A child’s relationship with food partly hinges on the parenting practices they are exposed to. These practices may be linked to how mothers regulate their diet and could have repercussions that reach as far as their children’s plate.

As part of a study of 300 mothers with children between the ages of two and eight, Noémie Carbonneau, professor in the Department of Psychology at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), observed two types of motivation that guide eating behaviours: autonomous and controlled. Mothers with high autonomous motivation tend to adopt eating habits that are in line with their values and make choices that are primarily rooted in pleasure. They promote more autonomy by involving their children in the kitchen and providing a healthier eating environment at home. In contrast, mothers with more controlled motivation often have eating habits that aim to avoid shame and guilt. Their choices are also influenced by social and family pressures. Their parenting practices are based more on coercive control, leading them to use food as a reward or as a means to regulate their children’s emotions.

Even so, Noémie Carbonneau affirms that parental strategies alone do not explain toddlers’ eating behaviours. Some children seem to naturally be more attracted to food, and this high food responsiveness entails a stronger appetite. Mothers with autonomous motivation won’t change their own behaviours when their children have these traits and will even capitalize on their interest by involving them in meal planning and preparation, while mothers with more controlled motivation will be more destabilized. Guiding mothers towards healthier motivations could therefore foster optimal parenting practices, and these changes could then have a positive effect on their children, eventually improving their relationship with food.



Noémie Carbonneau holds the Canada Research Chair in the Psychosocial Determinants of Eating Behaviours