Parental Diffusion Roles and Effects of Nutrition Education on Parents and Children

Sanford Grossbart, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Lawrence Crosby, Arizona State University
Laurie Smith, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
ABSTRACT - Effects of children's nutrition education depends on adoption of new consumption concepts and practices by parents and their children. This study employs a diffusion role typology and socialization perspective to examine the relations between parental influence and parents' and children's responses to nutrition education.
[ to cite ]:
Sanford Grossbart, Lawrence Crosby, and Laurie Smith (1986) ,"Parental Diffusion Roles and Effects of Nutrition Education on Parents and Children", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 360-364.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 360-364


Sanford Grossbart, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Lawrence Crosby, Arizona State University

Laurie Smith, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


Effects of children's nutrition education depends on adoption of new consumption concepts and practices by parents and their children. This study employs a diffusion role typology and socialization perspective to examine the relations between parental influence and parents' and children's responses to nutrition education.

Most arguments about the causes of children's nutritional problems call attention to the importance of parental influence (e.g., those dealing with changing family lifestyles or children's exposure to television food advertising (Grossbart and Crosby 1984). Research indicates mothers' knowledge has a significant impact on childrens' diets but many mothers have little understanding of a balanced meal, healthful eating habits or available nutrition information (Caliendo and Sanjur 1978; Richmond 1977; Jacoby, Chestnut and Silberman 1977; White 1976; Bauman 1973; Eppright et al. 1970). Consequently, considerable attention has been focused on developing and marketing nutrition education programs in schools (Fleming and Brown 1981; Fine 1980; Ward 1978; Baird and Shutz 1976; Kotler and Zaltman 1971).

Mothers may also play a pivotal role in this regard. In their various socialization roles (Wackman 1979) they can influence school curriculums, help create a home environment which emphasizes nutrition concepts and provide children with opportunities to eat a balanced diet, try new foods, aid in food buying decisions, etc. This suggests nutrition education results are apt to depend on family interactions and parental behavior (Fox and Kotler 1980). This study explores these matters from a diffusion of innovations and socialization perspective. Its purpose was to examine parental reinforcement of nutrition education and related psychological and behavioral effects on parents and children.


Nutritional concepts possess a considerable degree of perceived newness for parents unfamiliar with dietary principles for childrens' growth and development (Fox and Kotler 1980). Sheth (1979) suggests reception of a new idea or practice depends on the extent of risk associated with its use and the strength of consumers' prior habits. Innovations encountering ingrained habits and high risk perceptions face the greatest resistance. Sheth terms these "dual resistance innovations" and notes that social ideas (e.g., children's nutrition) and social programs (e.g., nutrition education) tend to fall in this category. Relatively strong habits are apt to govern frequently performed food buying and eating behaviors (Deutsch 1976; Eppright et. al. 1970). These habits have often been passed down through generations or have roots in entrenched family lifestyles and values (e.g., those stressing a fast pace of life outside the family, immediate gratification, etc.).

The perceived risk which strengthens resistance stems from consumer confusion, uncertainty and suspicion of aversive consequences. Certainly, the apparent complexity of dietary requirements must seem great to parents who have been exposed to conflicting governmental suggestions on nutrition (Fox and Kotler 1980) or perplexing scientific terminology and quantification. Parents' documented lack of familiarity with nutrition ideas and practices may also increase their uncertainty about new eating regimens and lead to concerns about performance, social, and economic outcomes. Performance concerns stem from taste apprehension and a tendency to associate nutritious foots with bad taste. Among mothers, this is accompanied by the social and economic risk of serving foods family members will not like. Children may also perceive social risk if nutritious foods lack peer approval. Finally, the tendency to equate nutritious foods with expensive health foods may increase the perceived economic risk. For many parents these concerns are not offset by the developmental and health benefits of a nutritious diet because they are not immediately observable Moreover, chances to observe others preparing and consuming healthful foods are infrequent since these behaviors are most often performed within the home. In combination, these factors diminish the perceived relative advantage of nutrition education and nutrition-oriented behavior.

In this context, interpersonal family influences are important since adoption of nutrition education involves "collective" innovation decisions (Rogers 1983) in which both parents and children are the decision making unit. In these circumstances parents are in a position to play legitimizing roles as informal educators and motivators of consumption (Wackman 1979). By (not) sanctioning nutrition education concepts they can (decrease) increase the magnitude of program impact. Parents with the previously outlined concerns about nutrition concepts or education may not be inclined to communicate approval to children.

