Radical Unschooling and Food

I was thinking, tonight, while preparing green quiche and salad for dinner, about how the principles of unschooling actually apply to food, in the simplest of terms. I mean, I get that they do, and it’s how we live, but I think many people don’t necessarily understand why food gets included in the radical unschooling checklist. Radical unschoolers often say, “Oh, we don’t put restrictions on food”, or “They can eat what and when they like” and sometimes I wonder if people are making those choices simply because they have heard that radical unschooling means extending the philosophy into all areas of life, which means “no limits on food, bedtimes, media etc”, so if they do those things, they will be “qualified” to use the term. I’ve been wondering how many people have paused to consider *why* radical unschooling means not arbitrarily limiting food.

Then there are others who are trying to embrace radical unschooling but really struggle with “letting go of limits on food”. They often  say, “But I just can’t let go of my beliefs about food!” or “Surely you wouldn’t just let your kids eat whatever they want! All they would eat is lollies and chips and chocolate!”

Many people seem to think that they will be automatically considered a “radical unschooler” if they jump through certain hoops and tick all the necessary boxes (There are others who like to use the name and NOT jump through the hoops, but we’ll save that for another day!). This is the typical checklist that many people believe will qualify them as bearer of the grand title: radical unschooler.

  • No curriculum
  • No limits on food
  • No limits on media
  • No forced bedtimes
  • No forced chores

Do all those things and hey presto! You’re a radical unschooling parent!!

But I think it is much more than this. It isn’t just about doing the things a radical unschooler does. It requires thought, contemplation and mindfulness. It requires some mental shifts, and possibly some discomfort as we unpack our baggage, conduct critical analysis and undertake courageous self-examination as to why we tend to want to control certain areas of our children’s lives, why we find some areas harder to let go of than others, and whether we can still be considered a radical unschooler if we, for instance, still make our kids eat their broccoli! Radical unschooling involves re-thinking the status quo, and delving deep within ourselves to find that place where we truly can trust our children’s natural learning process in every area of life.

My daughter, making herself a fruit salad whilst I was in another part of the house, oblivious to her culinary adventures.
My daughter, making herself a fruit salad whilst I was in another part of the house, oblivious to her culinary adventures.

I think it also really helps to contemplate *why* the things on that list up there are actually on the list! Why is it that radical unschooling involves removing arbitrary limits from things like food?

So I spent some time thinking it through and this is what I came up with.  I think, like with unschooling academics, it is a multi pronged approach:

* With unschooling, we honour what our children love and we support their passions. We don’t elevate one activity as being more “educational” than another. Even if it is something we don’t personally value, we still respect the fact that they see very real value in it. We hold fast to the truth that they are learning all the time, whether they are choosing to watch a television program, or read a book, or draw in the dirt, or research medical eugenics.

So also, with food, we honour our children’s freedom of choice regarding food. We provide the foods they love. We say yes to them when we are out somewhere and they ask for a particular food. We trust in their ability to learn which foods feel good in their body and which foods don’t. We trust in their ability to know when they are hungry, to know what foods they do and don’t like, and to know when they are full.

* With unschooling, we provide an enriching, interesting environment with a wide variety of resources and opportunities for the nourishment of their minds. The resources and opportunities are always available for them to choose to use, or not.

So also, with food….. If we restrict their exposure to only ever include “all natural, all organic”, or we restrict their access to foods they want to try, or we rarely ever provide fresh, foods, relying instead on a diet of processed food, it’s a bit like how unschooling might look if we only provided TV, or only provided outside play, or only let them read books. That really wouldn’t be a great unschooling environment, and their opportunities for learning, and discovering/enjoying what they love, would be seriously limited. And when they do one day discover the big wide world of “other foods”, they may potentially gorge themselves to the point of being ill, or develop an unhealthy obsession with “junk food” or find it very difficult to have a pure, unadulterated relationship to food. So instead, we stock our kitchen with nourishing, tasty, fun and interesting foods. We provide a wide variety of foods to nourish their bodies. We prepare “monkey platters“. We cook and prepare foods that our family will enjoy eating, and make all sorts of foods easily accessible and attractive to look at, readily available for anyone to choose to eat them. Or not.

