Toward developing healthy relationships with food
Reprinted from the "Mind-Body Connection" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 10 (2), p. 27
Family FUNdamentals is a comprehensive parenting program for families with children two to four years old. Through interactive (parent/child) activities, the program helps parents to support the healthy growth and development of their children by addressing healthy eating and the importance of play and physical activity, as well as social and emotional well-being. Family FUNdamentals was developed as part of Family Services of the North Shore’s Jessie’s Legacy Eating Disorders Prevention Program. The ultimate goal of Family FUNdamentals is to prevent disordered eating, which may lead to eating disorders or obesity.
I talked to Ada Sin* from SUCCESS about her experience with the Family FUNdamentals program in a multicultural setting.
Parenting challenges for immigrant families
Many of the parents Ada works with struggle to adapt to life in Canada. So many things are different here. They may be learning a new language; the education system and community services can be confusing; and ideas about “family” may be quite different.
In Eastern culture, the family is very ‘big’—very important—whereas, in Canadian society, family is important, but not as big. Here, the idea of ‘me’ as an individual is much bigger. ‘Me,’ in Eastern culture, is relatively ‘little.’ Ada says, “In Eastern culture, we do have ‘self.’ But in terms of the family value, we subsume our own self in order to please the whole—for harmony. Here in Canada we talk about individualism; here we need to talk about being happy—‘I am me; I love myself.’ But for the Eastern culture, how well you did at school, how well you did physically—these things all reflect the grace or honour of the family . . . The healthier the children, the happier the parents.” They will be proud of themselves for raising healthy children.
She adds: “Parents find it difficult to respect the Canadian way. They say, ‘How come my child, only two years old, has so many arguments with the parents?’”
When children are in preschool they are offered choice, but choice is something really challenging for immigrant families. “We never had a choice when we were young; we just did what we were told.”
Ada also explains: “The children don’t understand why the teacher always says ‘Sweetheart’ or ‘Honey’—it seems that the teachers love them so much. But at home we don’t really use those words. We keep it in the heart; we do a lot of service for our children, but that is a different expression of love. The children just see who treats them nicely. At home they say, ‘Mom, you are so mean to me. How come you don’t love me?’”
Parents sacrifice a lot for their children when they move to a new country, and it’s really hard for them to take that kind of response from their children. It is also hard for the children.
There are many strengths in Eastern cultures that can help. For example, Ada feels that Eastern cultures see a natural link between mental well-being and physical well-being. For example, in Chinese culture, Ada says “We believe in a holistic view of health. All parts of the body are closely related to each other. Better physical well-being will certainly bring about better mental well-being and vice versa.”
Ada tells parents, “We have something really good in our culture; we don’t need to give it up. But Canadian culture also has many good things. So, if we can take the best from both, that would be perfect.”
The importance of good role modelling
There’s an old parenting adage: “Do as I say, not as I do.” But we know that actions actually speak louder than words and young children like to mimic their parents. Ada often gets feedback from parents saying things like: “The way my daughter talks to her younger brother is exactly the way I talk to her.”
The best way to teach healthy behaviours and attitudes (to benefit mind and body) is by being a good role model and doing ourselves what we want our children to do.
Children can learn how to manage their emotions from their parents. Parents may not realize it, but if they are negative, their children might tend to be more negative. If the parents cry a lot or are depressed, it can be a factor for their children. If a parent is isolated at home, the child may not learn how to be comfortable with social interaction.
Parents can also influence their children’s food choices. If you like junk food, your children will know it. As Ada says, “Your whole lifestyle—how you interact with people, how you respond to challenges, how you take care of yourself—has a big impact on the children.”
The food issue
Ada says that, in some cultures, how healthy the children appear to others is the parents’ ‘report card.’ The role of the parent is to see that their children eat well so they will grow. It is something physical, that other people can see and will judge. The mom will say to the child, “You need to eat a lot; otherwise Grandma will say you are not healthy enough and I’m not doing a good job as a mom.” Immigrant parents need to be brave enough to counteract those upper-level family messages and to integrate the values of the new country.
