Taking a Detour: One good way to neutralize a kid’s food resistance

Oct 11, 2009 by

ConklinbookDSC_8156 “Yuck! I don’t want any of that!” your little one says when she gets to the table and sees the healthy dish you’ve lovingly prepared. You feel pretty strongly about her eating it. So what comes next?

Which is closest to your reaction?

a) “You have to eat one bite.”

b) “If you eat it all, you can have some dessert.”

c) “If you don’t eat it, you can’t have any dessert.”

d) “It’s good for you. You won’t grow up big and strong if you don’t eat it.”

e) “What do you want? I’ll make it for you.”

f) “You don’t have to eat it, but you do have to be nice about what I’ve cooked.”

g) You do nothing, because you know that if she doesn’t want it, she’s not going to eat it.

Without debating the merits of these typical reactions, are there any other options possible?

You could try doing what I did the one time I remember my kids saying such a thing at the table. I told them it was a good thing they didn’t want any, because I hadn’t really made enough for them.  For how they talked me into giving them some after all, see “the Good Eater.” 

Conklinscan Yet another option comes from Robert Conklin, author of How the Get People to Do Things: The key to persuading, leading, motivating, selling, supervising, influencing, and guiding others (1979).

I was drawn to this straightforward title at a used book sale a few years ago and bought it. It seemed to offer the answer to all my problems and fulfillment all my dreams. Who doesn’t want to know how to do all those things more effectively? Conklin’s examples are generally business interactions, but his principles apply equally well to dealing with children.  This excellent book, while less famous than Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, presents similar ideas and is perhaps even better.

Conklin tells about a conversation he had with his wife in the chapter “How to Neutralize Resistance in Others.”  He wanted her to go somewhere with him that Friday night. When she balks, instead of arguing and trying to talk her into it, he takes her on a detour, talking about another subject. When they get back to the question, she’s ready to do things his way.  I wouldn’t call it trickery or manipulation, but being cool and gentle. Effective without force.

For example, when your child says he doesn’t want to eat something, Conklin would not necessarily suggest completely ignoring it. We might acknowledge the resistance by saying something like, “Oh, OK,” or “I see.”

Then, instead of getting excited and challenging the child’s resistance, change the subject. Conklin calls it “casual thought replacement.”

Bring up a subject your child is more interested in than not eating your Brussels sprouts, such as:

· “Did those boys get in trouble for fighting on the playground the other day?”

· “I heard some new neighbors are moving in down the street. I think they have boys about your age.”

· “Was Joshua back in school today or is he still sick?”

· “Did you get to play dodge ball at recess after all or not, since it rained?”

· “The dog brought home a ‘surprise’ today.”

It need not take long, though an interesting discussion is a perfect diversion from unpleasantness and conflict at the table.

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.

When the time seems right, come back round to the food. Acting carefully like you don’t care, maybe just serve yourself, or others, and maybe just set it down near him, or pass it to him casually, or hover the serving spoon over his plate and ask him only with your eyes, perhaps while the conversation continues, if he wants some.

Let me know how it works.

Related post:

How to use negative reverse selling at the dinner table

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 11 October 2009 / All rights reserved


  1. […] an alternative. In the book How to Get People to Do Things (1979), author Robert Conklin calls it taking a detour. It’s a simple, effective, low-key way to keep a situation from going where you don’t want it […]