* With unschooling, we strew new and interesting opportunities and resources before our children, for them to explore. Or not.

With food, we experiment with new cuisines and recipes, explore new tastes, take them to interesting eating places, buy the weird fruit….. We stimulate the senses with interesting new smells and tastes and colours and textures. We visit the local farmer’s market, talk to the growers, try the samples, laugh together at the funny dog who balances an orange on his nose, throws it up in the air and catches it (click the link and scroll to the bottom of that post for an awesome photo of one very cool dog)…..

* With unschooling, we provide information, but without coercion and manipulation.

With food, we provide information, but without coercion and manipulation! And for many of us, when it comes to food, we have to do a lot of that self-examination I talked about above to enable us to provide information without it becoming a mini-lecture, or, even worse, a long lecture! In the early days of radical unschooling, it can be quite difficult to do this without the child feeling pressure and manipulation, even if we think we aren’t pressuring or manipulating them! In an attempt to “teach their children about nutrition”, many parents cause their children’s eyes to glaze over, and their minds to wander, and their heels to dig in.

* With unschooling, we are not only interested in what they’re doing, we are interesting people ourselves! We pursue our own interests.

With food, we follow our own bliss, eating what we love, and learning about nutrition if that’s what we want to do. We eat mindfully and authentically. We don’t do this to try to subtly convince them that they should do the same, but because we are living an authentic life, and eating the foods that we want to eat. When a child is in an environment of trust and respect, without pressure to eat a certain way, they are far more likely to be positively influenced by the way we are living and the choices we are making. If that is a scary thought, and you really wish they wouldn’t copy your eating patterns, then reconsider the choices you are making, rather than getting stressed about the choices your child is making!

So there you have it! When we apply the principles of unschooling to the way we interact with food, we are moving towards what is often termed radical unschooling, or whole life unschooling. And trust me, it’s an AWESOME way to live!

Risky Business

It’s funny the things people say when they find out your eighteen year old son is about to purchase his first motor bike. “Did you let him?” is one that comes to mind. The comment itself is something that is foreign to the way I think. I didn’t “let” him, because it wasn’t something he needed permission to do. He is, by all intents and purposes, legally an adult. I didn’t attempt to forbid him from buying one; nor was he given “permission”. It was a decision he made, and talked to us about. He told us his reasons for wanting one, including fun of course, but also the fact that it is a much more economical way to get around than his car (which he will be keeping and using sometimes too – when it’s not at the mechanics!) I reminded him that my first boyfriend had died in a motorbike accident, so I was painfully aware of the risks, and he respects that it is a “big thing” for me. We have also already buried one son, and really have no desire to bury another.

Whilst there are certainly inherent dangers in motor bike riding (as there are with many things), I bet you didn’t know that you’re about 21 times more likely to sustain a serious injury from riding a horse! (According to figures from Stoke Mandeville Hospital.) I guess I’d better re-think my daughter’s horse riding lessons! Not. Life is risky. From the moment of conception right through til the oldest person ever to have lived, we are surrounded by risk and the possibility of hurt or injury. Better to live a fully, happy life, than live in fear of what might happen. I’m not talking about ridiculous risks here of course, and it is good to be aware of ways in which we can increase our likelihood of being safe.

We discussed some safety issues, and he has shared some of what he learned in his rider training course. I was actually quite impressed with the information he’d been given, and his preparedness for riding as safely as possible. And I admired the way that he had specifically asked the instructor for some advice for his first trip on the bike: a three hour drive that would take him through unfamiliar streets in the largest city in Australia, and then along a long stretch of freeway, which is notorious for trucks and cars whizzing past.

He seems to have a good understanding of the dangers and the need for wise riding, coupled with confidence, excitement, and a love of the adrenaline rush he knew he’d get from riding. When he returned home from that first trip, detouring past most of his friends houses on the way home to show off his new pride and joy, I asked him how it had gone. He said it was “SO different to driving a car… you feel so much more ALIVE somehow; it’s so awesome!” I managed to have a laugh about how I hope he STAYS alive, but basically, it was so wonderful to see his enthusiasm, and to know that he is following his heart. Yes, MY heart wants to jump up into my mouth occasionally, but for the most part I am choosing to trust, and to enjoy his joy! It feels good to support him in his passion, just as it feels good when people support me in mine. And yes, I know all too well that sometimes bad things happen to good people, but I think there is more than one way to interpret that. Sometimes the “bad thing” is having a parent who doesn’t support or encourage you, who reacts out of fear instead of hope. And that’s a bad thing no matter what.

