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Guest blog: should we give children more autonomy over food?

(23 Posts)
KateMumsnet (MNHQ) Wed 15-May-13 10:50:19



In her new book Kith, Jay Griffiths asks why children in the West tend to be unhappier than those from traditional cultures.

She makes a connection between the amount of freedom and autonomy that children are given, and their happiness - and in this guest post, suggests that Western attitudes to children and food might need re-examining.

What do you think - are some of our struggles with food related to how children learn to eat in their formative years? If you blog on this topic, don't forget to leave your URL here on the thread.

"A few years ago, I spent some days with Sami people while they were doing the midsummer reindeer herding. It was a busy time for the adults, and the children did as they customarily do in Sami society: they took care of themselves. The tiniest children ran about chasing the tiniest reindeer calves, and when they got hungry they rummaged around to eat what they wanted, sometimes a piece of reindeer meat, sometimes a fish freshly caught, sometimes a tub of biscuits. They decided what and when they ate.

"When we're working, we just don't have time to be bothering the kids," one reindeer herder, Margrethe Vars, told me. She dragged on her cigarette and blew the smoke out, imitating European parents with her words smouldering: "Have you washed your hands? Now you must eat." She pulled a face, envisaging that situation which so often creates conflict: meal times. To her, it was a relief that children sorted themselves out. "Here we sleep when we are tired, eat when we are hungry," Vars said. "But for other societies, children are very organised. Timing is everything."

Autonomy over food from a very young age seems a feature of childhood in many traditional societies. Young children in nineteenth century Oxfordshire would catapult birds and go 'spadgering', casting a net over a whole hedge to catch sparrows. Alacaluf children of Patagonia fend for themselves early, using a shell-fish spear and cooking their own food from the age of about four. Very young Inuit children may use a whip to hunt ptarmigans, with a flick of the wrist, lopping off their heads. Ache children of Paraguay learn early how to collect fruit, and boys are given a bow and arrow when they are about two. By the time they are ten or twelve, they carry a bow all the time, learning to hunt, and by this age have become very independent of their parents. When Tom Sawyer runs away with Huck and Joe Harper, they take hooks and lines for fishing and they light a cooking fire: it seemed to them 'glorious' 'to be feasting in that wild free way'.

Travelling through the highlands of West Papua among the Yali people, I often saw village boys going off together, bristling with bows and arrows to hunt birds, catch frogs and roast them in their own fire. From about five years old they would grow their own sweet potatoes, no longer asking their parents for food. At this point, they would leave their mother's house to live in the men's house: again food is a marker of maturity.

Meanwhile, in England, an environmental play project organised by Tim Gill called 'Wild About Play' asked children what they most wanted to do outdoors and the answer was to make fires, to cook on them, collecting and eating wild foods. This is exactly the sign of independence demonstrated by children everywhere, controlling their own food and their own bodies. I stress this because it seems that modern Euro-American children have two unusual food-related experiences: firstly they don't have early autonomy with respect to food and secondly, they do experience eating problems. While the desire to control one's own food seems a widely shared need among children, the issue of 'control' is one possible contributory factor for eating problems. Could they be related?

For years of evolutionary history, children have trapped, grown, found, hunted or fished for themselves and cooked on their own fires. The instinct to control one's own food and fire is blocked by the lifestyle of the dominant culture which discourages children lighting fires or finding food outdoors, which categorises food as something coming from shops, rather than directly from the land, and which stipulates that food must be cooked, indoors, by an adult who often makes a child eat at their command. Is this part of the reason why some children, deprived of such an age-old freedom, are vulnerable to developing distorted relationships with food?

I ask these as questions, not as certainties. For certainties, the subject needs careful studies. I for one would be delighted if it was researched, because I know - as many of us do - how frightening, dangerous and tragic food-related problems can become. My job is not to do the research, but in this instance to look at the subject in more of a lateral way: to add to the debate on possible causes. I don't seek to deny that there are a huge number of very complex and difficult causes, nor do I refute the idea that these problems are individually-based. But I do find it fascinating to draw possible questions - not conclusions - based on history and anthropology and social observation as well as specific, individually-based psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Throughout my book, I am not trying to say that it is individual parenting which is problematic for children: rather I am looking at how society as a whole has organized itself in ways which are often antipathetic to the needs of children. My work is designed to open up avenues of debate, to be on the side of both children and parents, to look at the big picture of childhood. And that means sometimes to offer examples of alternative ways of doing things, and to pose questions.

When I took my godson and his friend, aged eleven and twelve, for a few days in the woods, the first thing they did was sharpen sticks into spears. The second thing they did was light a fire. The third thing they did was to get sausages and marshmallows and toast them (more or less at the same time) over the open fire. They wouldn't have enjoyed dinner at the Ritz half as much as this."

