These days, it’s common for researchers to conclude that “deficits” in children are what cause obesity. That is, there is something wrong with the child that leads to obesity. 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 behaviors provide more immediate gratification than healthy behaviors.
Giving children autonomy
In contrast, the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model emphasizes 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.
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 eat “healthy” food and engage in “healthy” activity, not because someone else makes them or because they “should,” but because they enjoy it. 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 a lamb cutlet in one hand and licks of an ice cream in the other. This is not self-control but knowing that their parents trust them to make those decisions, Read about feeding your child so that they grow to have the body they are meant to have: Your Child’s Weight: Helping without Harming