Insights into these dynamics are provided by Midgley's (1976) explanation of interpersonal diffusion roles in innovation-decision situations. His typology includes 1) active adoptors, who communicate favorable innovation experience, 2) passives, who do not provide indications of their evaluations to others and 3) active rejectors, who relate unfavorable experiences to others. His premise is that adoption is determined by communicated, i.e. verbalized, experiences which are disseminated through the social system. This study uses a previously employed adaptation of Midgley's typology (Grossbart, Crosby and Robb 1982). The relevant social system is defined as the family. A three-fold categorization of parental influence is used, i.e., actives who accept and reinforce the concepts in the nutrition education program, passives who accept but fail to reinforce the concepts and rejectors, who do not accept the concepts or provide reinforcement to their children.

Parents who play these different roles are apt to evidence additional differences in psychological and behavioral responses. First, they are likely to differ in the increased significance they place on nutrition related attributes of foods. Parents who accept and try to stress the aforementioned concepts to their children are more likely to devote increased attention to matters of food and nutrition. This should be reflected in more cognitive emphasis on the nutrition content of food products purchased and consumed by the family. Second, parents should vary in the extent of interaction with their child in grocery shopping and decisions about food purchases and eating choices. Variance in changed interaction levels is a likely consequence of both variable desires to more actively socialize the child in terms of food consumption and responses to child initiated requests and questions which are outcomes of more active parental influence attempts. Certainly, increased interaction is not probable in most cases, since active consumer socialization attempts by parent are not widespread (Wackman 1979; Ward 1974). However, it should occur in families with active parents. Finally, changes in parental buying behavior should occur. For the reasons stated above, active parents are most likely to alter their buying behavior. e.g., by departing from past purchase patterns and buying a greater variety of products, employing nutrition content as a more determinant factor in item selection, etc.

H1: Active parents will evidence more change in a) cognitive emphasis on nutrition, b) interaction levels with children and c) nutrition-oriented behavior than passives or rejectors.

Prior research (Grossbart, Crosby and Robb 1982) has examined parents' reports on children's responses to nutrition education. This study employs reports from children themselves. This permits a more direct test of the thesis that parental attitudes and behaviors should influence children's adoption of nutrition concepts. This is consistent with suggestions in the consumer socialization literature that verbal and nonverbal communications about consumption between parent and child are related to the child's development of consumption orientations (Moschis 1981). Without parental acceptance (i.e., among rejectors) nutrition education should have the least positive impact on children's nutrition attitudes or food preferences. In contrast, parental acceptance alone (i.e., by passives) should establish a sufficient basis for children developing somewhat more positive nutrition attitudes and a wider range of food preferences. Even if parents do not provide verbal reinforcements, lack of overt criticism and observation of their nonverbal behavior by children may convey positive nutrition cognitions and behaviors (Moschis, Moore and Smith 1983) and thereby foster positive orientations. Without verbal reinforcement, however, less legitimization may occur and only moderate effects on attitudes and preferences may result. Active parental reinforcement should lead to more pronounced changes in a child's nutrition orientation because it will signify the sanctioning of newly learned concepts and is likely to occur in the most relevant behavior contexts, e.g. when the parent responds to a child's food choices, requests, questions, etc. (Crosby and Grossbart 1984).

H2: (a) Children of active parents will evidence enhanced nutrition attitudes and increased food preferences. (b) Their responses will be greater than those of children of passives and rejectors.

H3: (a) Children of passive parents will evidence enhanced nutrition attitudes and increased food preferences. (b) Their responses will be greater than those of children of rejectors.

H4: Children of rejector parents will not evidence enhanced nutrition attitudes or increased food preferences.

Relationships between the diffusion role a child's mother assumes and demographics are uncertain. If reaction depends on fears about cognitive defenselessness of younger children (Crosby and Grossbart 1984) and overt parent-child communication declines with age (Moschis and Churchill 1978), greater parental acceptance and reinforcement may occur when children are in lower grates. Since nutritional knowledge and attitudes and extent of purposive parental training of children have been found to vary directly with socioeconomic status (Eppright et. al. 1970; Ward and Wackman 1973), it might be anticipated that families with more educated parents and father's in white collar occupations would be more supportive. Families with agricultural ties could also be expected to place greater value on matters of food and nutrition. Conversely, prior pro-nutrition efforts might limit the perceived need for parental action. Finally, support from working mothers could stem from their openness to new experiences for their children and a desire for external help in socializing them as consumers. Similarly, those with larger families might respond positively to external help. However, these same parents may lack the time to engage in an active role.