Kith: The Riddle Of The Childscape, by Jay Griffiths, is published by Hamish Hamilton at £20.

CinnamonStix Wed 15-May-13 11:39:59

It's very easy to make extreme comparisons - people living out in the wild, compared to Western society - visiting the woods to visiting the Ritz.

The people herding reindeer probably aren't exposed to MacDonalds, sugar and E-numbers on a daily basis. The pace of life is probably slower where they are, giving them the freedom to eat and sleep at whatever o'clock.

It has been proven that what works for one country/society, won't necessarily work for ours.

I actually think children are given too much autonomy over foods. They pick the wrong ones because they don't know any better and are given too much freedom of choice. My 8yo sister only eats broccoli, refuses butter on her toast, and craves everything coated in sugar or fat. She has a food problem because she hasn't been encouraged to try different foods from a young age - she was given the freedom to reject everything.

Children, like adults, should be allowed to not like certain foods. But they shouldn't be allowed to reject on principle - they should be encouraged to try every item of food on their plate, and if they don't like it, fine. They should be encouraged to try it again a few months on - because food palates develop.

ppeatfruit Wed 15-May-13 12:06:10

IMO one of the main problems with eating in the west (and this does relate to autonomy) is that no one seems to eat when they are actually hungry; they'll look at the clock and say "oh it's 12 o'clock time for lunch" whether they FEEL hungry or not. They will eat a 3 course meal thus over eating and eventually becoming obese. I follow the Paul Mackenna Way Of Eating and it advocates eating slowly and consciously and only when you're hungry and STOPPING WHEN YOU FEEL FULL.

This is the best, most natural way to eat you certainly eat less, don't feel hungry and you lose weight. It can be followed by everyone. It also says to eat what you feel like eating.

purpleroses Wed 15-May-13 16:04:42

Giving kids the opportunities to grow, gather or catch their own food is a great thing. They love it. But it's not realistically going to be how the get the large majority of their food, unless you have access to a smallholding.

In the world most of us live in, giving them control over what they eat in the kitchen cupboard would mean they eat crisps, biscuits and not much else. Freedom over what you eat would only work in a society where high fat and high sugar foods are in short supply.

This is quite a big topic in adoption, as many adoptive children develop food anxieties. As adoptive parents we are on a 'high alert' during meal times and interact, behave and discuss food in a very prescribed manner. My son will not eat unless he has a spoon in his hand - he doesn't alway use it, but he needs that level of control. I never force a meal down either, nor do we try and use pudding as bribery. This is a great post, I will look out for the book.

Valpollicella Thu 16-May-13 00:03:10

I would personally narrow this down. It doesn't have to be about 'the west' (in its purest terms)

Having spent formative years in a Med country, and those years being ones I can recount clearly, I can tell you the attitude to food is completely different to the UK.

We had complete autonomy over what to eat at snack times, or in fact, whenever we we were hungry (but shall address that later) But what was available was fruit, and erm....bread? Or you could have some olives? Or a bit of cheese.

This wasn't 60 years ago. It was in the 80's. But we grew up knowing that there weren't biscuits (which bizzarley were for breakfast, with hot milk) , or cakes, or crisps, or snack bars just there

I never remeber being hungry, or asking for food because 'I'm huuuungry' as my DS so often does.

I quite often refuse the request for food when he is watching TV as I fear he is making an association - he will do the 'I'm hungryyyy' after a massive dinner whilst watching a programme. Which I swear is just not possible

SacreBlue Thu 16-May-13 00:32:02

Global/cultural comparisons aside, since I only have direct control in my own household, I have encouraged my DS to love and respect food in all it's forms.

We eat everyday those of us lucky enough to be able to and I would hate any child of mine to feel conflicted about such a basic necessity.

Wasting food is not encouraged but neither do I insist on 'clearing plates' if he, or I, have had enough. Encouraging a wide variety of foods and the fun of trying new things can easily be coupled with the nutritional advice, making your own choices and therefore not ever being forced into eating something you find disgusting not to your taste.

I have occasionally forcefully encouraged tasting, but DS soon got the gist of "I want you to taste it but if you don't like it, that's ok" and that our tastes can change and develop and that's ok too.

Literally came to this thread straight after another on food and am repeating myself when I say that, for me and mine, food is not a place I want to make a battleground.

In my wider family some restrictions for medical reasons have to be adhered to and that has just been made part of our collective 'food appreciation' rather than a good/bad vibe hippy

So I think at end of what I realise is less a post and nearly an essay shock that structured choice is good at the start of a child's life as it leads them to (healthy) autonomy in the rest of their food choices as they get older and can make more informed choices

<here endith my sermon> apologies for the long read ;)

Whatalotofpiffle Thu 16-May-13 07:03:08

I agree that they would just choose junk, but making then more involved in shopping, cooking and meal planning wouldn't hurt. My dd loves shopping and I make her picture shopping lists. I also let her choose new things to try. She helps me cook, has her own recipe book and knows the names of basic ingredients. She eats everything so far. She is 2.5 and I hope it continues

TeWiSavesTheDay Thu 16-May-13 08:06:48

I don't think this is really possible in a western society - they would choose crappy food which is designed to taste like good food - like fruit flavour sweets.