When her own son was five, Ada once said to him, “You didn’t finish that. Perhaps you are still hungry; maybe you should eat a little bit more.” He answered back, “Mom, do you think I know whether I’m full, or do you think you know better than me?”
Ada asks parents to consider the question: “Do you think your child has the ability to know if they are full or not? Do you trust that?” Young children and babies are able to tell us when they are full. Young children close their mouths and turn away when food is offered, and babies stop nursing and fall asleep when they are no longer hungry. They are following their body’s cues. It is the parent’s job to respect these signals.
Lots of Chinese grandparents have a bowl and a spoon, and they chase the children around to get them to eat. Ada talks with parents about having scheduled meal times as the Canadian way of feeding a toddler. She tells parents, “Let your child decide how much to eat and whether to finish. It is okay. There will be the next meal.” If the parents try it, they find it really works. But the mom has to really integrate in her head what she sees with her eyes.
“Eating is the most powerful thing that children can control by themselves,” says Ada. When feeding becomes a power struggle, it can extend to other areas of the parent-child relationship.
The Family FUNdamentals program
Family FUNdamentals is a six-session program. Each module is 1.5 hours long and includes time for activities, songs, stories, parent information and a healthy snack. The module themes are: “Being Me, Being You,” “Healthy Relationships,” “Joyful Eating,” “Creative Movement and Activity,” “Being Confident” and “Celebration.” The written materials are in English, but individual groups can make their own decisions to deliver parts in other languages as needed.
Ada likes the Family FUNdamentals program because it is very playful—they don’t just sit and talk seriously. During each Family FUNdamentals session, parents and children learn together through songs, stories and games—putting positive parenting concepts into action. They prepare personal pizzas together, and parents practise being encouraging while they play with their children.
Each session is structured the same way: it starts with the program song, ends with a “mystery food” game and snack, and the main activities that support the weekly theme are sandwiched in between. Songs and rhymes are used consistently to help children transition between activities. Ada loves all the routines that are part of the program—she talks to parents about how routines help children feel safe. Over the six sessions, parents really see the change in the behaviour of their children.
Ada also thinks the parents find it really powerful to sing the Family FUNdamentals program song.* In singing the song, they say for themselves: “I love myself; everything for me is okay, I’m unique; no matter how I look, I’m myself and I love myself.” That idea helps parents to really think about how each of us is unique.
Ada has found that the information about food choices, like snack ideas, is not only helpful for parents, but also for herself and her colleagues. “We had never tried these food combinations before.” Joyful eating is a big part of the Family FUNdmentals program. Each session ends with a family snack time where everyone sits together enjoying good food and interesting conversation. Some of the snack combinations that are provided include raw or steamed vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, etc.) with hummus (chickpea dip), or fresh fruit with yogurt. Make-your-own “participizzas” are also very popular.
“Families feel amazed and actually a lot of them went home and made it as a family,” Ada says. “It’s a good integration, because the children are going to see these foods at school. So, when they make them at home, it makes a connection between the two cultures.”
Ada says that actually preparing the food and enjoying it together makes a difference. At the end of the program they celebrate with ethnic food, which helps the parents really sink into the Canadian kind of “mosaic” and multiculturalism.
One mother’s story
Ada told me about one mom who attended the SUCCESS Family FUNdamentals program. “She has two sons. One has autism and is elementary-school-aged. The other one is three or four years old. After a few sessions, she shared with us: ‘Even though my son has autism and gives me so much trouble, he is still unique. He’s still special.’”
This mother spent the time in our programs with only the younger son. She is usually always occupied by the older son. She really liked that time and has expressed: “Even though that son has no special needs, he also needs my attention. He is special and unique too.”
*This article is based on an interview with Ada Sin. Ada is a Chinese Worker with Multicultural Early Child Development Services offered by SUCCESS (an organization promoting the well-being and full community integration of immigrants) in Port Moody, Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam. This service, for immigrant families with children from birth to six years, is provided in Korean, Farsi, Mandarin and Cantonese.