There’s been a big discussion recently on an unschooling group I am part of about the ‘black and white’ absolutes of unschooling. It’s grown into a HUGE discussion, but a particular subject was brought up last night. The idea that unschooling means letting your child eat unlimited candy.
Food is a REALLY in-depth topic to unpick your own ideas about. A lot of those beliefs around food come from what we’ve had ingrained in us. By our parents, by the media, so many places. These beliefs are nearly always deeply rooted, and damn hard to unpick. Unpicking is hard anyway because it really forces you to confront and question your beliefs, and we all know how hard it is to do that and potentially find out we were wrong all along. It ended up that someone unwilling to unpick their own feelings about food and their children decided to delete the thread, which is utterly frustrating as there were a huge amount of informative and useful responses on there. (Either that or they blocked me! )
So, the following is a conglomeration of several comments I made in the group I mentioned at the start regarding the idea that unschooling is letting your child eat unlimited candy.
What I’m not discussing in this post, but that definitely needs to be discussed at some point, is the false idea that sugar is addictive, and food within a family with allergies and intolerances. This post is long enough, and they both really warrant posts of their own (and I know just the people to write those, who are far more eloquent than I!)
THIS IS A LONG POST! Go grab a cup of tea.
The sugar thing. It’s more than just ‘sugar is a big bad’. It ties into giving your children the space and time to learn to trust their own bodies telling them what they need. It is a BIG thing that takes a LONG time to fully unpick and be comfortable with saying yes. I am still working through this myself as food is a tough one for me as I have a history of severe eating disorders.
When you refuse anything to a child, you’re creating a disconnect between you. When you place an arbitrary limit on them based on your OWN levels of what makes YOU uncomfortable, that’s not unschooling.
Imagine the following situation…
Imagine that your partner comes in to the house with a big box filled with your favourite chocolate bars. You are told you can only have one a week. You KNOW they are there in the kitchen. You’ve had a tough week and you really really really want one. You ask for an extra one, thinking you might be allowed one as our partner knows you’ve had a rough time. And he says no. “No. I think you’ve had enough.” Hmmm, that doesn’t feel good at all.
But because he’s said no, it’s creating a Thing about it. You think about that chocolate bar more. You REALLY want one. Like REALLY REALLY. By him saying no and putting his own arbitrary limits on it, *him* deciding that *you* have had enough… it’s creating this desire and fixation on that darn, delicious, chocolate bar.
So you ask again, PLEASE can I have another one? And he pats you on the head and says “Why don’t you have some blueberries instead? They’re better for you.” Uh oh. Blueberries good. Chocolate bad. Well now you feel bad for wanting something bad. And you also feel more than a little put out that your partner doesn’t trust you enough to make your own decisions. But you still can’t stop thinking about it, but you try REALLY hard to IGNORE what your body and brain are telling you.
Then one day, you see your partner eating TWO chocolate bars, one after the other. You point this out and ask if you can have another one and he says “No, you are too little. I’m older and I know best. I’m a grownup. I can eat whatever I want.” You feel that’s really rather unfair. Not to mention creating a disconnect between the two of you.
Finally, the week ends and he ‘graciously’ ALLOWS you to have ONE chocolate bar. And you freaking WOLF that thing down like you haven’t eaten in weeks. You don’t even savour it, don’t take your time, because this precious so-desired food stuff is FINALLY in your hands!
But wait… blueberries good, chocolate bad. Uh oh. Suddenly, that chocolate you just ate doesn’t feel so good. You feel guilty about eating it. What if you get sick? I mean, your partner made such a big deal out of it that it MUST be true. You go a bit pale. And your partner says…
“LOOK! I TOLD YOU CHOCOLATE WAS BAD!”
By refusing things to our kids, we’re creating this stronger desire for them. Making them a Forbidden Pleasure. Like when someone says “Don’t think about the colour red!”
Your partner has belittled your choices, pulled the “I’m a grownup card” on you with no real back up to it, not trusted you to make a decision for yourself, pushed you to ignore what your body and brain are saying, and made you feel guilty about enjoying a bar of chocolate.
These are exactly the feelings we don’t want our kids to have. I know personally there is a LOT of guilt tied into food for me and I NEVER want my kids to feel that.
So, moving on… your partner after a few months comes in with another box of those desired-but-guilt-inducing chocolate bars. And he says “Honey, I’ve been reading about unschooling. You can eat as many of these chocolate bars as you like. Whenever you like. I will always say yes.”
Wait, he can’t possibly mean that! you think to yourself. He’s surely going to take those away, right? He’s not just going to leave them there and let me help myself, right? RIGHT??!
And what are you gonna do? Why, you’re gonna dive head first into that box of chocolate bars and eat the fuck out of them. I mean, you feel CRAZY guilty about it but you force yourself to ignore that because you are drunk on the freedom of Chocolate Whenever You Like.
And you eat until you feel utterly crappy. And then you do it again. Eat until you feel utterly crappy. Because you can. And because you’ve spent so long being restricted. And you do it again. You IGNORE your body and brain and what they’re telling you.