Instead, I choose the goodness of trust, hope, faith, support, connection and encouragement.

Trav buying bike
At the bike shop waiting for his bike to be ready….
My choice for a bike!
The kind of bike a Mum might choose!
Finally the bike is ready to go and we have one VERY happy young man!
This is scary!
And one slightly terrified Dad! 🙂
Home safe and sound
And yet he safely made it home
Home for 5 mins then out again!
Home for about 5 minutes anyway, before heading off again!

Helicopter Homeschooling?

© Admonic | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

We recently had lunch at the boat harbour and watched a poor helpless seagull attempt to fly with some fishing line stuck around its foot and a rock attached to the bottom of the line. The poor bird just couldn’t get more than 10 feet off the ground, and had to keep returning to rest, never able to fly off and explore the great unknown, or even to find fish for itself.

Can you imagine a bird trying to fly with a rock attached to one foot? Can you imagine a bird trying to fly with its mother hanging onto its wings, pulling it back down “to keep it safe”? How ridiculous that would be!

Can you imagine a teen trying to fly with a parent holding on out of fear of what might happen, or what choices they might make, or what choices other people might make?

I attach a rock to my teen’s foot when I hold on too tightly at the edge of my comfort zone, when I doubt his ability to make decisions, when I undermine his confidence in himself because I don’t have confidence in him. I hold my teen back when I think I know better than he does about his life. I hold my teen back when I care more about what others might think of him, than I do about how he feels about himself.

“Are you okay?” phone calls every five minutes may meet the parent’s need for reassurance, but are unlikely to meet the teen’s need for growing independence.

I limit my close relationship with my teen when I talk to or AT her rather than listen, when I pre-empt what she will say and listen with only half an ear, when I jump in with solutions rather than validating her feelings and letting the solutions come to my teen with my support alongside her.

A child who has a parent hovering and intervening all the time loses the trust that they need in their own ability to navigate this life wisely. They are actually more likely to make mistakes or to have errors in judgement, when they are constantly looking to us for validation, or having us constantly “saving the day” for them and averting “disaster”.

When we react with fear, we instil fear. Or resentment. When we react with calm confidence, and provide snippets of information that will hopefully help them to make wise decisions, they almost always… make wise decisions! If we seek to control their decisions, they are likely to resent us, or lose confidence in their ability to make decisions. When we provide information, they are more likely to use that information in helping them to act wisely. A simple example of this is a parent insisting that their child put a coat on because it’s cold outside. If, instead, the parent comment (authentically, not in that icky condescending parental tone)  that they themselves feel really cold and want to put a jacket on, the child is more likely to use that information to make a similar choice.

Many of us are blessed with “experiential learners” who seem to need to experience the impact of their choices to learn what they might do differently next time. But what about a child running into the street, I hear you cry out! I wonder what it was in our collective childhood experience to do with cars and dangerous streets, that causes almost every parent to come up with that as the example of what could go wrong if we start trusting our children.

As the author states in Parent Teen Breakthrough (my parenting teens “Bible”), a teen (or child) is far more likely to accept your loving help and guidance within the context of a loving, respectful relationship, than when the relationship is an adversarial one with power struggles being prominent. The subtitle of the book is “The Relationship Approach”, which is apt because the relationship we have with our teen is far more important than whether or not they “do as we say”. When a loving relationship is the most important thing, and they make a choice that ends up going badly, they’re far more likely to come to us for support and guidance, than if the relationship was more adversarial, and they’d been told a firm “No!” but done it anyway. As they begin to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of independence, they will have a more grounded confidence and be less inclined to push the boundaries for the sake of it, if they know that we are on their team, fully support them and will be there for them no matter what happens, without “jumping down their throats” if they make a choice that we wouldn’t make or get themselves into trouble.

