I was out last night with some friends, including a mom and her 4-year-old boy and a dad with his 8-year-old girl. After watching the girl eat her own dinner and snitch the bacon off her dad's burger, I watched her ask for a piece of the 4-year-old's uneaten pizza from his mom, and then turn her back to her dad, hold the pizza under the table, and pinch bites as unobtrusively as she could—to her dad, that is; I saw the whole thing.
I'm wondering whether I should say something to her dad about her behavior. This girl is very chubby, and I have a vexed relationship with food, so I realize that I am hyperaware of her eating on both counts. Yet I cannot shake the notion that even if she were slender as a reed, sneaking food is such a terrible habit that I must find some way to help. I'm not even sure there IS anything that can be done, but if there's something I can do, I'd gladly do it.
I will be grateful for any advice you can give concerning what I cannot help seeing as an eating disorder in development, but again, I may be overreacting due to my own history with food.
I am a firm believer that all adults need to look out for all kids. The idea that parents see all and can handle all is ridiculous. I appreciate nothing more than when another adult kindly and constructively corrects my kid—usually I either haven't seen what happened or I'm just worn out with uttering yet another reminder of what behavior is expected. Plus, a comment from a non-parent often has a much bigger impact, as if the kid suddenly realizes that it's not just a nagging parent, but the world in general that doesn't care for seeing what their food looks like while it's being chewed.
In this particular situation, it would have been great if you could have skipped past all your concerns about eating disorders and food issues and just stuck to the question of table manners. It's not polite to hold food in your lap and pick off bits of it to eat and her parent couldn't see she was doing that; so, it would have been grand if you had simply said "Hannah [or whatever her name is], please don't hold food in your lap at the table, put the pizza on your plate" in the non-judgmental, matter-of-fact way that is how kind and thoughtful adults correct children's table manners. No comment on how much she was eating, no accusation of sneaking anything, just observing that she's not practicing good table manners (children are the exception, obviously, to not commenting on others' manners). Since her dad couldn't see what she was doing, this is, in my assessment, an ideal time for a non-parent manner reminder.
Her dad could have then addressed the whole issue of whether or not she was allowed to have a piece of pizza he didn't know about as he saw fit.
Since that moment in time has passed, you're in a slightly stickier wicket. My answer boils down to this (and I think other parents reading this would agree): I would want to know if my kid was sneaking food.
I'd go ahead and give them a ring and say something like "Something's been nagging at me since we had dinner the other night. I don't know if you realized that Hannah had a piece of Zachary's pizza. She ate it with her back to you and was picking at it in a way that made me think she wasn't supposed to have it or was sneaking it or something. I have had such a messed up relationship to food, I know I'm super sensitive to stuff like this, but I realized that it's the kind of thing I would want to know about my kid even if it's not a big deal, so I'm passing it along." Some positive things about your time together, their daughter in particular, and their family in general would be nice to add.
As with all potentially sensitive communications, do it on the phone or in person, not by email or text.
Two important things: do not mention the girl's weight and do not use the phrase "eating disorder" or similar in reference to the child. You are not diagnosing or judging her or them, you are simply passing along information about their child's behavior that you think they might want to know. If they get at all defensive (some people hear any observation about their child as a criticism of them), offer an immediate apology and repeat that you're sure it's just you being weird about food and drop it. You've done your bit.
I'm thinking readers are going to have their own takes on this, and it's quite possible I'm missing some obvious other approaches to this. I can't wait to hear them!
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About the Author: Molly Watson honed her ability to guide others in tricky situations by telling her little brother the best way to do everything. See what she has to say beyond dining at Ask a (Sensible) Midwesterner. Catch her work as a recipe wizard at Local Foods.