Children appear to be more socially aggressive and disobedient when they have to hold and bite their food than when they can use utensils and chew it.
Writing in the journal Eating Behaviors, lead author Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and colleagues describe how they found kids aged 6-10 were much rowdier when given foods they had to bite with their front teeth, such as corn on the cob, drumsticks and whole apples, than when these foods had been cut up.
"They were twice as likely to disobey adults and twice as aggressive toward other kids," says Wansink.
The researchers suggest, as seen in animals, using teeth to bite food may be connected to aggressive behavior. For their study, the team observed 12 elementary children for two days during a 4-H summer camp.
The researchers say encouraging a child to eat small bite-sized food with a fork, rather than food they have to pick up and bite, may lead to better behavior at the dinner table. On the first day, they arranged for half the children to sit at a picnic table where they were served with chicken on the bone that they had to bite into with their front teeth. The other six children sat at another table nearby and were served with boneless chicken cut into bite-sized pieces.
On the second day, they swapped the children over. On both days, they also asked the camp counselors to instruct the children to remain inside a nine-foot radius perimeter around the table.
The researchers filmed both groups eating on both days and then invited trained coders to evaluate the children's behaviors in terms of aggressiveness and compliance and any boisterous or rowdy behavior, such as jumping or standing on the tables.
The results showed children behaved twice as aggressively when given chicken on the bone to eat as when they were given bite-sized pieces. They were also twice as likely to disobey adults.
In addition, when given food they had to bite, the children left the circle without permission more frequently and were more likely to engage in boisterous behavior.
Wansink says encouraging children to eat with utensils is a small step to better-behaved young people.