Foolish freedom: Why some kids refuse to eat, even to the point of harming themselves

Dec 17, 2009 by

Foolish freedom: Why some kids refuse to eat, even to the point of harming themselves

“Leave them alone, and they will come home.” — Little Bo Peep

Sometimes a kid can be like a wild mouse, according to some lab studies of mice. Though I oppose the conditioning of young humans with incentives as if they were rats in a lab, test animals’ reactions can sometimes illustrate something about why kids—or grownups—do what they do.

A group of wild mice was brought into a lab and taught to turn on their own cage lights. Given the choice between bright light, dim light or no light at all, the mice would always choose dim light. But whenever the dim light was switched on for them, they would run and change it to either bright light or no light.

In another test, the mice, who for their own good needed and wanted to run about eight hours a day, were given a wheel to run on and also taught to turn it on. So they would regularly turn it on and run. But again, if the wheel was turned on for them, they would flick it right off again.

The mice, who knew they didn’t belong caged in a lab, felt the need to control their environment and their own behavior more than they were getting to do. So they controlled what little they could, even to their own detriment.

Does this behavior sound like anyone you know?

“This is foolish freedom,” writes James O. Prochaska, Ph.D., John C. Norcross, Ph.D., and Carlo C. Diclemente, Ph. D., in Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward, where the studies on mice are reported.

Of course it’s foolish, but mice and boys and girls rightly want to govern themselves as much as possible, even if at the cost of their own well-being. People pushed to the point of seizing freedom this way often reject any kind of influence, note the authors of Changing for Good, at least from those who have been attempting to dominate them.

Kids, who can and will eat without anybody breathing down their necks about it, also tend to take control where they can, and can we blame them? Kids find power in fussiness, and foolish or not, I can understand that desire for self-determination. It’s a normal reaction to being pushed and prodded.

Foolish freedom isn’t only for kids. Parents, especially those who have been over-controlled themselves, also exercise it. They may think, “No one’s going to tell me what to eat, or how to feed my kids.” People that were over-controlled as kids may also tend to over-control their own kids’ eating, even if it not only doesn’t work but even backfires.

Kids need limits and boundaries and instruction, but eating is one of the few places they are best left truly free from the beginning. All they need is the right environment. Like sheep left in a pasture of good grass, they know what to do and will do it. Like the wild mice, if they are free, they don’t have to find freedom in foolishness.

Related posts:

“How to get kids to the dinner table: Get an attitude”

“Taking a detour: one good way to neutralize a kid’s food resistance”

“Masterly Inactivity: using sphinx-like repose to end the food fight”

“The best way to the stomach is through the heart”

“The false dilemma of controlling what kids eat”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 17 December 2009 / All rights reserved

This post was featured on Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on Jan. 15, 2010.

2 comments
Melissa D
Melissa D

We tried something new this week -- instead of making the kids' plates (my older kids are 4 and 2 yrs), I put all the food out on nice serving dishes. My husband and I said grace and served ourselves, leaving the kids' plates empty. After about 45 seconds of watching us eat, each one asked for something, and ended up eating a balanced meal -- I think we had steak, roasted asparagus, and mashed sweet potatoes. I think they ate because they had agency to choose each thing -- rather than being served, and using their agency to reject, the only option left open if we had done things the usual way.

Anna Migeon
Anna Migeon

Melissa, I'm so excited to hear about your success. I love it. Perfect example of what parents need to do to get kids to eat. If we aren't pushing, them their appetite takes over and they eat. Beautiful. Thanks a million for tell me about it!

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