Picky eater? No thank you

As a pediatric occupational therapist specializing in feeding and a toddler mom, I constantly navigate the delicate realm of language regarding children and their eating habits. One phrase that often grates on me is “picky eater.” It’s a term that carries a negative connotation, potentially fostering an unhealthy perception of children’s food preferences. In my professional and personal journey, I have adopted the term “selective eating” to reframe the conversation around individual choices and preferences, steering clear of labeling that may impact a child’s self-esteem.

The choice of language holds profound implications, especially in the formative years of a child’s development. Numerous studies in child psychology underline the importance of positive reinforcement and the potential harm that negative labels can inflict on a child’s self-perception. Instead of using terms that suggest a child is being difficult or stubborn, opting for positive language can contribute to a more supportive and empowering environment.

In my role, I’ve witnessed firsthand the impact of language on a child’s willingness to explore and enjoy a variety of foods. The term “picky eater” implies a judgment that may hinder a child’s openness to trying new things. On the other hand, “selective eating” encourages a narrative centered around individual tastes, emphasizing that each child has unique preferences.

One poignant incident involving my daughter highlighted the need to be vigilant about the language we use. In a public setting, someone attempted to label her as “cute but bashful and shy.” Swiftly and unapologetically, I corrected this mislabeling for my sake and, more importantly, hers. It was a moment of advocacy, an opportunity to demonstrate that we should stand up for our children, fostering an environment that nurtures their self-esteem.

To further reinforce the importance of positive language, I draw on the wisdom of experts in child development. Renowned psychologists and educators stress the significance of language in shaping a child’s perception of themselves and the world around them. Encouraging parents to be mindful of the words they use when discussing their child’s eating habits can contribute to a positive and supportive upbringing.

In conclusion, the journey of fostering healthy eating habits in children goes hand in hand with the language we choose. Let’s shift our focus from labels that carry negative connotations to language that empowers and uplifts. By adopting positive terms like “selective eating,” we not only reshape the conversation but also contribute to a nurturing environment where children can develop a positive relationship with food, free from the constraints of stigmatizing labels.

And yes, I understand that the phrase “pick eating” is used by the American Occupational Therapy Association and other professional organizations. I welcome the opportunity to discuss it and change our perspective from a broader and more systematic level.

Dr. Monica