Analysis is based on data from surveys of mothers and elementary school children (grades 1-6) in thirteen schools participating in a federally funded experimental nutrition education project. Schools were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups and represented a cross section of communities from rural, suburban and urban areas. The program employed a set of psychometrically developed modules designed to impact childrens' nutrition orientations. During the school year children took part in classroom discussions and food tasting experiences and received information on possible food preparation and consumption activities for the family. The S control schools did not receive the program. With minor exception, all classrooms in the selected schools were involved in the study. Survey measures were taken on children (at school) both before and after program completion. Self-administered questionnaires were distributed to parents upon completion of the program. Returned parent questionnaires were evenly distributed across grade levels and represented a fifty percent response rate. A comparison of treatment (n = 379) and control (n = 223) parents showed the two groups had similar demographics and attitudes (on issues not directly related to the program, e.g. child rearing). A separate check confirmed that treatment group parents were aware of their children's participation in a new nutrition education program.

Parents in the treatment group were classified as rejectors, passives or actives based on the extent to which they agreed with concepts presented in the program and provided reinforcement by reminding their children about them. This was accomplished by dividing four-point (not at all - a lot) agreement and reinforcement scales at their mid-point and cross-classifying responses. Rejectors were those with low scores on both scales, passives were high on agreement but low on reinforcement and actives had high scores on both measures.

Hypothesized effects were measured by indices reported in Table 1. Using four-point (not at all - a lot) scales, parents estimated effects on themselves by reporting how ideas their child brought home from school increased their own 1) cognitive emphasis, i.e., concern about food and nutritional content of purchased and consumed food items, 2) interaction levels with the child, e.g., including him/her in purchase and food planning decisions and co-shopping and 3) nutrition-oriented behavior, e.g., likelihood of basing purchases on nutrition content and buying a greater variety of food products. Demographic information (grate in school, number of children and parents' education and occupation status) was gathered to profile parents who displayed different roles in the nutrition education program. Children's Nutrition Attitude employed three-point (disagree - agree) scales and included such items as "Food in nice packages always tastes good," "Too much sugar or candy can be bad for you," "It's o.k. to eat whatever you want as long as you eat enough" and "T.V. ads show the best foods to buy." Food Preference provided indications of children's fruit and vegetable preferences (which the program was designed to influence). Three-point (not like me - like me) scales were used. Higher scores on both scales indicate a more positive nutrition orientation.

Differences in parental response and demographics were tested by multiple and univariate analysis of variance, Scheffe contrasts and Chi-square. Differences in children's responses were analyzed by analysis of covariance with premeasures serving as covariates. Appropriate adjustments were mate for group sizes and error terms were adjusted for variation in covariate scores. Following overall assessments of significance, adjusted means of treatment groups were compared. If no differences were present, a treatment versus control contrast was conducted. Otherwise, all planned comparisons were made. These procedures follow those suggested by Keppel (1982).


Over ninety-eight percent of treatment group cases were categorized as either actives (n = 169), passives (n = 150) or rejectors (n = 60). These results indicate a high level of program acceptance among parents, but substantial reinforcement attempts in less than half of the cases. Information on reliabilities and mean index magnitudes is presented in Table 1. Alpha and beta coefficients reflect the internal consistency and unidimensionality of indices of response for parents and children (Revelle 1979).



Findings with respect to parent responses and demographics are included in Table 2. Examination of these results provides evidence of market differences between actives and passives on all three measures of parental response but a lack of distinction between passives and the two other groups. As expected, actives exhibited significantly higher scores on cognitive emphasis on nutrition, consumption related interaction with their children, and altered food buying behavior patterns than any of the other groups. Responses for rejectors were significantly below control group responses on cognitive emphasis and behavior.



