body knew what it needed and what it did not. It isn’t too late to heal from those wounds, so please seek therapy if you feel it is needed; trauma doesn’t have an expiration date. Good luck.

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