Morgan, age two, starts throwing screaming fits if her mom offers her a new dish.
Joshua, four, likes most vegetables, then suddenly refuses to eat any of them. Ever.
It’s no real news that we have an epidemic of such malnourished and picky young junk-food addicts on our hands in the US. The reasons are many. It’s essential to figure out why a child is refusing to eat. Some children have diagnosable problems that make normal eating difficult or even impossible; they may benefit from medical treatment or therapy. But whether or not that’s the case, I’ve observed in helping parents that picky eating flourishes within a draining dynamic of power struggles.
Picky eating brings out in full force the more general tendency of today’s parents and children to relate to each other as adversaries. Rather than a loving or cooperative relationship, it’s a constant tug-of-war over what I want versus what the other wants. Each tries to get the other to do things through the manipulations of rewards and resistance.
At a recent gathering I attended, the parents wanted to take photos of all the children together. One strong-willed little darling, seeing that the adults wanted something from her, instantly became unmanageable. Her mother just as quickly got a handle on her with a promise of gum if she would go along. One of the bigger boys, who along with the other cousins had been standing there all along cheerfully doing as he was asked said, “I want gum.” He was ignored. His little cousin got gum. The resistant behavior was reinforced, not the cooperative. So which behavior is likeliest to crop up again next time? Who’s controlling whom here? Bribing a balky eater to eat fails to address the reasons for food refusal and sets off a similar reinforcing pattern that trains a child to keep doing what you wish she wouldn’t do.
“Positive reinforcement” has been the current gold standard for American parenting for years now. I have even seen a couple of different online Charlotte Mason groups discussing how to best use do-this-get-that systems to get kids to behave, learn and eat. Rewards are completely contrary to Mason’s philosophy, though. How can the dynamic be switched? What can we do instead?
Why not consult Mason on the question? She proposes a radically different approach from the reward-based power struggle. Her philosophy offers us solid solutions that address the root causes of both picky eating and power struggles with children, without resorting at all to rewards. First, let’s look at the root of the problem: what science is showing us about how today’s lifestyle reinforces the power struggle and picky eating in the parent-child relationship.
Picky eating as a normal response
In “The other reason so many kids are picky eaters,” a Huffington Post article by Kelly Dorfman last year, anxiety is identified as a major, but unrecognized cause of the common problem of picky eating. Compared to kids in the 60’s, anxiety levels in children today are five to eight times higher, according to a 2010 study at Diego State University, as Dorfman reports. Feeling they have no control over their own lives, kids control the one thing they can: whether they eat. Refusing to open their mouths can ease their anxiety and sense of powerlessness. Furthermore, this anxiety can even contribute to a child’s urge to self-medicate with the comfort foods of starches and sugar, Dorfman notes.
Finding power over their environment through food refusal leads to more food refusal in an anxious child. But why are children so anxious, and how can this anxiety at the root of the problem be resolved?
Where all the children are . . . disordered?
“You say, ‘take my hand,’ as you hold out your hand to him. Rather than take the hand you offer, the child runs around to the other side and reaches for your other hand.
Why does he do it? To prove to himself that he can.
This small act of defiance gives the child the feeling of being in control of the situation.”
Does this scenario sound like anyone you know? Now imagine this kind of tiresome behavior all day long.
In this description of attachment disordered children, Jennifer Roback Morse1 refers to children whose experience has been only of absent, indifferent or abusive adults. These children tend to defy adult authority in ways that, while otherwise unrewarding, give them a feeling of control and of independence of those adults.
Attachment disordered children aren’t the only ones with this type of behavior, though. Many children, picky eaters, for example, take this attitude far more than we’d like. They appear to me to fall somewhere on the same spectrum. What is contributing to the need of relatively normal children of relatively normal parents to feel this anxiety that drives pointless acts of rebellion, including picky eating?
Of mice and kids: foolish freedom
In one of my favorite illustrations of what may be behind picky eating as a form of seemingly pointless defiance, a group of wild field mice is brought into a lab. They learn to turn on their own cage lights. Given the choice between bright light, dim light or no light, the mice always choose dim light. But whenever humans switch dim light on for them, the mice hasten to change it to either bright or off.
In another test, the mice, who for their own good needed to run about eight hours a day, had a wheel to run on. They learned to turn it on and would regularly run on it. But again, if humans turned on the wheel for them, the mice would immediately flick it off again.
The wild mice know they belong among the wildflowers, not caged in a lab and dominated by adversaries. So they react understandably to their threatening, unnatural environment. Naturally, they don’t cooperate with what they see as The Enemy. The mice take up arms and control what little they can, even to their own detriment, with these pointless seizures of “foolish freedom.” 2
Again, does this behavior sound like anyone you know?
Kids find power in fussiness, and foolish or not, their desire for a healthy level of self-determination is only human, if misdirected. It seems to be a normal reaction to the anxiety that comes from having a insufficient level of freedom generally or inappropriate freedoms and limits. It’s certainly a normal response to being pushed and prodded to eat. Argument for the sake of argument is natural when we see each other as the Enemy. How do we safely raise children’s level of safe, healthy freedom and lower their anxiety?
A solution to the problem of anxiety in children is simple and one that we who study Charlotte Mason’s recommendations already know, though it hardly appears to be related to the problem at first glance. What’s needed is simply lots more free play, suggests the study on anxiety that Dorfman cites. It’s not the only study to confirm Charlotte Mason’s principles of abundant free play. We are seeing that today’s children’s sensory systems are underdeveloped due to insufficient movement. These kids aren’t prepared to learn. Like the wild mice, today’s kids are in a cage: sitting all day in school, not outdoors nearly enough, not moving enough, not practicing their healthy humanness enough to deal with their real live world. Without better outlets, their humanness erupts in foolish freedom, like picky eating.
It’s no big news that today’s kids aren’t experiencing life as we parents experienced it as children. Back in the day, when groups of kids gathered, we’d think up stuff to do, imagine and act out scenarios, and generally battle it out with all manner of pretend enemies. At a recent gathering of families, I was struck by the difference as I watched the kids, even the toddlers, sit around most of the time, looking at screens. They were certainly manageable. Nobody got hurt all day.
Much of what passes for play today is pre-programmed entertainment, as Dorfman points out. Youngsters are amusing themselves to death with too-real virtual reality. Since they aren’t free to imaginatively and physically wrestle with real fears, the need comes out in generalized anxiety and fear of non-threatening entities such as new foods. There’s a term for such abnormal fears: neophobia. Kids that get to play naturally, inventively and actively, must surely be less afraid of innocuous stuff like food After battling dragons all afternoon, they may feel less afraid of carrots and beans and less interest in battling mom over them.
Next week will be Part II . . .Freedom where freedom is due
© 2015 by Anna Migeon