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It’s interesting that some health professionals think that there is possibly something wrong with the child that leads to obesity. Rather than looking at what is interfering with the child’s natural ability to regulate intake according to hunger and appetite, some parents and professionals look for deficits in the child. Self-control, generally defined as the ability to delay gratification, is a case in point. Self-control is also defined as the ability to control temper, respect others’ property, accept the ideas of peers’ and handle peer pressure.

According to some researchers, children who are low in self-control at the time they start school are said to be at risk for an unhealthy increase in BMI as they approach adolescence. These children who lack self-control eat fewer fruits and vegetables, drink more sugar sweetened beverages (SSB), and are less active. The logic behind these conclusions? That an unhealthy diet and activity behaviours provide more immediate gratification than healthy behaviours.

Giving children autonomy

In contrast, the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model emphasises the importance of giving children autonomy in order for them to develop their “self-control” capabilities. These self-control capabilities are the ability to regulate food intake, grow predictably, and over time, learn to eat the variety of food to which they are regularly exposed in their every-day lives. Their parents give them autonomy, from birth, by following the division of responsibility in feeding and letting them determine how much they will eat from what parents offer. As they get older, parents give autonomy, by doing the what, when, and where of feeding, then letting children do the how much and whether of eating. This is positive self-control, growing out of inner capability and self-trust. This is in contrast to the usual definition of self-control, which is restraint and avoidance.

Developing trust

Toward the end of the first year, this positive self-control gradually becomes the ability to delay gratification. To gain the rewards of joining in with family meals and snacks, children have to wait to eat. After that brief wait, their needs are gratified: they get enough to eat of food they enjoy. As they grow up, they continue to behave autonomously:  they become ho-hum about sugar sweetened beverages and other high-sugar, high-fat foods from regular neutral exposure and therefore don’t consume them to excess. For example, children who are fed according to the division of responsibility learn that they will have the opportunity to eat treat foods every now and then and that they are offered at some meals together with other foods. They are then free to pick and choose from the treat and other foods as they wish. I have seen young children alternate between bites of meat in one hand to licks of ice cream in the other. This is not self-control but knowing that their parents trust them to regulate their appetite and to grow to have the body that they are meant to have.

If you are struggling to feed your child or feel pressured to ‘get’ your child to eat or to attain a particular weight, start by feeding according to the Division of Responsibility in Feeding
These booklets will guide you through the basics to get you started.