The overall aim of this study was to observe differences in the emotional climate created by parents during dinner and specific behavioral feeding practices that may interfere with child self-regulation among those reporting different feeding styles on the CFSQ. This was done in order to better understand the consistent relationship found in previous studies between self-reports of an indulgent parenting and/or feeding style and higher child weight. Cross-sectional [1–3] and longitudinal  studies of ethnically diverse, low-income parents have found that young children of indulgent parents were most likely to have a higher weight status or become overweight when measured three years later. Indulgent feeding has also been linked to child eating behaviors among diverse ethnic groups , Hennessy E, Hughes SO, Goldberg JP, Hyatt RR, Economos CD: Permissive parental feeding behavior is associated with an increase in low nutrient-dense foods among American children living in rural communities, submitted].
In an attempt to better understand mechanisms that might help explain this association between indulgence and child weight, we were specifically interested in how parents interacted with their children during the dinner meal. We observed that parents with an indulgent feeding style were significantly different from other feeding styles on three of the four emotional climate variables. Additionally, indulgent parents were observed to be significantly lower on almost all of the observed behavioral feeding practices. Our results confirmed that parents with self-reported indulgent feeding styles made very few demands on their children to eat during dinner and were less negative and intrusive with their children during the meal. Surprisingly, these parents also showed higher emotional detachment with their children during dinner. Because detachment was defined as low levels of involvement and responsiveness toward the child, this finding may have been a consequence of the raters' observation of low parental involvement during meals. Because styles of parenting/feeding constitute ways that parents establish and manage the home environment, it is expected that indulgent parents are trying to control the emotional climate of the meal by making sure their child is happy. Indulgent parents are supportive and non-directive with their child but do not spend a lot of time at the task of getting their child to eat.
The current data also replicate findings of previous research showing that children of parents with an indulgent feeding style are at the greatest risk for obesity [1–4]. However, in the current study, this finding was significant only for Hispanic boys. This finding is unexpected given that the families in this study were similar demographically to the families in our previous research [2–4]. Because Hispanic preschool boys show higher obesity rates than Hispanic girls or African-American boys or girls , it appears that the indulgent feeding style only had effects on child weight status for this high-risk demographic group.
The association between indulgent feeding style and child obesity suggests that too little control may be just as problematic for children as too much control [cf., ]. If parents do not provide enough emotional investment and supervision in the eating context (essentially allowing children to consume as much energy-dense food as they wish), their children may ignore their internal fullness cues resulting in inappropriate weight gain. An intermediate level of parental involvement may be optimal. This is supported by research by Jansen and colleagues  who found that both high and low levels of parental restrictiveness in feeding were related to the amount of snacks that children consumed in their parents' absence in a laboratory setting--i.e., intermediate levels of parental restriction were associated with the lowest levels of snack consumption. Such results are consistent with the predictions of self-determination theory, which posits that intrinsic motivation is facilitated by autonomy supporting practices [34, 35]. As demonstrated in research in other domains, young children with high levels of self-regulation have parents who provide them with sufficient attention, assistance, and support to complete difficult tasks that they cannot complete on their own (see Power, 2004 for a review) . The same may hold true for children in the eating context.
Our analyses revealed other significant feeding style differences in the emotional climate of the meal and in the behavioral feeding practices that parents used to get their children to eat. As expected, authoritarian parents exhibited significantly higher negative affect and intrusiveness during the meal compared to the authoritative and indulgent parents. Uninvolved parents, also as hypothesized, exhibited higher detachment during dinner compared to authoritative and authoritarian parents. The uninvolved parents also exhibited higher negative affect relative to authoritative and indulgent parents. Even though parents with an indulgent style showed lower negative affect, as expected, they were also observed to exhibit more detachment similar to the uninvolved parents.
Most of the differences between the self-reported feeding styles on the behavioral feeding practices variables were seen between the authoritarian parents and the indulgent parents. Parents with an authoritarian feeding style were significantly higher on all of the observed feeding practices except for making positive comments about food compared to parents with an indulgent style. Furthermore, parents reporting authoritarian and authoritative feeding styles (high demandingness) used spoon feeding/physical interventions and verbal prompts to eat more frequently than parents with indulgent and uninvolved styles (low demandingness). Parents with authoritarian and authoritative styles also showed more reasoning and made more positive comments about food than parents with styles characterized by low demandingness. Parents with authoritarian feeding styles engaged in practices such as disapproving of and scolding their child, hurrying their child, and asking their child to eat a small amount more frequently than did parents in the other three groups.
This study extends our understanding of the relationship between feeding styles, the emotional climate of the meal, and feeding behaviors/practices of parents [1–3]. Results suggest that the emotional climate of the dinner meal may play an important part in how parents socialize their children around eating. Results also suggest that parents' self-reported feeding styles might be a proxy for the emotional climate of the dinner meal, which may in turn influence the child's eating behaviors and weight status. Parental behaviors exhibited during the child's eating activities and the emotional climate created by these behaviors can significantly impact the eating behaviors of the developing child  in a positive or a negative way depending upon the feeding style of the parent [37–40].
One of the most significant strengths of this study was the use of direct observation to examine parent-child interactions during home meals. Direct observation plays a significant role in advancing our understanding of the family process during mealtime. By observing family dynamics during dinner as opposed to relying on self-report data, researchers can draw conclusions about parent-child interactions that may be difficult to assess through self-report . For example, parents may underreport feeding practices such as ignoring the child, yelling at the child, or forcing the child to eat. Some parents may also inaccurately self-report their behaviors due to cultural norms, language barriers, or lack of awareness . Observational data also provide more detailed information about the how and why of the parent-child dynamic thus offering a link between qualitative data and quantitative research methods. One limitation of being observed in the home is that observation may impact parents' usual meal time practices. The problem of participant reactivity has been addressed in a review article by Gardner . The author suggests that the presence of an observer does not markedly distort participant behaviors. She also found no differences in the frequency and nature of behaviors between the first and later observations and little evidence of systematic changes in the frequency of negative and positive behaviors.
While one strength of this study was multiple observations on each family, these observations were conducted in a relatively short time frame such that seasonal influences on food intake could have been present. It is also possible that by observing the family three times during the two- to three-week interval and only at the dinner meal did not allow for the entire spectrum of parental feeding behaviors to be observed. Furthermore, as noted by other researchers, parents adapt their feeding practices to the child's traits, needs, and weight . For example, if the child has recently gained weight at the time of the observation, the parent might discourage certain types of food (low-nutrient energy-dense foods). As children's weight sometimes fluctuates when they are young, a snapshot of feeding such as the one collected during this study may not be representative of usual parent behavior. A longitudinal study, over the course of a year or two, could resolve this issue.
This work suggests that feeding styles play a crucial role in the emotional climate of the dinner meal. Furthermore, the emotional climate created by the parents and the specific feeding practices used to get children to eat may negatively influence the child's internal cues of fullness and self-regulation. This learned process can carry over into the child's adult life. An authoritarian parent might be able to "control" the child's weight at a healthy level while the child is very young, but if the child does not learn to self-regulate eating during childhood, he/she might gain weight when no longer under the parent's complete control (e.g., when the child enters elementary school and has access to other foods beyond the parents' control). The information from this study may be used to improve family interactions around eating while the child is still young. Interventions to improve parent-child interactions during meal time could focus on getting indulgent parents to make more demands on their child to eat and setting boundaries regarding what types of food should be eaten. Furthermore, authoritarian parents could be taught to use less controlling practices such as physical interventions, hurrying, and disapproving of or scolding their child. These interventions may help children to learn to have a good relationship with food.