I have many stories of our experience as whole life learners with food freedom. Sometimes I still get scared, but I have learned to trust and I have learned that my self-doubts (conditioned) are voices echoing from my own childhood.
Not long ago, I noticed a child at a local museum activity asking his mother if he could have seconds of the treats being handed out. His mother told him that he had already had “enough.” I noted further the dejected look on his face as he immediately caught sight of my son freely having seconds without a care.
I realize there are exceptions where kids have food allergies or other issues exacerbated by food choices, but most of the time parents limit consumption with well-intentioned control that is actually doing more harm than good. Children learn discernment by experience, not by coercion and preaching.
When Sean was an infant, I became incensed when a guest in my home fed him chocolate cake. He was only 3 months old, and thankfully his tongue reflex kept him from swallowing it, as he automatically pushed it out.
Nonetheless, I was so angry! He was exclusively breastfed, and I felt it was my right as his parent to be the one who determined when he had his first taste of any food, especially sweets. It was my responsibility to protect him at such a helpless age.
As Sean started to sample adult food months later, I offered healthy options (we still breastfed as well), but I also followed his lead when he showed interest in other foods that I might not normally offer. I had read about trusting the child, and this was equally helpful when noting which foods he naturally declined.
As I learned about radical unschooling, I learned about food freedom, which respects a child’s right to not only eat whenever they are hungry, but also to choose the foods they eat, as well as their right to decline to eat – even at sit-down meals. It is the answer to eating disorders, in my opinion.
Sean has long had a sweet tooth, but I would notice that by not restricting him, he developed a very balanced approach to eating and choosing foods.
That does not mean I was never nervous! I acknowledged the twinge of anxiety I felt as he sipped his adult sister’s pop, or ate her fries as a toddler.
I still feel that anxiety today when I see him unwrap a Starburst candy.
But, I keep it to myself. Beyond educating him about real foods and fake foods, I don’t extend my judgment. I am trying to extend this courtesy to my husband, but I find it virtually impossible to extend to myself.
Sometimes I will surprise Sean with food art when he requests a salad. He especially likes faces and always asks me to take a picture before he starts eating.
I model healthy eating and shopping. When he asks for an unhealthy food, I buy it. When he consumes more than the recommended serving, I say nothing. When he expresses discomfort, I provide empathy along with logical explanations relating to biological function and chemicals or processing as opposed to shaming diatribes against the offending food.
I also note that Sean comes across nutrition videos (such as ASAP Science) and watches them with interest. He has watched food documentaries as well (never by coercion, only in response to his own interest). I answer questions objectively. I feel that when he makes food choices, he is well aware of the consequences either way, due to his freedom and our open dialogue. He has observed others’ approaches to food and comes away with impressive objectivity.
I find myself still giving permission inwardly for the enjoyment of my own indulgences, and I continue to restrict myself heavily because of my own self-distrust. This double standard perpetuates the guilt and negative associations with food that I learned in my childhood (this is dysfunction).
Recently, Sean (age 8) announced that he feels that when he eats a local Bison burger at a favored non-chain restaurant with quality ingredients, he feels good. But, when he eats fast food, he feels nauseated. He has long known the reasons why it is biologically unhealthy, but he made the choice to eat it anyway. Now, he has developed negativity toward fast food on his own terms; he has learned to trust his own discernment by making his own choices.
This surprised me, as he had grown fond of getting “junk” food on our day or two per month that we run back-to-back errands.
Many kids simply indulge when they think they are not being policed.
This is also true of teen rebellion, a related topic that works in the same way when kids are respected and accepted (no rebellion results) instead of being coerced to suppress their curiosity of anything that has been turned into a taboo topic. As when teens do the things they are forbidden to do, restricted kids will indulge with abandon when no one is looking. I’ve also seen this in the aforementioned museum activity when a parent who imposes heavy restrictions dropped off her kids. As soon as she left, they made quick moves on the forbidden “goods” despite having just received her verbal admonishment about the ingredients.
Some parents repeat the mantra of negativity as their kids make poor food choices throughout childhood and into adulthood. I know that we did as much with my now adult step daughters, who still sometimes show conditioned guilt when consuming these foods in front of us.
The guilt belongs to us as parents for ever instilling such negativity in the first place. They do not deserve to be re-victimized by our voices every time they eat something unhealthy.
Free access to candy has not resulted in over indulgence for Sean. Candy remains at his full access daily, but it goes untouched sometimes for weeks on end. He knows there are no limits to treats and will ask for vegetables. He has even asked for vegetables immediately after sampling candy. This is what happens when foods are not taboo. We’ve become quite used to the phenomenon. On Halloween, while other parents were posting on social media about limiting their kids to less than a handful of treats after all that hard work going door to door, Sean was munching on his candy first, then asking for carrots minutes later. His treats were never taken away, hidden, or restricted.
Meanwhile, my own relationship with treats is still dysfunctional. That is what creating taboos around junk food can do – even after 51 years. Pretty hard stuff to reverse!
When Sean was younger, we had more organized playdates at the park or other venues. The adults/mothers would pull out treats at these play dates, and the kids would scramble like starving, bug-eyed crazies to get their share. Meanwhile, Sean would walk calmly over to me and say, “Can I have some, too?”
Of course, I answered YES – always surprised that he even considered to ask when he knows I never say no to treats. Most of these times, Sean would decline the treat anyway because it wasn’t a matter of really wanting it — Often he was just curious as to what the craziness was all about! He would see the treat and decide he didn’t want it after all.
Even now, when we are in public, and he has a chance to consume cookies or treats, I will ask, “Are you sure” like a parent still in disbelief that a child would pass up a confection. My childhood self echoes, “Are you NORMAL, kid???! Go for the goods while you can get them! No matter whether you want them or not! Grab ’em while the getting is good!!”