Let them eat whatever they want? Are you crazy!
Start talking about letting kids make their own food choices, and this is pretty much a universal reaction. People go right to the extreme: “If my kid could eat whatever he wanted, his diet would consist entirely of cake, candy, soda pop, and potato chips.” “She would gain 50 pounds in 50 days if I gave her free reign.” “I swear he would eat until he threw up and then go right on eating.”
So when people first hear that many radical unschoolers do not place limits on foods or label some food as “good” and other food as “junk”, people are not only incredulous, but kind of horrified. Images of obese yet hyper children with blackened teeth loom large. Coming from a mainstream perspective, it seems impossible to believe that children without food restrictions could actually turn out healthy.
Over and over again, parents practicing radical unschooling have proven that the outcome is the polar opposite of what we fear. Their children often have far healthier attitudes about food, and have healthier eating habits than many of their mainstream counterparts.
What accounts for this? One major reason is this: by demonizing certain types of food, and then setting limits on it, we artificially inflate its value. It’s the “forbidden fruit” so to speak. As a child, severe restrictions were set on my sugar intake. When I had sleep overs at a friend’s house, guess who picked the Cheerios, and who had about six bowls of Sugar Pops? I’m sure I don’t need to spell it out. Since I’d never get Sugar Pops at home, I knew a sleep over was my one chance to indulge. So I did. A lot. My friend, who was used to seeing the “sugar cereals” right next to the “healthy” ones in her cupboard felt the freedom to choose whatever she actually wanted that morning. Lots of mornings, it was the “healthy stuff”.
Another reason unschooled kids make good choices is that they have learned to listen to their bodies. Too often, mainstream children are told when to eat, how much to eat, and when to stop. We’ve all heard the familiar maxims: No snacks right now, you’ll spoil your dinner! Three more bites and you can be done! You need to finish your dinner if you want any dessert! Great job clearing your plate! Even something as seemingly innocuous as “It’s time for lunch” can serve to sever a child’s actions from her physical needs.
As with all aspects of radical unschooling, this is not a hands-off approach. It’s not about stocking the pantry with every bit of “junk food” under the sun, and then letting kids have at it while we go have a civilized (and low fat) meal in the dining room. It takes intentionality. I spend a lot of time talking with my kids about food choices. What I don’t do is call some healthy and some junk. Or call some “meal” foods and others “desserts”. Instead, we talk about balance. We talk about what different types of food bring to the table, so to speak. Some are particularly suited for building muscle, or developing the immune system, or laying down bone. Some may not make noticeable contributions to growing bodies, but bring us delight in and of themselves. It’s all good. And it’s all good to know.
I also spend a lot of time helping my kids learn to read their own physical cues. I trust them. I trust that their bodies will cue them. I trust that they can become competent at reading those cues. At our house, you don’t hear “3 more bites to go”. You hear “Is your tummy telling you you’re full? Feel free to leave the extra.” You don’t hear, “Broccoli first, then cookies”. You hear, “Help yourself. You decide what you want to eat first.”
Will they always make great choices? Of course not. None of us does. But those are great opportunities to help them reflect. Once, my daughter Faith, who has issues with gluten, over-indulged and actually did vomit (let me mention here that over-indulging for her is maybe three cookies, and we were still striving to learn what her body can and can’t tolerate).
This was certainly an opportunity. I could have gone several ways with it. One option: prissily saying something to the effect of, “Well, I guess you’ll remember next time what happens when you don’t eat right” (sort of a watered down version of you made your bed…). Or I could have laid down the law, telling her that until she learned moderation, she was going gluten-free, all day, every day. What I did do was take care of her, lavishing her with lots of sympathy and compassion. Snuggles on the couch with a special blanket and sips of ginger ale ensued. Later, we talked it over. And without my shaming her, or controlling her with an iron fist, she was able to decide for herself that she wanted to limit her gluten intake. Nowadays, she’s the kid who takes two bites of a cookie and walks away satisfied. (She’s my best food story, by the way, and if you want to hear more about her, check out the post I wrote).
Click here to read Joyce Fetteroll’s answers to food questions.
Click here to read one of my blog posts about this topic.