A Flexible Style Can Prevent Children’s Obesity

By Jeremy G. Schneider, MFT

Many of you may have read the recent study that came out in the journal Pediatrics regarding parenting style and obesity. Let’s take a few minutes to look at it more closely to see how it affects us. When you break parents into four groups, you find that three types of parents are more likely to end up with obese children than the fourth type. The researchers, from the Boston University School of Medicine, broke parents into the following types; strict, permissive, neglectful, and flexible (also called authoritative). Strict parents were actually almost five times more likely to have obese children than flexible parents, while permissive and neglectful parents were more than twice as likely as flexible parents to have obese children. In addition, different studies have shown that this flexible or authoritative style of parenting also contributes to higher school achievement and lower incidence of depression in their children.

Upon reading this, it is easy for many parents to wonder whether they are really being too strict or too permissive – especially since too much of one or the other seems to have detrimental effects on our children. How do we maintain this delicate balance?

The first thing to remember is these types of parenting are defined over time. We all have moments where we let our children do what they want or lay down the law without question. However, we need to think of our parenting style over the long haul. More often than not what type of parent are we? It is important that we are consistent when it comes to setting limits for our children. If you’re strict one week and permissive the next, how will your child know how to behave? The expectations and consequences for your children need to be as consistent as possible.

Of course, you can be consistently strict or consistently permissive. Consistency is valuable, but it is part of the process – not the goal. The researchers use the term “flexible.” This is our goal, to be flexible, to set down the rules for our children and enforce them, but to understand that they won’t fit for all situations and they can be changed as needed. But not too much, right? We don’t want to become permissive. Such a delicate balance. No flexibility and you’re too strict, too much and you’re too permissive.

Try to think about it like this. Imagine taking a piece of rope, putting it on a table and making a square out of it. That’s what we’re trying to do for our children, a safe box to hold them while they try to learn and explore the incredibly exciting new world they see every day, yet protect them from dangers they know nothing about. This box ideally will shelter them from harm while freeing them to safely learn and experience everything they can. If you are too strict, when they are testing the boundaries you are creating for them, they will hit the rope hard and the rope won’t move at all causing them some pain. After some time, they will learn they can’t go near the rope, near the boundary, that they can’t go beyond what they already know. This can create children fearful of any change, scared of trying new things, timid and extremely inward.
However, if you’re too permissive, when your child bumps the rope, the rope is too limp to stop him and he keeps going. Before you know it, the rope square no longer exists; it is just a rope lying haphazardly over the table and nothing is containing your child, protecting your child, embracing your child. A child who is not embraced, who is not protected is destined for trouble because of how difficult it will be for him to understand other people’s boundaries, to feel loved, to know how to act in most situations. It is easy to see how many kids who have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD could have started out with permissive parents because they don’t understand where any boundaries are (Note: I know there are many children who truly suffer from ADD/ADHD. I also know there are too many other kids being medicated because they never had any structure, any boundaries and it is terribly sad.)

But in between these two styles is our goal. When your child bumps against the rope wall with flexible parenting, it is like when an outfielder runs into the outfield wall; it is often padded and has a little give to it so he doesn’t get hurt when he hits it. He knows the wall is there, but he also knows if he hits it he’s going to be okay. We want them to test the limits (just not our patience), we need them to test the boundaries, to find out what they can do and what they can’t because that gives them the best chance of fulfilling their potential. The little give is our flexibility.

How does it look in the real world? Here are some examples…

  • Your children are not eating much of dinner, but you know they had a big lunch and a snack in the afternoon. Normally, you want them to eat a good amount of their dinner, but that day you don’t make them eat all of their dinner because you know they are probably not that hungry.
  • Grandma wants to take all of you out to dinner, but you know if you do that they will go to bed about 30 minutes later than usual. Even though you try to get them to bed at the same time every night, you know how much they value the time with their grandma, and decide it is okay.
  • The family is invited to a dinner that doesn’t start until about 30 minutes before your kids’ bedtime. You decide not to go because you don’t want your kids to go to bed two hours late.
  • Your kids don’t eat enough food at dinner, but it is Daddy’s birthday. Normally, you don’t let them have dessert if they haven’t eaten enough of their meal, but since it is Daddy’s birthday you make an exception.

The major keys to the flexible style of parenting are this:

  1. Rules exist – You have put the rules in place and are consistent in your expectations that they be followed or obeyed.
  2. Exceptions – As the saying goes, for every rule there is an exception. You have the power to allow exceptions for specific situations.
  3. Growth – The rules grow and adjust as your child grows.

These are the elements that distinguish the flexible style of parenting from the other types. It is the type of parenting that empowers children, encourages them to achieve their full potential while providing them with a safe foundation they can rely on for the rest of their life.