Dear Laura - The Division of Responsibility Doesn’t Work for my Family - is it me, or the model?
(Spoiler, I’m not a DoR purist)
Hey team - welcome to ‘Dear Laura’ - a monthly column where I fashion myself as an agony aunt and answer the questions that readers submit. If you’d like to submit a question for me to answer next month - then you can leave it as a comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org and put ‘Dear Laura’ in the subject. I’m happy to answer Qs about anti-diet nutrition, developing a more peaceful relationship to food and weight-inclusive health, body image challenges, and, of course, challenges with feeding your kiddos. Please give as much detail as you’re comfortable with and let me know if you’d like me to include your name or keep it anon.
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Here’s this month’s question from Heidi:
I've been struggling with the division of responsibility ever since my kids were little - at a time when I tried to become an intuitive eater myself after decades of dieting and disordered eating. Now my kids are 7, 9, and 11 years old and thankfully, still intuitive eaters.
My middle child has the most challenges in terms of trying unknown foods and she won't eat cooked vegetables - they literally make her gag when she tries them (we don't force her, sometimes she's open to trying something new). But she eats raw veg and for the most part sticks with pasta, cheese, bread and fruit or cereal.
Dealing with sweets and chocolate is still a bit of a work in progress, but generally we're doing okay.
But the one thing I can't get over is that the division of responsibility strikes me as a not very intuitive approach. It might have worked when my kids were toddlers but generally it seems to me that nobody ever talks about how difficult (and in my view non-intuitive) this is with older kids.
So my question is - am I missing something or how can you teach kids to trust their bodies and follow their bodies signals if they don't get to choose WHAT to eat?
I think we found a somewhat working system for us but I'd love to hear how this could / is supposed to work with older kids, pre-teens and even teenagers.
Would love your perspective on that and felt emboldened after reading your most recent post on breastfeeding where you hinted at limitations.
Years and years ago, when I was just a fledgling Registered Nutritionist, I remember asking a question about feeding kids in a professional Facebook group. The DoR devotees CAME AT ME. This, apparently, was the gold standard model for feeding children and I wasn’t to stray from it. Nor was I to question Her Royal Highness Ellyn Satter - the Queen of feeding families.
Fast forward, taking lots of training, reading many, many books, supporting parents professionally, and, the biggest lesson of all - having my own kid - I feel a little differently about it now.
And here’s the part where I reveal I’m not a Division of Responsibility (DoR) purist.
Like, I just don’t think it’s the be all, end all when it comes to feeding kids.
Can it be a helpful framework for some folks? Sure.
Do I use it with my own kid? Kinda.
Do I use it in my work with families? Yes and no.
Let’s back up a bit.
For the uninitiated, the Division of Responsibility is a framework devised by family therapist and dietitian Ellyn Satter. It breaks the task of feeding kids down into the parents role and the kids’ role.
For older toddlers, preschoolers, and younger kids - it states that:
Adults decide WHAT, WHEN, and WHERE food is offered.
Kids decide WHETHER to eat from what is offered and HOW MUCH food is eaten.
Let’s look at each bit more closely in terms of how it should work. And then some of the ways that it can fall apart.
The idea here is that the parent sets a regular, predictable schedule of eating which helps signal to kids that the parent will always make sure they have plenty of opportunities to eat. In practice this usually means 3 meals and 2 or 3 snacks. This means the kid feels secure enough to follow their appetite at any given meal or snack, because they know they will have access to food again soon enough. In other words, they don’t feel like they have to clean their plate because they don’t know when they’ll get to eat again (which can happen when kids are food insecure, or feel restricted). Likewise, if they’re not that hungry and don’t eat much, there will be another meal or snack around the corner (which is reassuring for kids and adults).
Again the idea is that adults will offer a range of foods over time, so if the kid misses out on something at one meal (let’s say they don’t eat a vegetable), then it’s no biggie because the adult will make sure there is another fruit or veggie available again soon. This means that over time kids' nutrition and energy needs will be met.
Hopefully this is pretty self explanatory, but the adult decides whether food is served at home, at the drive-thru, a restaurant, in the playground, and so on.
When it comes to the WHETHER and HOW MUCH, this is really about the kid having safe boundaries to explore their body autonomy. Sometimes they will undereat, sometimes they will eat so much they barf. Sometimes they will only eat the bread. Other times they will eat dessert and then come back for the main. Sometimes they will just eat bits of cucumber and then want to go and play. The point is, they are afforded the opportunity to make mistakes with eating within safe boundaries and practice self-regulation and figure out what feels best for their bodies.
In practice, a lot of adults (maybe because of their own tricky relationship with food), come at this model and feeding in general from a place of fear, control, coercion and restriction. And, as my colleague Naureen Hunani of RDs For Neurodiversity often points out - the model is built on neurotypical standards, is inherently ableist and has a strong anti-fat bias.
This is why I prefer Responsive Feeding.
The term responsive feeding is often used in the nutrition world in relation to infant feeding - closely looking out for a baby’s cues for hunger, as well as for connection or co-regulation (with either body or bottle feeding) and responding to those cues. It’s thought to foster comfort, attachment, and reassurance between the baby and their caregiver.
But, like with all good things in nutrition - it got hijacked by anti-fatness. Now, oftentimes you’ll hear responsive feeding being used as a way to control and manipulate kid’s eating and therefore body size (i.e. eat only when you’re hungry, not for comfort, celebration, etc…)- it’s fatphobia for kids.
When I talk about Responsive Feeding - I mean an approach to feeding that’s rooted in autonomy, relationship, internal motivation, and from a therapeutic perspective (i.e. when there are feeding differences that need professional support) individualised care and competence. These are the values of Responsive Feeding Therapy, (as defined here). It’s weight-inclusive, and neurodiversity affirming.
The only way the Division of Responsibility ‘works’ is if we approach it from a place of responsive feeding.
So let’s look at the DoR again through the lens of Responsive Feeding. I’ll try and give examples for both younger and older kids/adolescents. When it comes to the DoR - I think the thing to keep in mind is that our role as adults is to gradually hand over responsibility to our kids in a way that feels appropriate for their developmental stage, temperament and personality. We can give them opportunities to ‘practice’ doing the when and the where and the what. Most of this will happen naturally as your kids get older and more independent, but it can be useful to have the illusion that it’s intentional.
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