Food Refusal: Who’s Calling Whom Manipulative?

For reasons other than eating, I’ve been drawn to the work of Dr. Ross Greene and his approach to managing challenging behaviour.  His work with behaviourally challenged kids looks at meeting the needs of the child by developing what he calls “lagging skills” in communication, problem solving and adaptability. Quite simply, if kids had the skills to respond to adults’ expectations in an adaptive fashion, why would they use maladaptive behaviour? It’s an interesting theory that questions the effectiveness of punishment as a behaviour modification tool.

How kids and adults respond to eating is also behaviour. Everyone seems to have an idea on how to get kids to eat, anything from deception; bribery with stickers, privileges or money; to forcing food into a child’s mouth; even withholding food or threatening punishment until the child eats as expected. Parents go to a lot of trouble and effort to make sure children are eating well because parents are deeply invested in the current and future well-being of their child. Parents want and expect their children to do well with eating.

The problem is not that parents want to feed their children well. Where the most popular feeding guidance goes awry is putting the responsibility for eating well on the child. At the core of popular feeding advice is the belief that a child would eat well if only he wanted to. Therefore, the answer to getting a child to eat whatever food he is served is to somehow motivate him to want to eat it.

dangle carrot

Some children can be motivated with bribes, rewards, praise, even threats to eat. While it is possible to pressure some children into trying a new food, there is no guarantee the child will decide to like it. If the long term goal is to teach children to eat a variety of food they enjoy, in quantities sufficient to satisfy their own hunger, then pressuring kids to eat certain quantities of specific foods as a means to earn parent approval is the wrong approach.

Not all children respond well to pressured feeding. Many children and adults cannot be convinced or pressured to eat food they aren’t familiar or comfortable with. This food refusal and avoidance has nothing to do with being stubborn or defiant. Hunger causes weakness and pain, something most human beings of any age want to avoid.

So why do some kids respond to bribes, praise and punishment and others do not? The temperament of the child plays a role, but perhaps there is something more significant to explain why one child will comply with a parent-enforced one bite rule and another child will defiantly stand off at the table for hours. The latter are kids that are frequently described as “manipulative.”

Manipulative, in terms of eating, is an adjective that is long overdue for clarification. Consider for a moment that food refusal associated with picky eating is most common between the ages of 2 and 6. In order for a child to successfully use manipulation, the child must understand the problem (I don’t like what’s for dinner), formulate a desirable alternative (I’d rather have something else), and anticipate the psychological vulnerabilities of the parent to achieve the desired outcome (erm…).

The tantrum that follows the presentation of an undesirable meal is more likely because the child has needs (hunger) that aren’t being met. The child is just doing what children do – depending on the parent to provide. The parent who responds by using praise, bribes, or punishment is actually the one using manipulation to motivate the child, when the child’s lack of motivation is not the problem.

A more plausible explanation for food refusal is the child’s lack of eating skill. Therefore, a much more proactive way to approach feeding, with high likelihood of a successful outcome, is to embrace the belief that children want to do well with eating, and they would… if they were able.

It’s easy enough to find the thinking behind the idea that children are being manipulative. Noted sociologist, Erik Erikson describes the psychosocial development between 3-5 years as the ‘exploration stage’ where children explore the concept of initiative vs. guilt. “Children need to begin asserting control and power over the environment. Success in this stage leads to a sense of purpose. Children who try to exert too much power experience disapproval, resulting in a sense of guilt.” Let’s think about that. The parent has eating expectations for the child, but the child lacks eating skill. Frustrated with the child’s food refusal, the parents employs manipulation to motivate the child to eat. The child lacks the skills to comply and is sent away from the table hungry, knowing he has disappointed his parents, and feeling guilty about the food he cannot eat.


This may explain why food neophobic children grow up to become food neophobic adults. The 2-6 year old child might be too young to fully comprehend guilt, but they probably understand the uncomfortable feeling of disapproval combined with the discomfort of hunger, and are never given the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to be successful with eating.

The responsibility to feed children rests squarely on the parent. The parent is the one most capable of providing an environment where the child can be successful with eating. Thinking of food refusal as a lack of eating ability saves parents the guilt of presuming competence with eating where it does not yet exist. The parent who allows the child to choose preferred options from a variety of food offered will feel much less guilty than the parent who sends her child to bed hungry night after night when it is discovered the child has a genuine reason for refusing food. Thinking in terms of under-developed ability instead of deliberate defiance also ensures that we apply the most positive parenting practices when we don’t have all the information.

There are hundreds of reasons why children refuse food, some that require professional intervention, some that are genetic, and some that simply just take time to resolve.

For example, it is estimated that one quarter of the population are super tasters who experience taste more intensely because of an increased number of taste buds. Super tasters are ultra sensitive to bitter tastes, and can detect minute hints of flavours that most people cannot. Trying to motivate a super taster to learn to like a bitter vegetable (like broccoli) only invites pressure to the table, and feeding with pressure only prolongs resistance to the food, often creating new issues with eating along the way. Depending on how parents nurture a child’s attitude toward eating, super taster children can grow up to become adults who either have a healthy or dysfunctional relationship with food.

If a child is refusing to eat, it is more likely they don’t like the way the food makes them feel, or what’s on their plate doesn’t look or smell like food, or the food appears too challenging to handle. Pressure will not convince a child or adult who is anxious around food to eat, whether the obstacle is the sight, the smell, the taste, the texture or a yet to be diagnosed condition. No amount of motivation is a cure for undiagnosed pathology, nor is it an unconditionally positive opportunity to practice under-developed skills that are necessary to be successful with eating.

What does work (once pathology has been addressed) is creating an eating environment that is free of pressure, one that allows children to explore food at a pace that is comfortable for them. Children who know they can depend on parents to feed them can spend less time worrying if they will get fed and more time wondering if they are ready to try the food they’ve seen other family members eating. Children who are complimented for being a delightful dinner companion don’t worry about being chastised for their food choices. Children who are relaxed around food are far more likely to be successful with eating – both socially and nutritionally, especially if they are enjoying the mealtime experience.

The key to bringing peace to mealtimes is not trying to motivate children into doing what they already want to be successful at; it is creating an ideal environment in which children can succeed. It can take years for children to learn how to become competent with eating. As parents, we can aim for short term eating goals by pressuring kids to eat healthy foods now, because the parent expects it. That is one choice. The alternative is to shoot for lasting and long term healthy attitudes toward eating, regardless of lagging skills the child may need extra time to master, because success with eating is a goal both parent and child have in common.

From my personal experience and observations, parents and children are always more successful when they work together as a team.


One response to “Food Refusal: Who’s Calling Whom Manipulative?

  1. Pingback: Upon Awaking, I Realize I’m Done | Mother Imperfect·

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