Although the feeding relationship is acknowledged to be bidirectional between caregivers and children, most often parenting influences on young children’s eating behaviors are investigated through the lens of how parents influence children’s eating— either for the good or the not so good. While individual differences, such as children’s temperaments or sibling differences, are often referred to as having an impact on food parenting, very seldom is the child’s influence on the parent behavior the intentional focus of studies seeking to explain why children eat the way they do.
In this issue, the work presented by Swindle and colleagues1 focuses on “pester power,” children’s ability to influence up the food chain by repeatedly demanding foods they desire. Here, researchers have elected to harness the powerful tug that children wield over parents’ feeding-related behaviors, only in this case, for the good. They offer results of an intervention, delivered in childcare,1 which aims to give children positive experiences with healthy foods; pairing these experiences with a fun character (an owl puppet named Wendy “whoooooo” conveys healthful, fun messages to children). Such techniques are often used by marketers, but more often they are associated with less-nutrient-dense foods. One byproduct of this technique in the current study is that it seems to encourage children to “pester” parents to buy healthier foods. Score one for the good guys.
Clearly, parents can be swayed by children’s persistent appeals. In con- text of the study by Swindle et al,1 children’s pestering for healthful foods is viewed positively and, if marketers can use these ploys, why not nutrition educators? This begs the question of how pester power fits within our more common framework of the division of responsibility in feeding.2 Ellyn Satter has led our profession in advocating for a division in which parents decide the foods that are offered, and children decide whether to eat them.2 There are other nuances to this division, but this is a primary tenet.
At first blush, caving to children’s pestering would seem at odds with the parental feeding role for which nutritionists usually advocate. On the other hand, parents give in to children’s demands when they are tapped out and need to tune out— and children know that they can win if they are sufficiently persistent. How best to reconcile these some- what opposing messages to children?
Are we suggesting that sometimes it’s ok to pester and beg? Probably not.
I would argue that utilizing the fun aspect of puppets and characters is engaging for children—and can be fun for adults, too. Marketers have demonstrated that fun wins the day. Helping parents to use more positive and fun strategies to engage their child in eating healthful foods may be one way to capture children’s interest and avoid the necessity of engaging children to pester their pa- rents into health. And, in the mean- time, what if selling children on healthful foods provides some impetus for parents to make a small move towards offering higher quality diets? Then I say, if you can’t beat ’em.. .join ’em.
This editorial was originally published in the August 2020 issue (Vol. 52, Issue 8) of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.