What's impact does the diet of these groups have on them long term? And do they live long enough to be able to analyse this, is another good question.

chickensaladagain Thu 16-May-13 09:26:16

Children can only choose from what is there

If what is there is biscuits and crisps then that is what they will choose

My dds generally ask for grapes, whole tomatoes, peppers but they have to be red or cheese

I'm not controlling about what they eat, they are allowed biscuits, crisps etc but the quantities I buy are small so they are not a constant

They have pocket money, we go to the shop and they have free rein over what they choose -sometimes they choose sweets, sometimes not

I was brought up in a very tightly food controlled house -everyone sat at the table until all plates were clear, very big portions, meals could last hours, sweets were 'only on a Friday' birthdays and Christmas included, menus not up for discussion so if you really couldn't stand something -tough!

My sister has an eating disorder, my brother won't touch anything processed if it has more than 4% fat, and I have a weight problem

My sister and I have been saying for years there is a connection but I still believe my parents were doing what they believed to be the right thing

TeWiSavesTheDay Thu 16-May-13 10:14:22

You are controlling their choices though, chicken, by limiting their opportunities to have food you view as unhealthy. Just by limiting what food us in your home and when you go to the shop.

Actually what would be very interesting to see were the health results for these children if they were transplanted to the west.

I know there are studies about Tongan children migrating to New Zealand and that the usually become extremely overweight.

A western child has to learn how to decide if they are really hungry/really need food or not, a child in a very different food-limited society doesn't in the same way, even if they are allowed to graze they are aware much younger that food is not limitless, that you have to save some for later/your family.

TeWiSavesTheDay Thu 16-May-13 10:24:39

pdf of Tonga/NZ immigrant study on phone not sure if that will work.

dorisdog Thu 16-May-13 10:47:10

This is really interesting. I've always had problems with my daughters eating habits (she hates EVERYTHING I eat) and it doesn't help that she lives with her dad half the week, so there's a lack of consistency. I've never felt comfortable about forcing her to eat anything. She's 11. I've just introduced a new system- She has a certain amount of money about £15 per week. We go to the shop and she's allowed to choose her food. The only rules are that it has to pretty much fit the food pyramid and be within the £15. It's totally working! She's cooking for herself, working out budgeting, has loads of autonomy, and we're all really happy :-)

wonderingagain Thu 16-May-13 11:15:46

The issue of control, or self-determination is I think key to the well-being of children. There are areas in their lives where they need control, to protect them from danger or habits that might become damaging over time, such as poor sleep etc. But book after book, programme after programme has identified that children suffer where parents are overbearing and controlling.

As parents are older now, they are more set in their ways and less able to be flexible and I think this plays a huge part in the way we parent.

Food has been overloaded with significance and meals are longer about 'eating' they are about nutrition and health. I have always fed my children what we ate and nothing different. I have never forced them to eat anything, if they didn't want it they would leave it on the plate, perhaps encouraged to taste it or sniff it but otherwise let it go. At weekends they get their own lunches with a bit of guidance. They now do their own packed lunch.

Playing out is frowned upon, but i am lucky to be able to allow my children to play out with friends. When it started there were regular tears as one child was a bit rough with another but over time they have learned to settle their arguments and now younger children join in and they share their social skills.

I think this is largely a middle class older parent issue and the result is that children are being raised with very little autonomy and as a consequence they feel they have little impact on the world around them, sometimes resulting in a need to control everything around them.

RunningBear78 Thu 16-May-13 11:25:32

I think I picked up some of this in one of the weekend papers a while ago. I have a real issue comparing ethnographic study (or journalistic observation, not quite sure which it was) of rural 'traditional' communities with western, urbanised ones. The suggestion seems to be that the children from 'traditional' communities have freedom to do as they please, whilst in fact what they are doing is learning, within a tightly controlled structure, acceptable and appropriate behaviour within their society. It is clear that from a young age children in such 'traditional communities' are taught about all sorts of social, economic and cultural norms, part of which is food procurement, processing and consumption. This might include things such as which foods are safe to eat, which foods are taboo for women or men, which places should not be accessed by men/women/children etc.

I would argue that what we (try) to teach our children by having some control about when and what they eat, is equally an understanding about acceptable and appropriate social, economic and cultural norms, within our own society. This is why we set meal times, introduce certain types of food, and see eating at a table (or in front of the telly) as appropriate, depending on our backgrounds and the communities we live in.