Few demographic differences were revealed. Passive mothers tended to be more educated than rejectors while actives had more educated spouses than the control group. Actives ' children were in lower grades than the other groups and passives ' children were in lower grades than rejectors. While not inconsistent with the conceptual framework for this study, this finding suggested the need for further analysis. Consequently, analysis of covariance was conducted on the two children's and three parental response measures. In each case child's grade was added as a potential covariate. The results did not differ from those reported above. Chi-square tests indicated no significant differences in mothers' occupational status or fathers being engaged in farm versus non-farm jobs. However, rejectors had a higher than expected proportion of spouses in blue collar employment and passives had a higher than anticipated percentage in white collar positions. Among actives and the control group these proportions were nearly equal (Chi-square 5 6.50, p < .10).



ANCOVA results on children's responses are presented in Table 3. For Nutrition Attitudes, findings of overall significance (F w 5.10, p s .01) and differences among treatment groups (p < .01) made it possible to examine between group comparisons. Results support the expectation that children of active and passive mothers have more positive nutrition attitudes than do children of rejectors or those in the control group (see adjusted means in Table 1). However, there was no significant difference on nutrition attitudes between actives and passives. In addition, attitudes of children of rejectors did not differ from those of the control group. Overall significance was also present for children's food preferences (F - 2.92, p < .05). While adjusted means for actives and passives were greater than the mean for the rejector group, these differences were not significant. Still, as a whole, children in the treatment group evidenced a significantly greater change in food preference than those in the control group (p < .10).


It appears worthwhile to investigate children's nutrition education from a diffusion role/socialization perspective. Research is needed to validate findings in other states and measure effects over time. It would be useful to track actual trends in family consumption and check for possible sleeper or decay effects in cognitive, affective or behavioral responses. Attempts should also be made to employ more complex experimental designs which allow premeasures on parents and determination of possible test effects on children. This would allow further examination of effects of general familiarity with nutrition education and views on the program in question as an innovation. In addition, efforts should be mate to investigate father's roles in the adoption of nutrition concepts and practices.

Meanwhile, these findings provide support for focusing more attention on parents' responses to children's nutrition education. While the program in this study was primarily geared to directly influence children, important unintended effects were also observed among active parents. They reported changes in concern about nutrition content, food socialization interaction with their child and buying tendencies which were significantly greater than those of passives, rejectors or the control group. These effects have important social and managerial marketing implications.

In social terms, they suggest the importance of targeting actives and perhaps developing strategies to increase the number of active parents. The present results provide useful, but limited, profile distinctions between parents with alternative diffusion roles. They suggest the possibility of considering different tactics for parents of younger versus older children and segmentation strategies reflecting the fact that, in comparison to passives, rejectors are likely to be less educated and have spouses in blue collar occupations. However, targeting efforts will be enhanced by a fuller understanding of the socio-psychological antecedents of parents nutrition orientations and response to nutrition education. In managerial terms, the results make it clear that nutrition education efforts should be monitored by food marketers. If these programs, in a direct or indirect manner, engender shifts in the importance of nutrition as an evaluative criterion for product selection, variety of products purchased and extent of child involvement in shopping and product choice, as was found among actives, their effects may be of great competitive significance. It appears that children's nutrition education may be capable, in the case of actives, of exercising a socializing influence on parents themselves. If so, there may be a need for evaluating current promotional positioning and product line development and management policies in light of subtle shifts in parental orientation and behavior.

Interesting issues are also raised by observed effects on children's nutrition orientations. The existence of differences in nutrition attitudes but not food preferences across diffusion roles may reflect the closer link between food preferences and actual consumption behavior. While positive attitudes may prove to be related to consumption of a wider variety of foods, such behavior is apt to be more immediately, i.e., directly, related to preferences. These results indicate that nutrition education impacts children's food preferences. In contrast, more positive attitudinal effects for children of actives and passives versus rejector and control groups support the argument that results of education hinge on parental socialization influence. However, these findings, in combination with the lack of differences between actives and passives, suggest that verbalization per se is not a requisite for impact on attitudes. The diffusion role perspective presented here emphasizes verbal influence, while the socialization perspective allows for the transmission of norms and consumption orientations by modeling (nonverbal) and overt behavior (verbal reinforcement). These findings are consistent with the thesis that there are multiple communication mechanisms involved in nutrition socialization and adoption of positive nutrition attitudes by children. These issues clearly merit further investigation.


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