Hug more, scold less: Strict parenting linked to child obesity

A young girl walks with her mother along a sidewalk.
Rules like "one snack only" or "no sugar, ever" can backfire, a new study finds.Tim Boyle / Today
By Linda Carroll

Moms and dads whose favorite phrase is, “because I said so,” may want to rethink their parenting style. A new study shows that authoritarian parents are more likely to have obese kids than those who take the time to explain rules.

Among children aged 6 to 11, having an authoritarian parent — one who is demanding and quick to punish, but not nurturing or emotionally responsive —  increased the risk of obesity by 37 percent, according to a study presented at an American Heart Association meeting Wednesday. 

Researchers asked the parents of nearly 40,000 Canadian children about their parenting styles and about their children’s heights and weights.

“When we’re born, we come equipped with our own self regulation,” said Lisa Kakinami, lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University. “But authoritarian parents override that. They take away the child’s own ability to regulate themselves.” 

Authoritarian parents, for example, will just lay down eating rules without any explanation, Kakinami said.

“They’ll say, ‘you can have this one snack,’ and not let the child decide when she’s full,” Kakinami explained.

The overly controlling approach — such as denying kids any sugar at all — can backfire when kids are beyond their parents’ reach, experts say. As a result, kids won’t learn how to listen to their own bodies and know when they are hungry or full. 

“There’s plenty of food research showing that the more we restrict access to a certain food the more desirable it becomes,” said Kirsten Davison, an associate professor of nutrition and social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health. “I’ve heard stories of kids who vomit after going to birthday parties because they ate so much.”

Beyond that, experts say, the authoritarian parenting style can prompt kids to rebel and to start using food for comfort.

“When parents talk in a harsh and punitive manner, kids sometimes fight with them through food,” which can lead to overeating, said Patrick H. Tolan, a professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and director of Youth-Nex, the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. 

“The emotional arousal and turmoil that goes on when you’re being regularly talked to that way might make you more likely to use food to comfort or calm yourself,” Tolan said.

About one-third of children and adolescents in Canada are overweight or obese, roughly similar to kids in the U.S., and the findings on parenting style could apply to kids anywhere, experts say.  

Steve Wolf, 50, figures rules won’t work if kids don’t understand their purpose.

“If you set down the law, invariably it backfires in the end,” the Austin, Tx., father of three said. “When you’re doing something just for compliance and then the force goes away, so does the compliance.”

Wolf says he’s gone as far as to show his kids microscope slides of what fat does to the insides of arteries. “I think most kids would rather be given information than be told what to do," he said.

For Erika Elmuts, 42, it’s all about teaching her 8-year-old daughter to listen to her body.

“Authoritarian parents aren’t giving the child the ability to hear their own inner voice,” said the San Diego mom. “Otherwise, down the road, they’re going to make choices based on what other people think and not what they think themselves. They’re going to be more susceptible to peer pressure.”

Research has shown that a more “authoritative” style of parenting is usually best for kids, Harvard’s Davison said. 

Authoritative parenting, in general, means setting limits, but is more cuddly and warm than super-strict. Or think Panda Dad rather than Tiger Mom.  

But mom and dad should adjust their parenting to the situation and their own child's personality, Davison said. 

“Some children require a more authoritarian handling,” Davison said. “Give them a finger and they’ll take an arm.