Who hasn’t heard horror stories from adults recounting a time when they were forbidden from leaving the table until finishing some undesirable veggie piled high on the plate in front of them? And it always ends the same – “to this day, I won’t eat it!

“Autonomy” can be a somewhat loaded concept. So, let’s keep it simple. Basically, autonomy is the right to govern your own body. This can be a tricky line to toe with kids. Of course, children aren’t cognitively equipped to make every decision for themselves. They need parents to guide them! But that doesn’t mean that they can’t – or shouldn’t – make any decisions for themselves. In fact, it’s imperative that they do. And eating is no exception. Giving your child autonomy with eating is essential for a positive relationship with food and their bodies.


Motivation and Self-Efficacy


We want children to grow into adults with a healthy relationship with food. That means raising them to be people who enjoy eating a variety of nutritive foods. Children will eat vegetables when pressured by an external force (i.e., a parent, teacher, etc.). But they will not learn to like them – which means that they won’t eat them when given the choice. So, how do we spark their internal motivation?

Self-Determination Theory poses that all people have a basic psychological need for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Essentially, when those needs are met, people act in self-determined ways with their own best interests (such as eating a well-rounded diet and getting plenty of exercise) in mind. And when people have their best interests in mind, they tend to reap the benefits. On the other hand, if basic needs aren’t met, people often look to fill them in ways that may not be conducive to health. For example, a person may compensate by rebelling against self-control and bingeing foods perceived as “off limits”.

Allowing children to make decisions about how much and which foods they eat can promote eating regulation by fostering their sense of autonomy. And it sends the message that they’re competent enough to do so.


Autonomy in Toddlerhood


All people want to feel like the things they want and need matter. But autonomy takes center stage in a few key developmental periods. And toddlerhood is one of them. Anyone who has been around a toddler for any amount of time will likely have seen the “I do it” attitude. According to Erikson’s stages of development, toddlers are beginning to understand that they are separate from their caregivers. So, it’s normal – even necessary – for them to push boundaries.

By pushing boundaries, toddlers learn 1) that they are capable of physically asserting influence over their environment and 2) where those boundaries lie and how to behave within them. So, it’s important to support their budding sense of autonomy by allowing them manage tasks that they are capable of like putting on their shoes or – you guessed it – feeding themselves. 


Autonomy in Adolescence


It’s no secret that, like toddlers, teens have a tendency to push boundaries. Autonomy, once again, takes center stage in adolescence. In keeping with Erikson’s stages, this is a time of identity development with the central question being “who am I?“. 

Research has consistently found that teens who feel coerced or excessively controlled by adults often experience poorer outcomes (such as difficulty relating to peers and asserting themselves later in life). Of course, too much freedom too soon can also have long-lasting negative impacts. Without a healthy connection to and guidance from adults, teens can make decisions that continue to impact them well into adulthood. So, there’s a need to strike a balance.

Finding that balance isn’t always easy. Conflicts between adolescents’ growing need for autonomy and family values can, and sometimes do, occur. Teens may, for example, want to join extra curriculars that make weeknight dinners difficult. Or they may feel that “no screens at the table” is unfair. So, what’s a parent to do? Communicate with your teen and come up with a compromise! Maybe breakfast is best. Perhaps your teen is more willing to comply with screen-free table rules after you explain why they exist. Above all, remember that family meals are only beneficial if everyone is enjoying them. And if you’re still struggling with teens at the table? Remember that you’re not alone – this can be a challenging time to navigate! And there are plenty of resources that can help.


Autonomy and Eating – Little Things Make a Big Difference


Eating is one of the most basic and personal things we do for ourselves. The foods we eat tell a story about who we are. So does the way we feed our children.

When we consistently provide foods for our children, it says that they can depend on us to meet their needs. It says that mealtime is a constant they can count on. And when we allow them to exert autonomy over their own eating by deciding which and how much of those foods to eat, we make a powerful statement. We say that we trust them to make basic decisions about their bodies. We tell them that we respect their right to say no. And that’s surely a message worth sending. 


Disclaimer: The information on this site is in no way intended to be a substitute for medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes only. Always seek personalized medical advice and consult your practitioner with questions regarding your or your child’s health.

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