But that niggling feeling in the back of your brain, your partner MUST be going to take these away soon. I mean, he restricted them for SO long, you can’t possibly have faith in him telling you that you can help yourself whenever you like. So you HOARD those chocolate bars. You take some and hide them away in your bedroom, and eat them secretly, feeling guilty as f*ck about it. About the stealing AND about eating them.
And then your partner finds them one day and announces “Right, I KNEW this was a bad idea! No more chocolate for you!” and you’re sat there thinking “Well *I* knew THIS was going to happen!” and you go back to one chocolate bar a week, and when you point out “But but but, I could have ALL the chocolate last week!” and he responds telling you that that was last week, and this is now and only ONE chocolate bar for you!
And your brain starts ticking. I REALLY want that chocolate bar. How many days is it until I can have another one? Man, I really want that chocolate bar.
And it all begins again.
That is what happens when parents come into unschooling and suddenly remove ALL the limits because they feel like that’s what they’re supposed to do. And then they get scared of all the chocolate being eaten, and have visions of their obese, diabetic child as an adult. And they parent out of fear and take those chocolate bars away.
That doesn’t help anyone.
BUT, if your partner comes in with that box of chocolates and says “I know we had limits before, and I’m trying to work on that. Chocolate gives us quick-release energy, a short boost. And if we eat too much of it in one go, it can make our tummies feel poorly. Would you like a chocolate bar?” And you say yes, thanks, that’d be great. I mean, you still think he’s going to change his mind so you’re a bit skeptical at first. And you ask for a second one. And he says yes. Joyfully. Without making a face, without judgement, without offering an alternative. And you begin to relax a little into it. Maybe he is telling the truth. You ask for a third and he says “I can’t joyfully say yes to that right now. Can I fix you something else instead?” and you think, huh, I sort of wanted that third bar but he’s being honest. I can appreciate that.
The next day, you ask for a chocolate bar and he says “I KNOW! Let’s make chocolate fondue and dip some scrummy fruit into it!” and you think hells yes! So you melt a bar of chocolate and chop up bananas and strawberries and grapes and raisins and nuts and you have a great time with your partner.
A few days later, you’re relaxing into it further. You can see your partner trying to say yes, and being honest when he can’t. One day, you ask for a chocolate bar and he says “Hey, did you know, not all chocolate bars are created equal. Some are produced by really unethical companies.” and your ears prick up. How can a chocolate company be bad? Chocolate is AWESOME, right? So you ask “How?” and you learn about fair trade chocolate. And Nestle. Huh, interesting stuff. And you come away from it thinking “I don’t think I’ll buy Nestle chocolate.”
One day, you ask for a chocolate bar and your partner says “You know what chocolate is GREAT in? Cookies. Shall we make some?” What you don’t realise is that your partner was having a chocolate-related unschooling wobble, and this was his way to say yes to chocolate. But making wholegrain cookies, with added raisins and cranberries and a little bit of chocolate in.
One day, you ask for a bar, and he says “Hey, you know what’s as awesome as chocolate? Icecream. Fancy making some?” and you think holy smokes, this guy is just brilliant! So you make banana and chocolate icecream. What you don’t realise is that he was having a wobble that day too, and that your icecream is actually just smashed up bananas blended with a little bit of chocolate and frozen, and this was his way of saying yes that he felt comfortable with.
One day, you ask for a chocolate bar and your partner says yes, and then says “Did you know, the sugar in chocolate makes the bacteria in our mouth produce acid that erodes the enamel of our teeth. That’s why it’s super important to take care of our teeth. Once we’ve eaten, shall we use some disclosing tablets so you can see if your brushing is up to scratch?” and you think yeah, sure, that sounds interesting. And you ask what happens if you don’t take care of your teeth and after seeing pictures you decide to brush a little longer tonight.
One day you ask for a chocolate bar and he says yes and he has one too. And you ask for another and he joyfully say yes and has another himself. And you ask for another and he says “Yes you can, but I’m not going to have one. Too much and I notice that I feel a bit sick and that’s my body tells me that I need to stop eating it”. And you think, okay but I’M having a third bar. And a fourth. And a fifth. And man, my tummy feels awful. And your partner points out “I notice you had five whole bars of chocolate and now you feel unwell. Do you think they might be related?” You don’t feel judged, but you do come away from the situation thinking that maybe you won’t eat five bars again.
On other days, your partner tells you about how sugar is quick-release energy and that’s great for a boost but carbohydrates are sloooooow release energy and that’s why it’s great to have pasta, and whole grains and rice etc. And that chocolate is lacking in vitamins and minerals and you can get them from fruit and veg. And he talks to you about how if we eat too much of ANYTHING, it can make us ill. He talks about the importance of giving our bodies lots of wonderful, different foods, about being active and doing sports or yoga or pilates. And you see your partner doing all of those things themselves. And you model that too. And you make chocolate drizzled popcorn, and oaty bars with chocolate chips in, and even make chocolate mousse WITHOUT chocolate (avocado, coconut milk, cocoa powder). He stops designating foods as ‘good’ and ‘bad’, as ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’. It’s just food.
