Out of the Mouths of Babes – What We Can Learn About Human Behavior From Our Children

Kid_throwing_food_outSometimes, no matter how many times we learn a lesson – we just cannot seem to change the way we do things. Over the past 30 years, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of studies have consistently shown that people do best with sustainable change when it comes from within – without pressure or coercion; in other words, people do not like being told what to do. In fact, the literature is pretty clear that when people are told what to do, not only don’t they do what they are told, they often move in the opposite direction.

Enter the recent New York Times article titled Children Tossing School Lunch Fruits and Vegetables. It turns out that since 2012 the US Department of Agriculture has mandated that all children must select a fruit and a vegetable at each meal they receive as part of their school lunch program. To test whether this resulted in the desired outcomes, (evidently no pilot study was done prior to implementation) researchers videotaped almost 500 students before the regulations went into effect, and then 3 years later another 900 students after the regulations were imposed as they walked through the vegetable- and fruit-enhanced lines.

According to the New York Times article, here are the results:

  • Before the new rules: students took on average 0.69 cups of fruits and vegetables.
  • After the new rules: students took on average 0.89 cups of fruits and vegetables.


  • Before the new rules:  students ate on average 0.51 cups of fruits and vegetables.
  • After the new rules: students ate on average 0.45 cups of fruits and vegetables.

Can you guess what happened? That’s right. After the new rules went into effect, students were taking more fruit and vegetables as mandated, but they were also throwing away food at a rate 35% higher, and therefore actually eating fewer fruits and vegetables than before the rules went into effect.

If this sounds vaguely familiar, it might be worthwhile to consider the latest rage in workplace wellness in which employees are mandated to fill out HRAs, get biometric screens, and join weight-loss programs.

So, can we learn something here from the children? The bottom line is that this research adds to the mountains and decades of data we already have that clearly demonstrate that telling people what to do rarely works and often backfires. Nevertheless, the lead researcher in this case suggested that if supplemented with additional behavioral efforts she was “optimistic that in the long run, these guidelines will accomplish what they set out to do.”

In the immortal words of the great American philosopher Pete Seeger, “when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn.”

Jon Robison, PhD, MS, MAJon is an accomplished speaker, teacher, writer and consultant. He has spent his career advocating that health promotion shift away from its traditional, biomedical, control-oriented focus, with a particular interest in why people do what they do and don’t do what they don’t do. Jon has authored numerous articles and book chapters and is a frequent presenter at national and international conferences. He is also co-author of the book, “The Spirit & Science of Holistic Health — More than Broccoli, Jogging and Bottled Water, More than Yoga, Herbs and Meditation.” This work formed the foundation for one of the first truly holistic employee wellness programs — Kailo. Kailo won awards in both Canada and The United States, and the creators lovingly claim Jon as its father. Contact Jon at: jon@salveopartners.com or jonrobison.net.

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