Food and Attachment: Children’s Embodied Mealtime Practices and Their Implications for the Development of Autonomy, Agency, and Relatedness

Seinenu M. Thein, UCLA

Embodied theories of knowledge emphasize the role of the body in shaping how children learn about the world, but have not considered what happens when embodied practices differ in systematic ways across cultures. Especially lacking are cross-cultural studies of embodied food practices and how they contribute to children’s social development. Eating, as a daily practice, and the family “mealtime,” as a distinct “activity setting,” contains a rich repertoire of embodied behavior from which children can glean a variety of social information. Even in instances where mealtimes have been the site of cultural comparisons, the tendency has been to focus on verbal interactions with the mealtime being of interest as a “context” in which narrative practices unfold rather than considering the eating, itself, as an “embodied,” emotionally-meaningful act that shapes children’s sense of dependency, relatedness, agency, and autonomy. We contrast the embodied experiences of Burmese and American children during mealtimes, highlighting how a universal daily task that is linked to an evolutionarily adapted biological system can be “solved” drastically differently depending on socio-demographic realities, pre-existing patterns of adaptation, and implicit and explicit developmental goals. We discuss broader implications of such practices and how they contribute to the development of autonomy, agency, and relatedness.