For kids that grow up in rural environments in the west, many of them DO learn how to collect and gather their own foods, whether it be hedgerow fruits, catching fish, eggs from chickens in the garden, rearing animals, etc. The main difference comes with urban children, where the only food source, really, is shops, restaurants, our kitchens and possibly gardens. But, because food procurement in shops and restaurants is slightly more complicated, and involves more complex interaction with other people, it takes much longer to teach a child the social norms, which therefore can appear to be 'restricting' what a child eats.

Sorry, a bit long, but I thought the two sections of the book I read totally missed the point about both urban children's food habits and also the complexity of 'traditional' society.

Wishiwasanheiress Thu 16-May-13 11:36:54

Well, this is at least one more book I won't be reading based on the synopsis. Thanks at least for saving me that time.

ppeatfruit Thu 16-May-13 13:07:56

Yes Runningbear I agree, I also am not sure how appropriate it is in our world of vanishing wildlife to teach ANYONE to catch sparrows in nets on bushes grin So that's where they've all gone to!

ChunkyPickle Thu 16-May-13 14:05:57

For once, this is where my haphazard, lazy parenting tallies with something that's being said.

I've always been porky, I have no sense of fullness until I'm absolutely stuffed, I have to monitor my intake like a hawk because I have no physical clues to tell me when I've had enough, or what I should have more or less of. I don't know if this was caused by how I was raise, or is genetic, but it's a real pain.

With DS (nearly 3), I've tried to let him find his own levels, his own hunger, and touch wood, that's so-far working for him. He eats as and when he's hungry, and I generally let him choose what he eats - ice-cream for breakfast is discouraged, and he's given the same dinner as DP and I - but not forced to eat all of it, or everything, or even come to the table (although he generally does because he likes our company)

I admit it's a sample of one, and I could just be lucky, but I could leave him in a room filled with every snack known to humankind, and he really would go for veggies as much as he'd go for sweets, and he wouldn't gorge, but would stop when he was full. He's happy to try new things, even though he doesn't always like them, he helps make dinner and chooses things in the supermarket etc.

I think that's probably the closest a western toddler can get to the wild upbringing, and it's working for him/me so far.

ppeatfruit Thu 16-May-13 18:01:09

Have you heard of the Paul Mckenna way of eating chunky ? See my ist post! I ask because despite a silly title it is a very intelligent approach to eating with exercises to help re educate your body around food and it is how we should all eat like your DS!grin On our thread we are losing weight (I lost nearly 3 stone and am maintaining which is the difficult part). But it works!!

CinnamonStix Thu 16-May-13 22:08:10

I've read How Eskimos Keep Their Babies Warm - which has a similar theme to this book, comparing cultures around the world. I actually quite enjoyed that book (can't remember the author now), it was informative in a neutral way. The author also drew from her own experiences of parenting in the West. It doesn't sound to me like Jay Griffiths is a parent, but happy to be proven wrong...

CinnamonStix Thu 16-May-13 22:10:27

Oh and also came across Jay's Q&A on Gransnet. Read if you've got patience...

Thinkingpositively Sat 25-May-13 00:03:14

I think in our western culture we are literally saturated by choices and options. Heaps of options are toxic and the process of food production is something we are completely disengaged from.

Food is not really part of our narrative culture or rhythm of life, it is a comfort, a lifestyle choice, a commercial product. If we have free access to it. If we don't it is a source of stress, anxiety, guilt, low self esteem. (and can be all those things even if we do have access to it) Of course we are confused about it and so are our kids.

Our culture will not support a lifestyle which enables us to respond to our bodily needs, eat when we are hungry, sleep when we are tired. I think that it is easy to berate parents for exercising control, boundaries, rules and rituals as in effect we are trying to protect our children from a tidal wave of the above toxic choices.

I am glad to see that Jay has quoted Tim Gill. I think Playwork has alot to teach us because good playwork effectively 'holds' children to express what is intrinsically motivated. By letting this happen we can find out about the things that are important. If it is whittling sticks, making fires and collecting wild food then i think that gives us a powerful insight into what children are driven to do. That is to put the building blocks of learning and understanding and making sense of their world from the bottom up, or from 'within'. ('i can do it myself') Children needs the world around them to be malleable, and meaningful.

If we subvert this process of learning, as we are so so very good at doing in our western cultures we create anxiety and confusion.

We cannot tear away the prevailing culture so we put boundaries in place instead. In this case, boundaries around food......

zanuda Sat 25-May-13 18:28:50

Totally disagree.
1. Hunting and gathering food at the young age comes out of necessity rather then somebody's desire to give them freedom over the food choice.
2. Connection with happiness... is very circumstantial. They are happy that they didn't die from starvation or diseases. In rich countries people don't even think about such a matters, until something bad happens on the personal level. Happiness comes with having /not having, I don't know, strawberries in the morning or new I-pod...

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