More Effective Parenting — Awareness Is All It Costs

Attitude adjustment comes with no price tag attached. It does not cost a cent. It will not deplete the vacation piggy bank or impoverish the college fund. Childhood Obesity News has been discussing something that is both free and freeing: the decision to abandon, or at least modify, some ingrained mindsets that have proven to be counterproductive.

One of those negative and unhelpful attitudes is the punitive one. Why would we want to get rid of it? For the answer, consult the title of an article written by Dr. Stephen R. Daniels of the University of Colorado School of Medicine: “Kids of authoritarian parents ‘more likely to be obese’.” If that doesn’t do the job, consider the title of Wendy Wisner’s article: “‘Harsh Parenting’ Is Linked to Childhood Obesity.”

Dr. Daniels wrote about a study whose aim was to help clinicians aid parents in implementing a more effective parenting style. The researchers understood the importance of catching parents early, before they have a chance to fall into bad habits. He wrote,

Ignoring bad behavior but rewarding good behavior is the best way to think about this. Punishing bad behavior and ignoring good behavior doesn’t work from a psychological standpoint.

Wisner recommends mindfulness, which basically is paying attention to what is going on right now, without referencing past experiences or future expectations, both of which can muddle emotions, skew perceptions, and cloud judgment. She suggests that the parent give herself or himself a timeout, and just sit down for a few minutes, or even briefly leave the room, if that is feasible. The part that sounds a little dicey is,

I tell them, “Mommy’s feeling frustrated with your behavior right now. Mommy is really upset.”

It may seem unconnected with obesity, but some early childhood experts reject illeism, the technical term for referring to oneself in the third person. When an adult does it, children tend to copy the behavior and say such things as “Wendy want popcorn.” We certainly don’t encourage them to reach driving age saying things like, “No, Officer, Mark doesn’t know why the policeman pulled him over.”

Why begin by teaching kids incorrect English, when they will soon have to unlearn it, and figure out what pronouns are all about? It is a minor version of the Santa Claus debate, which goes like, “Why tell your children something that isn’t true, only to admit, after a few short years, that you not only lied, but perpetrated a whole elaborate structure of interrelated lies to prop up the Santa myth?” Some people feel very strongly, one way or the other, about that cultural artifact.

Motherhood blogger Rebecca Lang has some thoughts, of which these are only a sampling:

Perhaps we just know that we should simplify our speech around children who are learning our language. On the other hand, we don’t start speaking in the third person when we meet a person who isn’t fluent in English…

I have a theory on when we’re more likely to do it. Parents call themselves “Mommy” or “Daddy” when we’re stressed by something our kids are doing…

That observation opens up another whole field of inquiry. What good purpose is served by dropping into the conversation a verbal cue that Mommy is reaching the end of her patience — as if facial expression, body language, and tone of voice were not sufficient indications of that unfortunate state?

Maybe the pediatrician has suggested that little Wendy is carrying a few more pounds than would be ideal. It does not take long for the child’s subconscious to pick up on the fact that Mommy brings out the third-person terminology only when talking about meals or snacks.

What message does that convey? Is it a useful message? The problem is, we rarely know, in real time, what bounces off a kid and what sinks in. Details of that kind are generally unearthed years later, by therapists.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Kids of authoritarian parents ‘more likely to be obese’,”, 03/20/14
Source: “‘Harsh Parenting’ Is Linked to Childhood Obesity,”, 2016
Source: “Why Do We Refer to Ourselves in the Third Person When We Talk to Our Kids?,”, undated
Photo credit: Shane Adams on Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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