Emerson and the Calf, or One Good Reason Kids Refuse to Eat

Mar 16, 2012 by

Ralph Waldo Emerson was smart, but researchers now suspect he tried to make his son eat green beans.

One day,  Ralph Waldo Emerson  and his son, Edward, needed a calf to go in the barn. So the elder Emerson, the great Transcendentalist writer and philosopher, pushed on the calf’s backside while his son grabbed the animal’s head and pulled from the front. They pushed and pulled with all their strength, but the calf resisted with all of his might, over and over.

“How to get this calf into the barn?” Emerson wondered, with his deep, philosophical mind.  He thought about all the advice he could think of from his wide reading. He pondered his own ideals of self-reliance, muttering to himself his famous injunction to “trust thyself,” but could produce no insight on the subject.  He was stuck.

Just then a young kitchen maid walked by and saw the problem. With a little smile, she slid her finger into the calf’s mouth. The calf began to suck happily on the girl’s finger, and she led the animal effortlessly into the barn.

Like a child who doesn’t want to eat, the calf didn’t want to be forced. It didn’t actually object to going into the barn, it just was reacting naturally against force.

Likewise, a child will want to eat, but pushing and forcing never works. If you push, he has to push back. Some children have physical problems or developmental delays that make it truly painful, difficult or even impossible for them to eat. These kids often react even more violently than other children to being force-fed. Who can blame them?

You can’t compel a calf to go or a kid to eat against their will (not with good long-term results anyway)  but you can arrange for them to be willing. Restricting a child’s access to food is the best way to arrange it.

Like the calf, the child has natural desires and needs that clever parents can leverage. The calf likes to suck, and the child does like to eat, whether it seems that way or not. He has to eat to live. Those natural desires and needs can be understood and worked with.

If a child learns that the only time and place that food is available is at the table at meal times and a set snack time, he will become quite agreeable about going to the table at that time and eating whatever is available. If he knows that if he throws fits at the table or is disagreeable and disobedient, he won’t be allowed to stay at the table and eat for that meal, he will shape up in short order. Getting enough to eat will be become the child’s problem, instead of the parent’s.

But putting pressure on the child won’t make him eat any more than pushing on the calf made him go into the barn. Even if you do manage to get something down the hatch, you can’t make him want it. That tiny battle may seem to be “won” but the war is far from over.

The Push-Pull Principle: two rules to reverse the cycle of pushing and food refusal

1. Limit eating. Pull away. No random snacking to spoil the appetite outside of meals or a specific snack time. If a child only gets to eat certain things at certain times, he will eat those things at those times. If staying at the table and eating is dependent upon good behavior, he will both value the privilege of eating and will behave. Of course, making this plan work requires the parent to be resolute and firm.

2.  Never pressure a child to eat anything. No pushing. Pushing and force is a sure way to create a cycle of resistance.

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Related post:

Serious Reasons Not to React to a “Picky” Toddler


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