A growing literature examines parental feeding practices as a potential influence on children’s weight status. However, few studies of parental feeding practices have focused specifically on Mexican American children, in spite of the high rates of obesity in this population. Moreover, existing measures of parental feeding practices have either assessed a narrow range of feeding practices, or have not used culturally-based methodological approaches in measurement development. In the current study, we used a combination of qualitative and quantitative methods to develop and validate the Parental Feeding Practices (PFP) Questionnaire, an expanded measure of parental feeding practices in Mexican American families. Fathers as well as mothers participated in the research.
Confirmatory factor analysis revealed four second-order feeding practice dimensions: positive involvement in child eating, pressure to eat, use of food to control behavior, and restriction of amount of food. All four dimensions were equivalent in meaning for mothers and fathers. Within couples, mothers’ and fathers’ feeding practices were somewhat similar, but mothers and fathers differed in the degree to which they reported using some feeding practices. Moreover, each feeding practice dimension was related to child weight status, for one or both parents. For both parents, those who used more pressure to eat had children with lower BMI scores, while those who used more restriction had children with higher BMI scores. Mothers, but not fathers, who reported more positive involvement in their children’s eating had children with lower weight. In contrast, fathers who used food to control children’s behavior had children with lower weight status, but this association was not found for mothers.
Our study is among the first to provide evidence that mothers’ positive involvement in children’s eating is associated with children’s lower weight status. This constellation of behaviors, encompassing encouragement of healthy eating, monitoring and limiting intake of high-calorie foods, and serving small portions, is hypothesized to promote healthy eating and protect against obesity
]. Positive involvement in children’s eating is thought to reflect authoritative parenting, a general parenting style that consists of parental demands for maturity and responsiveness to children’s needs
]. Authoritative parenting has been linked to children’s and adolescents’ competence in a variety of domains, such as social interactions and academic success
]. Recently, investigators have begun to examine whether general parenting styles, such as authoritative parenting, are reflected in specific parental feeding practices
One aspect of parents’ positive involvement in their children’s eating that emerged in this research was parental food monitoring and limiting of high-calorie foods. Parental food monitoring/limiting has been conceptualized as parental control of child feeding by some investigators
] and a constructive feeding practice by others
]. In this study, parental food monitoring/limiting was linked with other feeding practices generally considered to be positive, and was distinct from restriction of amount of food. These findings suggest that parental monitoring/ limiting of high-calorie foods is a constructive feeding practice, at least among Mexican Americans. In future research with this and other populations, it would be useful to confirm that monitoring/limiting high-calorie foods and restricting amount of food are separate constructs.
Both pressure to eat and restriction of amount of food were associated with children’s weight. Consistent with previous research
], mothers’ and fathers’ pressure to eat was related to children’s lower weight status. In contrast, mothers’ and fathers’ restricting amount of food was related to children’s higher weight status, consistent with some but not all previous research
]. Both of these feeding practices may impede children’s ability to develop awareness of hunger and satiety
]. By focusing on external cues, children being pressured to eat may perceive food as less desirable, while children whose parents restrict amount of food may perceive it as more desirable
]. It is also possible that parents engage in these feeding practices when they are concerned about their children’s weight. Several longitudinal studies have begun to address the causal direction of these relationships, but findings have been inconsistent
Fathers’ greater use of food to control their child’s behavior was related to children’s lower weight status. This feeding behavior, encompassing use of food as a reward and use of food to control emotions, is considered to be evidence of parental use of control over child feeding and was originally conceptualized as an aspect of restriction
]. However, use of food to control child’s behavior may reduce the desirability of food for children, as suggested by the finding that it was associated with lower child weight status. In contrast, restriction of food appears to increase the desirability of food
]. Other research has also found that reward and restriction are two separate constructs
]. Accordingly, we suggest that parental restriction of food and use of food to control behavior be measured separately in future research.
Although fathers play an important and unique role in families
], few studies of parental feeding practices have included fathers. In the current study, we found both similarities and differences between mothers and fathers. Mothers’ and fathers’ feeding practices were associated, but fathers reported using pressure to eat and using food to control behavior more often than mothers, and mothers reported more positive involvement in children’s eating. Both mothers’ and fathers’ feeding practices were linked to children’s weight, but use of food to control behavior was linked to children’s lower weight only for fathers, while greater positive involvement in children’s eating was linked to children’s lower weight only for mothers. These results hint that compared to mothers, fathers may engage in more feeding practices that reflect control over child feeding. Further research in Mexican American families that examines culturally-related parental roles may help to illuminate these findings. In addition, future research on parental feeding practices that is conducted in any cultural group could benefit from including fathers.
This study has several limitations. Because the research was cross-sectional, it was not possible to determine whether parental feeding practices influence children’s weight status, or whether parents’ feeding practices are responses to concerns about children’s weight. The findings from this research cannot be generalized beyond Mexican American families with mostly immigrant parents. It is also possible that the findings of this study are due to participants’ SES or immigrant status, rather than their membership in a particular cultural group; consequently, these findings may apply to other cultural or ethnic groups. In addition, because we studied only children ages 8–10, we cannot generalize beyond this age range. Thus, future research could test the appropriateness of the PFP for use in other populations and with a broader age range of children. Another limitation is that although the alphas for the second-order factors were all acceptable, several first-order factors that contained few items had low alphas. Future research using this scale could perform further developmental work, such as focus groups or individual qualitative interviews, to create additional items for those subscales. An additional limitation is the possibility that parents influenced one another’s responses. However, because the interviews were lengthy, it would have been difficult for participants to remember their partner’s responses. Finally, our understanding of the parental feeding practices identified in this research would be enhanced by additional sources of validity, such as observations of children’s mealtimes.