"Do not go where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."

Monday, September 05, 2011

Won't they just eat junk food all day?

This is all unschoolers eat, right?
"One question that I have from reading your blog, is how you reconcile your nutritional beliefs/values .. with the concept of unschooling - I ask this because this is a really difficult issue for me - letting go of media/bedtimes/respectful parenting, we are already somewhere down the line with all of this, but I cannot see myself buying "junk" food/keeping it in the house - I was just interested in your take on this."
If you've ever watched one of those unabashedly biased nightly "news" pieces about unschooling - or read any number of unschooling articles in the mainstream media - you'll know that unschoolers are often depicted as eating nothing but junk food all day.  Since they're given the freedom to choose, they're feasting on donuts and chips and sodas at all hours of the night and day... because that's what a child would choose, right?  Because of pervasive misconceptions such as these, the above question is one that I receive often, in various forms.  Is that one area where you just don't give them freedom?  Don't you worry that they'll choose nothing but junk food?  I know my child would just eat candy all day...

Let me start by saying that as someone who has studied nutrition, I do think it's important to know about food.  Absolutely.  Parents are doing themselves and their children a disservice if they're not educating themselves at least on the basics.  We should know what's in the food we're eating, and why some choices are better than others.  Why the white flour products don't have the nutrition of their whole grain counterparts.  Why commercially grown produce is so inferior to that which is grown organically.  Why packaged "kids" foods like Goldfish crackers are no different nutritionally than feeding your kids cookies (in fact, as long as I'd made them myself, I'd much prefer the cookies).  As parents we should know why it's not a super idea to be serving up hot dogs or boxed macaroni and cheese or chicken nuggets with any regularity.  If for no other reason, because we can't expect our kids to understand what it means to eat a clean, healthful diet if we don't understand it ourselves.

From an unschooling perspective, I also believe that eating is personal.  Just like adults, kids should have autonomy when it comes to what they do and do not put in their body, at what time, and for what reason.  THEY are the ones who know when they are hungry, when they are full, what makes them feel good, and what doesn't... not their parents, and not the clock.  And yes,  I believe in freedom and choices when it comes to food.  I believe that eating should be both functional and pleasurable, not something to be used as reward or punishment or fodder for a battle.  None of the above is healthy (either physically or mentally) and it hurts me as both an unschooler and as a nutritional consultant to see the pressure, control, and stress that parents will sometimes place on their children over the issue of food.

So to answer the original question from up above:  how do I reconcile the two perspectives?  I buy lots of interesting, real, whole foods.   We don't eat fast food  - no one ever asks -  and we rarely buy boxed, bagged or otherwise processed stuff.  We involve the kids in the entire process, and everyone gets an equal say in what we'll eat for the week.  We look up new recipes together.  We talk about the pros and cons of various "diets" our friends or families are trying.  We give the kids freedom, choices, and information.   They know why we buy what we regularly buy, and they also know that on those occasions that they ask for chips, candy or other "extras", that the answer will be YES.  They are welcome to eat anything in the cabinet, refrigerator or freezer anytime... whether it's before dinner, after dinner, or during dinner.

I think one big misconception that people have about this is that giving kids freedom and choices means just leaving them the heck alone, keeping the pantry stocked with Cheetos, soda, and Ring Dings, and letting them have at it.  That can't be much further from the truth.  We maintain an open line of communication about food like we do everything else, and we stock the house with the things that they love, enjoy, or want to try.  Nine times out of ten they're snacking on fruits, vegetables, and nuts because that's what they choose.  But if they're craving cookies, we'll make some.  If they're craving cupcakes, we'll make those too.  If they're craving cheap, sugary, artificially dyed confections from the dollar store, I'll drive them.

The question remains though.... What would I do if it went too far and one of my kids suddenly wanted to eat nothing but junk food, white flour, and candy?  It's honestly never been an issue.  They know real food, and they know that that isn't it.  They know that those things don't make them feel good.  And sure, they enjoy candy now and then.  They like ice cream as much as the next guy.  And would they happily eat pizza, pretzels, and potato chips at a Super Bowl party?  You bet.   But because none of it is "forbidden", and they know that they're always free to choose, they've learned to trust themselves, trust their bodies, and trust their instincts.

And I trust too.

I also wrote about food freedom in this post

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