Home > Masterly Inactivity: Wisely Passive Techniques to Get Kids to Eat > Masterly Inactivity: Using Sphinx-Like Repose to End the Food Fight with Picky Eaters

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


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.

The parent “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

This post was featured in the Charlotte Mason blog carnival of June 23, 2009.

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  1. November 11, 2009 at 11:01 am

    I appreciate this viewpoint and mostly practice masterly inactivity. Reading your articles makes me see I am weak in one area that I won’t mention 🙂 I was just wondering how you got your kids to eat their veggies from the beginning. Was it something they eventually did it or did they eat them from the get-go? I just imagine your salad-eaters as being a group of 8 year-olds and teenagers. Have any spirited children? That’s what I’m dealing with here. And 2 years old.

    • Anna Migeon
      November 11, 2009 at 12:35 pm

      Michelle, thanks for your questions. I have a lot of posts that might answer your questions more fully and will definitely give you a better idea of how I’ve accomplished getting my kids to eat everything and anything. I have never pushed my kids to eat anything. My kids ate salad and every kind of vegetable as toddlers. I always presented food as something that’s enjoyable and positive. If I didn’t want them to eat certain things, I never made them available. I always cooked and we always had regular meals together. I didn’t let them snack randomly. So when it was meal time, they were always hungry. I never brought out other food or offered to make something different if they didn’t want what was there (I really don’t remember this ever being an issue). I put food on the table, ate it myself, and it was just like magic. I cared a lot about what they ate, but I didn’t make it an issue with them at the table, because I fed them the best foods I could and let them be. The one time I remember my kids resisting food, here’s what happened: https://sacredappetite.wordpress.com/2008/12/06/the-good-eater/

      Research shows that kids will eat a balanced diet if presented with a variety of healthy foods and allowed to choose which and how much to eat. I think the main things are to be regular with meals, make the tastiest and healthiest food you can, and don’t act like there is any reason not to want to eat, don’t push, don’t fuss at them, just let them eat, or not. My son has always been very spirited (was very hyper when he was young) and even oppositional, a pretty difficult kid all along and even diagnosed with various things, but it has never been about food because I never allowed it to be. Anybody that doesn’t want to eat, shouldn’t eat, but if they are hungry, meal time is the time. Their growing appetite is your main tool in getting to them eat whatever it is you want them to eat. No other methods should be used (rewards, punishments, bargaining, begging, forcing), or the appetite will malfunction. As soon as you make it a power struggle or show that you care whether they eat or not, it quits being about their appetite. Good food plus their natural appetite = kids who eat veggies. It’s a really well functioning system if it’s not messed with. If they don’t want to eat, let them get hungry without turning it into a battle, and believe me, they will eat whatever there is to eat (unless you tell them what you’re up to). When kids don’t want to eat much is the time a lot of parents start getting pushy, and it’s all downhill from there. Pushing is the most counter-productive thing a parent can do with feeding. I have a lot of posts about not being pushy. See my category about masterly inactivity. I have quite a few techniques to neutralize resistance in various recent posts.

      Does that answer your question at all? I’d love to hear about that weakness you don’t want to reveal…

  2. Sue
    June 23, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    This is so true! Just as a testimony… this is exactly what I have done, and my kids all gobble up vegetables, and love salad. Each one has one or two veggies that aren’t favorites, but they really will eat anything I put on the table, happily and with gusto (even my autistic son, but it may just be God’s little blessing that he would rather eat raw vegetables than almost anything else!).

  3. June 23, 2009 at 4:01 pm

    I so loved this! Thanks for sharing!

  4. June 23, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    I loved this article! Thanks so much. It contains so much wisdom.

  5. June 17, 2009 at 12:16 pm

    Great article. Thank you for your submission to the CM blog carnival!
    Brenda

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