Radical Unschooling is a fairly foreign concept to most. Some have not heard of it, and most who have do not quite understand it. Unschooling is a method of homeschooling in which children are encouraged to learn on their own. They can pursue passions and interests without the need for curriculum or textbooks. Basically, they achieve their schooling without any outside limits while using their parents as guides and resources rather than leaders or teachers.
Radical Unschooling takes this learning concept and applies it to whole life. It essentially means that children control their own lives without arbitrary limits instilled by parents (from media usage to bed times to food choices). In these cases, the parents do not neglect or completely step back from their children, but are constantly there as a resource or guide as the child chooses to navigate the trickier areas of maturing.
A common concern, even among those who wish to pursue Radical Unschooling lies within food limits. Food choices are a hot button issue in today’s society with the uprise of obesity and eating disorders, so thinking about giving children complete freedom is frightening for many parents. Here I wish to clear up a few areas of confusion on what exactly it means to remove all rules about food for those who wish to take the leap and to remove the fears associated it.
Life Creates Limits
All areas of Radical Unschooling refer to removing limits, but by limits we mean arbitrary limits: limits which are fabricated as opposed to existing naturally. As adults, the main limit we have on food is finances. While many would love to eat lobster and steaks every night, our budgets just will not allow for this. So before we can even step into looking at nutrition or making appropriate choices, we first must look at what is even an option.
The same goes for children. The reality of life is that they cannot have any food they wish in any quantity at any time. It just isn’t practical. Parents are still the source of the majority of finances for children and so the child needs to learn that they cannot afford everything. Life instills the limits, not the parents, and this should be an open discussion in families.
That being said, if the children have their own money then there is no stopping them from buying any food they can afford. A couple of dollars and a trip to the grocery store allow the child to buy whatever item in the store they want within their means. Beyond numbers, zero limits apply.
This teaches reality. Life is filled with limits. There is no need for parents to fabricate more.
No Limits Doesn’t Mean No Discussion
Telling your children they can choose whatever foods they want to eat, be it a bag of chocolate or a handful of spinach, does not mean that the conversation ends there. I often think people conjure up this visual of parents saying “eat whatever you want!” as they open a refrigerator stocked with a smorgasbord of goodies and a group of gluttonous children engorge themselves on cupcakes and milkshakes, bouncing off the walls for an hour until they splay out all over the floor on a sugar crash.
But this is far from reality. Whether a parent has never given limits or chooses to remove them, the discussion is so much more than informing children of all they can eat. Talks about different nutrients, what a carbohydrate is, how protein works in our bodies, and how we feel after we eat different foods are very common discussions in a Radical Unschooling home.
It is not uncommon, before selecting a food, for my three year old to ask “does (insert food here) have protein?” or “is this a sugar or natural carbohydrate?” The discussions don’t have to be riddled in science and involve textbooks and charts, but rather just giving even the youngest child the basics can really fuel them into wanting to do what is best for their body.
Of course, this isn’t to say they won’t make poor choices. Even as an adult, I may still opt for ten candy bars over an apple some days, but these choices lead to more important discussions. Not “I told you so’s” but asking the child to pay attention to their body. How do they feel after eating a bowl of sugary cereal versus munching on some carrot sticks? My five year old actually asked that I stop buying cereal with colorful dyes in it because he recognized how horrible he felt after consumption. Now he opts for dye-free cereal or homemade granola at no insistence from me.
You Are Not a Food Service
Along with having no limits on what to eat, Radical Unschoolers also remove limits on when to eat. Want to eat breakfast at two in the afternoon? Go for it. Cookies before dinner? Sure. Skip lunch all together? It’s up to you.
This technique is effortless when your children are older and fend for themselves, but what about the youngsters who can’t yet cook or can barely open the refrigerator? Then it looks like mom and dad are providing food at their beck and call. This is not the reality.
In our house, all three of my children tend to eat different types of foods at different times of the day. If I were required to be there for each meal and snack, I would never leave the kitchen. Instead, I will prepare everyone’s food when I make mine. For example, in the morning when I make my breakfast, I will put together plates for everyone as well as have full cups of water and milk ready and waiting in the refrigerator. I have come to learn what my children like and dislike so I adjust each plate accordingly. When they are ready for their food, they grab it on their own without me needing to even get off the couch. Sometimes the food I prepare is less than appealing to them, in which case I always have handy alternatives that require little to no preparation on my part. Even as young as two, they can grab an apple or brownie on their own or pour some pretzels or granola into a bowl.
Just as in all of life, Radically Unschooled children learn that they have full control over their actions and it is up to them to obtain what they want when they want it. But loved ones are still there to assist whenever they are able.
In short, removing all arbitrary or fear-based limits from our children’s food choices teaches children a myriad of life lessons from financial realities to self-control. They will make mistakes and they may have some days where laying on the couch is the only reprieve from their learning curve, but in the long run they will be more educated about food, their bodies and life.