And then after a few weeks, you realise that the chocolate really isn’t going anywhere. You happily offer your previously hoarded and obsessed over chocolate to everyone. You don’t eat it to extremes. You listen to your body and notice the cues it gives you saying “Eeeep, I think that might be enough now.” and for the most part, you listen and respond accordingly. And you think how great it is that your partner helped you with that. He’s so awesome.
One day, you walk into the kitchen, see the box of chocolate bars and think “I’m ok right now. I think I fancy something else.”
Granted that is super long winded, but the TL;DR version is when you arbitrarily restrict, you create a Thing, an obsession around it. If you then jump in and give total freedom to a kid who hasn’t had it previously, They ARE Going To Binge. Whether that’s screens or chocolate actually. When you joyfully say yes, and find ways you can comfortably say yes, you’re creating connection and joy. Giving them the space to listen to their bodies. Trusting them to trust themselves. Offering information without expectation, creating opportunities for discussion and connection. Making those cookies isn’t just a way to say yes to chocolate. That’s a childhood memory fondly looked back on when they’re adults. That’s a recipe they teach their kids.
It’s worth noting that the goal of unschooling isn’t to get to a point where a child will choose fruit over chocolate, but for you and them to make an informed decision, listen to your bodily cues, and are free to make choices accordingly.
And if your kids have never been restricted and never been told chocolate is bad and sugar is bad, you’ve not created those associations of guilt or created this obsession. It’s just another food stuff.
And yes, there will be some days where all they want to eat is crisps. Because sometimes, that’s all I want to do. Sometimes, I do just want to eat that entire cake to myself. And there are some weeks where I can’t refill the fruit bowl fast enough. But mostly, it’s a balanced mix.
And sometimes, food really IS comforting. On a cold winter’s day, coming inside into the warmth to a steaming bowl of slowcooker butternut squash and lentil soup. If you’ve not experienced the joy of stealing a moment of calm in the kitchen away from your kids and eating Nutella or peanut butter straight from the jar, you are missing out on one of life’s simple joys. Sitting on an evening after the kids are asleep and collapsing onto the sofa and savouring that last bit of Haagen Daaz that just *happened* to be out of sight behind a bag of frozen mince in the freezer. Feeling sad about the death of a beloved grandmother and making a giant bowl of her amazing chocolate cake that is pretty much half butter and eating it ALL. Food is and absolutely should be comforting.
I want my kids to make pretzels using my favourite recipe and think about all those times we made them together. I want them to make chicken noodle soup for their flu-ey friends. I want them to make cold-busting fruit smoothies that are chock full of berries to shift the last bits of a cold. I want to make meals, and I want THEM to make meals as adults, that people come together for, made with love, and eaten guilt free with joy and appreciation.
And sometimes, we all make bad food choices, no matter how unschooly we are about food usually! How many people have had just ONE more plate of food at a buffet or at Christmas dinner? How many of us have had that last alcoholic drink, KNOWING we’ll suffer in the morning?
My two older kids, Ru and Pixie, have a box each with food in that is just theirs. They are free to share if they want to. They currently have a mix of popcorn, a tub of pick’n’mix, cereal bars, crisps, there’s some Christmas chocolate still in there, Ru’s has some SUPER crazy sour sweets I found in a shop as he loves them (but quickly learned that too many in one go make his tongue sore!). They also have free access to all the fruit, and the fridge. They happily give their box food away to others, share openly and generously, are active and happy.
Our food rules in our home are;
1. Eat when you are hungry
2. Stop when you are full
3. Check before you eat the last of something as it might be needed for a family meal.
Ru is eating an apple right now, Pixie is eating a satsuma (her third today so I think she’s coming down with a cold – she eats shedloads of satsumas the two or three days before she comes down with a cold, I guess her body is stocking up on vitamin C!) They know there’s chocolate and sweets in the kitchen.
It has taken a LONG time to get to this point. Like, two years at least. And it has been difficult. Especially for me because *I’VE* had to unpick my own feelings about food SO much. I eat better now too, so they had someone modelling that. I started running last year, doing pilates. They often join me. Ru started doing parkour classes. We all take better care of our teeth.
I’ve noticed some awesome things with them as well, like Pixie eating oranges before she comes down with a cold. I know if Ru is getting ill because he loses all interest in food. And when he eats nothing but cheese, meat, and bread, I know I’m going to need to buy some new clothes for him because he’s going to have a growth spurt! I’ve noticed that Pixie doesn’t like to eat the first hour after she wakes up, then she gently eases into food with yoghurt and cereal. Ru is like me, he needs a quick boost first thing, so whilst I drink my cup of tea with two sugars, he’s having a wrap with chocolate spread. Then I usually have a fruit smoothie and he has toast or cereal or crumpets or fruit or banana pancakes, or whatever.
It’s awesome. Food is awesome. Choice and freedom is awesome. Fricking hard to get to that point, but AWESOME when you get there!