Masterly Inactivity: Using Sphinx-Like Repose to End the Food Fight

Dec 30, 2008 by

This post was featured in the Charlotte Mason blog carnival of June 23, 2009.
If your kids don’t like the foods you want them to eat, you need to do less instead of more about it.

A “wise passiveness,” as William Wordsworth called it, is prescribed.

“Wise and purposeful letting alone is the best part of education,” writes educational reformer Charlotte Mason. That includes the education of taste and good habits in eating.

“Masterly inactivity,” an expression of Thomas Carlyle’s brought to life in detail by Mason, is the perfect balance between being a dictator and a doormat. It is a letting alone that is rooted in insight. A parent’s wise self-restraint is grounded in the authority and self-confidence of experience and knowledge, which the child lacks and needs.

“She must see without watching, know without telling, be on the alert always, yet never obviously, fussily, so,” Mason explains. “This open-eyed attitude must be sphinx-like in its repose.”

This solidness as a parent is anything but throwing up your hands because it’s too difficult or confusing to do what you should as a parent. Neither does it mean being pushed around by your kids to their detriment.

It is vastly different from the attitude I have often seen between a mom and a child as soon as food comes into the picture. Mom becomes fussy, over-involved. Negotiations begin. The parent oppresses the child with her own anxiety. The child plays on mom’s fears and becomes balky. Parents lose their cool, children lose their appetites.

At the other extreme are parents who indulge their children, allowing them to eat whatever they want, whenever they want, in all good humor but with a lack of authority and wisdom.

My kids went through a time when they would fill up on the main course and wouldn’t feel like eating a salad after it, as is the French custom. So I began to serve the salad first. I just got them to the table hungry and served the salad, while the main course was still cooking. I did not tell them, “I want you to eat salad. You must eat your salad. It’s good for you.” I knew what was going on but they didn’t need to know. They ate it and were happy.

I also always wanted my kids to eat raw vegetables regularly. But I didn’t tell them we eat raw veggies because they’re good for us. I just enjoyed them myself, made them interesting and presented a wide variety when they were hungry. They ate them and were happy.

Children will eat healthy foods with pleasure if they are presented unapologetically and without cringing.

The parents must bear the burden of their children’s training, but “let them bear it with easy grace and an erect carriage as the Spanish peasant bears her water jar,” Mason urges. It is a big responsibility, but with the right posture, it’s really not so heavy.

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 30 December 2008 / All rights reserved


  1. […] think you need a bit less nonchalance about your son’s behavior and a bit more nonchalance—masterly inactivity, a purposeful leaving alone—about the eating […]

  2. […] U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in dealing with a similarly belligerent North Korea, is adopting a policy of “strategic patience” that sounds to me a lot like “masterly inactivity.” […]

  3. […] This technique also hands the parent something to do with themselves besides urging and pressuring the child to eat, which only serves to increase the child’s resistance.  It’s better if he’s not forced to defend his point of view. Let it be, allow space for the resistance. If allowed to go unchallenged, he may well let go of it. Above all, be casual. You will be a beautiful example of masterly inactivity (…). […]