Coercing Kids to eat will is Counterproductive

Updated to correct typos 5.12.2012; reformatted 4.7.2013 and again 8.9.2015
Is Big Food to blame? The link is a British paper discussing a proposed British answer to childhood obesity. At least Jamie Oliver is only saying that schools should teach kids how to cook. Others want schools and parents held accountable for what their kids eat.

While I am generally sympathetic to the goal of reducing the prevalence of childhood obesity, notions that governments or schools should be mandating what children eat makes me nervous. My experience is that forcing kids to eat fruits and vegetables doesn't work. Plus, had these mandates been in place when my son was in grade school, he and I might well have been reported. At that point he would not eat fruits or vegetables at all; a decade or so later he will eat a small amount of a growing list of vegetables. He still detests fruit.

My son is neither obese nor unnourished, because though getting him to even try vegetables was a struggle we did NOT replace them with factory processed alternatives. We continued to provide him a small amount of vegetables on his plate each night (still do) and over time he began eating more willing. We also worked vegetables into dishes (in sauces, etc) to increase his intake further. But had it been an issue of force at a younger age, I do NOT believe he would be eating any of them willingly.

I know that some parents use cajoling, rewards, threats or shaming to try to get kids to eat. I think such methods are abusive at worst and counter productive at best.

As a child I was forced to eat foods I loathed, in my case in particular canned green peas. (We never had fresh or frozen, vegetables at dinner were a can of peas, corn or baked beans. I could only stomach the corn.) I hated those peas and never wanted to eat them. We didn't have dessert after dinner, so coercion in my case was that I was not allowed to leave the dinner table unless the peas were eaten. Countless evenings were spent by me at the table, until my father would take pity on me and let me get up.

To this day, I detest peas. I refuse to have the canned version in my home, and will only occasionally cook with or eat the frozen or fresh versions, mostly because my husband and daughter love them.

And to this day, I NEVER force a child to eat something that they detest. Ever. Because I remember how that feels. Shaming, to me, is just another form of coercion.

The following scene actually occurred, I was in the room to witness it.

"No dessert for you if you don't finish your watermelon." The child had already eaten all but a few pieces, and was clearly starting to struggle and gag a bit with each swallow, but the adult forcing compliance either did not notice or did not care. "I know you can do it, I believe in you."

The child vomits onto the table. The adult in question does not react beyond getting up to get a towel to wipe the table. As she wipes she says, "Well, that's too bad. You were so close to getting dessert," completely ignoring the child's distress as well as my look of horror.

For the first time the child speaks, "That's okay, it's not worth it." And he leaves the table.

"It's no problem," she said to me, "my kids throw up regularly. I don't pay attention and just refill their plates." I expressed my own strong disagreement with this tactic, and though she listened, she also indicated that she would continue. Later, she would complain to me that the child would no longer eat any fruit or vegetable, no matter what the dessert offered was.

Two anecdotes are proof of nothing, but for me, these experiences represent a powerful caution against coercing kids to eat anything. I expose my kids to all sorts of healthy, homemade food, and encourage them to taste everything. But tasting is all that's required. No one is forced to eat at my table.

Education and persuasion have to be the answers, not coercion


One Mom in the Middle…
of parenting… of her career… of life…

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Learn more here.