Study reports that a combination of authoritative and permissive parenting facilitates limit setting for children during grocery shopping and is associated with healthier food choices.
In the United States, more than 1 in 3 children are overweight or obese. Obesity has an immediate and long-term impact on health and well-being, and lifestyle habits like physical activity and healthy eating can reduce the risk of children becoming obese. Parenting style and the family environment can promote and/or inhibit the development of healthy eating patterns in children. Parents who report that they provide both structure and warmth to their children in terms of parenting tend to have children who are healthier.
153 parent-child pairs participated in a mock grocery shopping task in a room that had been set up to resemble a grocery store aisle. Both the parent and child wore eye-tracking glasses so that parent-child interactions could be recorded during the task. The pair was asked to pick out two items from three different sections (cookies/crackers, cereals, and chips/snacks) and to make food choices in a similar way to how they would in a grocery store. This experimental set-up examines situation-specific parenting, in contrast to overall ‘general’ parenting. After the task, parents filled out a questionnaire on their parenting style that covered topics like discipline strategies, communication, and warmth, while children completed a food-choice task.
The parenting style questionnaire was analyzed for items that reflect three primary parenting styles: 1) authoritativeness (warmth/involvement, democratic participation, good natured/easygoing), 2) authoritarianism (verbal hostility, directiveness, and non-reasoning punitive strategies), and 3) permissiveness (lack of follow-through, ignoring misbehaviour, lack of self-confidence). Recordings of parent-child interactions were analyzed and categorized into dimensions of warmth/responsiveness (positive tone, shared laughter) and limit-setting (general limit setting, discussing healthfulness of food products, providing suggestions for healthier choices). Child behaviours were also categorized according to resistance (whining) and negotiation (persuading parent to make a different choice). The healthfulness of the foods chosen was determined based on the amount of calories, saturated fat, grams of sugar, and sodium in each serving.
To examine how self-reported parenting style was related to healthy food choices, the researchers compared parenting style to observed parent-child interactions during grocery shopping. Parents whose parenting style was reported as both authoritarian and less permissive engaged in more limit-setting behaviour. Interestingly, an authoritative parenting style alone was not related to observed limit-setting behaviour during the shopping task. Children who were observed to display greater resistance and negotiation were met with increased limit-setting by their parents.
The warmth of parents during grocery shopping was also analyzed. Results indicated that parents were significantly less warm if their child engaged in more resistance in comparison to parents whose children engaged in less resistance. It was discovered that parental education also was associated with warmth of interaction with their child, where parents with higher education were observed to be warmer. There were no significant associations between reported general parenting style and warmth during the grocery shopping task.
The association between parenting and the healthfulness of food choices was based on parents’ self-reported parenting style, observed parent-child interactions during the task, and the score of the foods selected based on their nutrition information. Parents who set more limits during grocery shopping were observed to select significantly healthier foods, particularly in terms of saturated fat. However, no significant associations were observed between parenting-style and the number of calories or sodium of the foods chosen. A higher degree of warmth was only marginally associated with choosing foods with fewer calories.
These results indicate that authoritarian and permissive parenting is associated with limit setting, and limit setting is, in turn, linked to choosing healthier foods. This suggests that parents tend to ‘practice what they preach’ and put forth more effort in making healthier choices when shopping for groceries even if it means they are less warm to their children. The researchers propose that by being less warm and focusing on setting limits around food, parents may have effectively adapted their behaviour to achieve health goals. Greater limit setting during grocery shopping then, is a facet of parenting that has the potential to promote healthier weight and lifestyle for children and may be critical to a child’s autonomous decision making in the future that results in long-term health.
Written By: Fiona Wong, PhD