It is so easy for us to forget what it was like to be a child, to be a teen on the cusp of adulthood. It is so easy to only look at the situation from the perspective of parenthood, with our heightened awareness of our responsibility and duty of care towards our children. It is so easy to forget the carefree nature of childhood, and the desperate desire for autonomy that increases as they move into adolescence (and is often also very present in toddlerhood!) And to forget that a teen has such a strong desire for autonomy that if they feel too restricted and controlled, they are actually MORE likely to push the restrictions and resist/resent the control!

Our teens will benefit from our care and guidance if it is done with love, not control (read the book for some great examples and specifics of how this really can work, and how inappropriate control is to parenting teens!). But how on earth do we live at the edge of our comfort zone without going crazy? It really helps to be honest about our feelings of fear, concern etc. and also our need to nurture and provide safety where possible, but to also listen to their feelings and needs as well! This is another situation where the tool of Non Violent Communication can really help us to provide an environment where the needs of both children and parents can be met, and all feelings respected. I’ll be posting later about the second NVC workshop I did, that will flesh this out a bit more.

I believe that, as unschooling parents, our job is to equip and empower our children, not hover like a helicopter, just in case…. Just in case what? The big baddie grabs them? The car runs them over in the street? They can’t do their times tables? They become a drug addict? They can’t get in to university?

Does it stand to reason that a child with a helicopter parent hovering above them pointing out every little thing, or pulling and pushing at all the right times, is necessarily any more likely to avoid any of the above scenarios? And even if they do come through childhood & adolescence seemingly unscathed, at what cost does their safety come?

Many people seem to assume that home educating parents choose to do so out of a desire to protect their children from the big bad world, and that they severely restrict their access to people and experiences outside of the immediate family and very carefully selected friends. I think, in some selective cases, this is in fact true. And I think that one of our roles as parents IS to provide a safe, protected harbour for our children to call home. But I don’t think we need to lock the anchor into position, and put up barricades around them. And I don’t think that their only experience of the ocean needs to be at the aquarium where they can look at the sea creatures from behind a glass wall.

I think it’s about getting into the water, getting wet, taking the boat out beyond the crashing waves to where the water is deep and clear, and filled with all sorts of wonderful, exciting, and yes sometimes scary creatures! It doesn’t mean we have to send them out alone. It’s usually much more fun together! But there are times when they will want to spread their wings and have a go at flying solo for a while. And I don’t believe that tying a rock around their ankle helps them to fly.

We helped rescue a baby magpie once. We made a little temporary nest in our yard, having been advised that it had probably fallen out of the nest too soon, or had perhaps been pushed out before it was fully ready to fly. We felt like we were doing a GREAT job of being “mothers” to the little bird. And there was quite a few of us, because our children had friends visiting. We suddenly looked up and saw that the mother was actually perched above us on the power line, ready with a worm in her mouth to feed her baby. We slowly stepped out of the way as quietly as a bunch of kids can do, and watched in awe as the mother gently flew down and fed her little one. Then the baby started to hop along on the ground while the mother flew alongside, just above him. It was a truly wondrous thing to watch this mother take her baby home. It seemed it had been indeed too soon for him to leave the nest. But what happened next took our breath away. The mum perched on top of a fence in the laneway, and the baby hopped along on the ground beneath her. Then the mother flew slightly higher to perch on top of a garage and the baby flapped its wings and clumsily hopped up onto a one foot tall concrete edge that ran along the bottom of the fence. Gradually they made it to the bottom of the laneway and the baby was making more and more attempts to fly up to the top of the fence to join the mother. At the bottom of the lane was the tree where the nest obviously was. And this is where the baby really nailed the flying thing. The mother hopped along the lower branches, encouraging the little one to copy. And then suddenly the baby flew right up to the nest and snuggled back in home.

The magpie mother in this story is a beautiful example of the kind of partnership that I’ve seen work so well with connected, loving, unschooling families. The parent is aware, observant, available, hands-on, connected, informative but not manipulative, interested, interesting, honest, trusting, and ready with a worm at just the right time.

Not a rock.