A big part of the problem a lot of parents have around the idea of setting limits on food or
anything else comes down to this idea of "instilling" values. Instilling runs
into the same problem as teaching in that it's about the actions of the
"instiller" rather than the experience of the "instillee" - and just as with
teaching, what parents are trying to instill is often not the same as what is
actually learned. You can't control what kids take away from the instillation
It helps a lot to step back from thinking in terms of instilling values or
principles and instead work on living by them - but to do that it can take some
effort to "unpack" what your principles really are, especially where scary,
intimate, vaguely defined issues like "health" are concerned. As
counter-intuitive as it may sound, it's often more helpful to kids when parents
step back from focusing on the kids' health and focus on their own - focus on
being joyfully health-filled rather than grimly health conscious. For many
parents, especially moms, that's tough. Many of us have grown up surrounded by
women (our mothers, sisters, aunts, teacher, friends) trying and failing to
control their bodies (weight, size, shape) and the newest trend is to frame all
of that control in terms of health, so we carry that into our own mothering,
along with all the rest of our baggage. And so kids can end up learning our
baggage rather than what we'd far rather instill about health.
The big fear which can rise up out of that baggage is that if we don't teach (or
the kinder, gentler version: instill) the right things, then something else will
do the job and ruin our kids (sugar, advertising, video violence, Barbie...).
The heart of radical unschooling involves facing down that fear and seeing how
learning works Without teaching or instilling - even around seemingly
all-powerful forces like Barbie and sugar - not by "hands off" parenting, but by
living and learning alongside our kids as partners, offering information and
creating an environment which fosters thoughtful choices - thoughtful, as
differentiated from "good". And to make thoughtful choices, there need to be
real options - not red/blue sweater choices where the "right answer" (wear a
sweater) is already given.
Things to keep in mind regarding dietary issues with young children:
That's a big one. Their bodies and needs change - including sensitivities over
time - but even more importantly, their minds are also growing and changing. So
what "works" with a toddler won't be as helpful with an older child.
Learning is about the person doing the learning.
From an unschooling perspective, that's just as big and important an issue to
keep in mind. You can attempt to guide and direct, but that doesn't guarantee
kids will learn what you hope they'll learn - and a Lot of learning is
experiential. Kids are motivated by one of the most powerful of all human drives
to explore and discover on their own terms. That's not to say they don't want
your help, but they want More than just your help. That's part of what makes
parenting scary! They need us, need parents, but they need us to be advocates
and facilitators more than they need facts and cautions.
I am uncomfortable with forbidding and limiting foods because I don't like the
dynamic it creates between him and me.
That's an important observation! Limiting can make hash of a relationship -
which reduces your effectiveness as a source of information. Limiting sets kids
up to trust parents less, over time, And it makes whatever is limited seem more
valuable and desirable. Luxury is defined by limitation.
I would like to not have to forbid or limit foods, however, the consequences
of eating gluten, dairy, etc. are really tough to bear as a parent (much more
work and stress for me) and I can tell he feels awful and out of control of
himself. This isn't a big deal a lot of the time since we don't keep stuff
off-diet in the house, but in social situations it gets hard.
It will get better as he gets older and has a greater sense of perspective. A
toddler has a hard time considering causes and effects which aren't immediate
and obvious, but kids don't remain toddlers ;) In the short term, you can
consider limiting social situations rather than deal with the fallout from the
foods. You can also bring food of your own, but that's going to have mixed
results, so it can help to keep in mind that the goal isn't for him to make
"good" choices so much as it is for him to gain experience making choices period
and explore causes and effects. That means Planning for a rough time after a
social event! I don't mean you should "expect to fail" but you should be ready
for your child to behave like a little kid, curious and interested and wanting
to explore his world on his own terms.
Planning ahead in that way can actually make things less stressful, since you're
not fighting against logic and probability. It's like... if you bring your child
to my house, it makes sense to bring boots and a change of clothes because I
have this wonderful little creek, just perfect for splashing around in.
Sometimes kids manage not to get wet in my creek, but I don't count on that -
*I* have extra clothes to offer visiting children whose parents forget. You can
plan for parties and outings the same way, and relax into the knowledge that you
may be dealing with a "hangover" of sorts for the next few days.
That kind of planning, too, makes it easier to ask "do I Really want to go to
this party?" Don't ask that question with the hope that everything will be fine,
ask it with the assumption you'll have a sick kid afterwards.
When Ray was little, the issues were social and emotional and not related to
food, but I learned to go through this same process - is it Worth It to deal
with the probable melt-down at the party And the day of recovery? And over time,
as Ray got older, the answer became more often Yes.
There's a myth kids need to be put in complex social situations over and over in
order to learn to "handle them" and it's just that: a myth. When social
situations are overwhelming in terms of offering kids too many complex choices
(social choices, food choices) kids Can't learn from them very well - so it's
actually counter productive to put kids in those situations. It's one of the
reasons some people leave school with no social skills. Setting kids up to
succeed on their own terms helps them learn.
The catch is, kids sometimes define "succeed" differently than adults. That's
another important point to keep in mind - your child's agenda isn't the same as
We talk about the connections between the times when he has the food he's
intolerant to and the behavior/symptoms afterward. I feel like he's receptive.
If he seems receptive, keep offering those bits of information. If he's not
receptive, it's sometimes possible for parents to talk about their own issues
and how they've dealt with them as a way of sharing the same information, or how
other people deal. "Some people find that gluten makes them sick and try to
Still other kids need time to draw their own conclusions. My daughter is like
that - I can offer tiny little bits of information when she asks me a question,
but often she won't hear what I have to say Unless she has asked a question.
Until then, I'm just blowing hot air for no reason, as far as Mo is concerned
(and she's kind enough to tell me ;)).