Moving Toward Less Control, Concerning Food
A controlling mom wrote:
The impact of these foods is very real and has lifelong consequences. *
Jo Isaac responded:
For everyone? How do you know which foods? How do you choose the one's you think are 'good'? In our house, my husband can't tolerate lentils. I can't tolerate prawns without unpleasant consquences, my son is allergic to shellfish, my husband allergic to peanuts. No one set of foods is good for everyone. You are choosing foods for your children based on what YOU think is 'healthy' for them....without choice, they won't learn what foods actually make them feel good or bad - you are taking that learning opportunity away from them. Unschooling is about learning.
Also - scientific studies show that parents who control food end up passing on a whole set of other problems to their kids - including potentially eating disorders.
For example: The linked study concludes that more controlling parents had children who ate more in general, of both "healthy" and "unhealthy" snacks. Also, children whose parents used food as a manipulator/behaviour moderator (i.e.: do you homework or you won't get any ice cream) were more unhappy with their body and looks.
Other studies have found that children who had their food controlled later were more likely to chose high-fat quick energy foods, and had limited acceptance of new foods, and - most importantly - had no ability to understand cues from their own bodies - they couldn't tell if they were hungry or not.
Children's eating attitudes and behaviour: a study of the modelling and control theories of parental influence
Rachael Brown1 and Jane Ogden12
I had responded to -=-The impact of these foods is very real and has lifelong consequences.-=- with:
The effect of parental shame and control is also very real and has sometimes deadly consequences.
You very likely are imagining our children eating all your list of "bad" foods and none of whatever it is you're currently glorifying. And so you're suggesting that anyone whose child has eaten a hot dog might as well have chucked him out onto the freeway at rush hour. This IS insulting.
Sandradodd.com/eating/candid (Candid Kid-Choices)
(Those things cannot happen in a family where food is controlled.)
Longterm Effects of Food Controls (or the lack of controls)
It's very easy to control food when you have a home of young children. Most young children aren't going to question the choices you make regarding food, they will eat what they like of what you've offered. The really big challenge is when kids start asking for other things and how you choose to respond to those things.
This is a biggie and it applies to EVERYthing, not just food. Are you going to be a mom that reacts big and opinionated to these questions and inquiries and curiosities? Or are you going to be a mom who helps her kids explore their questions and inquiries and curiosities? This is the very basis in which parents build the foundation of unschooling, if that is indeed the goal.
In each moment of questioning, or inquiry, or curiosity, you get to choose how you respond. You can respond in such a way that a child's question, their learning, is honored, with kindness and lightness and joy, or you can shut that down with your own opinions and ideas. The more a parent can honor a child's curiosity, the more that child will genuinely listen to their parent's ideas about the world. It's the only way that I've seen that kids really truly are influenced by their parents. All other attempts are seen and felt as control, manipulation, coercion, unless of course you have a child that is VERY easy going. But trust me, there will come a time when even that child will challenge you, and the more easy going you've been about their ideas from the beginning, the more influence you will have when that time comes.
If hot dogs are a "thing" that's caused upset between you and your child, it might seem like no big thing now, but how you've handled that will set the tone for the next "thing" and the next one and the next one. Each of those interactions, the child is growing and learning how your relationship works.
Other people have said this before, but it is worth repeating. Emotional health and emotional well-being are as important, if not more so, as physical health (from food, etc.).
My kids have different ideas than I do about lots of things and that's okay. I can share my ideas and sometimes I'm absolutely sure I'm right and sometimes my kids have astounded me with their own convictions of things they have found to be true for them. It has been one of the coolest and mind expanding aspects of unschooling. Sometimes absolutes are the worst thing ever, to eat humbly.
Elissa Jill Cleaveland, responding to the standard objection:
You've assumed that because they have control over what they eat they'll
choose junk all the time.
Here's the key!
Our culture seems to assume that any choice a child makes will be a "bad"
one. When I started to believe, to Trust, that my children WILL make good
choices, they STARTED to make good choices.
Talking about different types of foods, modeling healthy eating behaviors,
and helping them choose (rather than choosing for them) will enable them to make
the right choices for themselves.
This may take time for children who have been previously restricted, whether
or not the restrictions were overt or subtle.
Karen James, Apr 19, 2014
I just wrote this on my own Facebook feed:
Just heard the fridge door open and close. Heard some footsteps in the hall. Heard the familiar sound of a pop can opening, followed by a happy slurp. And then I smiled.
What I didn't write about is why I smiled. I smiled foremost at the sounds of my eleven year old, always unschooled son moving easily around his home, finding something to enjoy, and doing so without second thought.
I smiled at the familiar sound of a can opening—something I remember enjoying myself as a child.
I smiled because seven years ago I would have tensed at the sound of a pop can opening in my child's hands. I'm proud of myself. I've come a long way from making ordinary things seem dangerous.
I smiled because it's really wonderful to be able to enjoy life's simple pleasures without fear or worry or judgment.
My son isn't in danger because he chose a pop to drink. He isn't at risk of anything bad happening to him today or in the future because of a can of 7-Up. Most importantly, he doesn't fear my scrutiny over his choice. He doesn't even think about it. He knows without a doubt that it's his choice. I could tell by the joyful slurping and careful hopping steps down the hall that he was pretty pleased with his choice. And I smiled for him.
Karen James, 2014
First part: responses of Sandra Dodd and Schuyler Waynforth to someone seemed ready to give up after a month:
It's only been a month. It might take more than that for them to get as much candy as they feel they've missed in five or seven years. You scarcified it and made it valuable. Let them gorge. They'll get over it. If you don't let them have it now, they will continue to crave it, sneak it, and pack it in. Make it plentiful, and that will make it less desireable.
Sneaking is horrible. We had a family over to celebrate Thanksgiving
this year. One of the first things their daughter ever said to me was
that she didn't eat sweets 'cause they were bad for her. I made some
noncommital noise. Or maybe repeated what she said or something.
Anyhow, when she came to ours I found her in the kitchen on more than
one occasion very quietly putting her hand in our very public and full
candy bowl. It's right next to the fruit. It's often full of things
that I have to throw away because they've melted as neither Simon nor
Linnaea want to eat them. We had gum in the bowl. Sugar-free gum
because the dentist suggested that Linnaea's weak teeth might do well
with frequent gum chewing and that her cavities had little to do with
what she ate. This little girl had never had gum before and Linnaea
showed her how to chew it, but she kept eating it. Slowly and with
careful little bites chewing it and swallowing it. She made sure that
her mother and stepfather never saw. Eventually she was found out.
The scene was so painful. They leapt on her and screeched about how
gum is a petroleum product so she was swallowing a lump of petroleum.
David and I intervened a little, but probably not enough. I always
feel so awkward in those situations. We tried to make light of the
situation and are now weighing whether we want to ever have them over
The little girl was completely screwed from the beginning. Because
she has limited access to sweets, pretty much completely, it is the
holy grail of foods. Whenever she comes over she will gorge because
she will never not know scarcity. She will never trust that the sweet
flavor will be something that she can experience with any kind of
regularity. And her parents can point at that response and use it to
justify their reticence to let her have sweets.
Please read. . . all of this:
It's by Pam Sorooshian, and is "Economics of Restricting TV Watching
of Children." It will apply to food too.
Pam's piece on marginal value/utility is such a wonderful must be read
article. Take the time. It succinctly puts what I could babble on
about and never phrase perfectly in many e-mails.
We have been "de-fooding" for about two months now.
It is a success. I no longer require the kids to eat things they don't
like. I no longer restrict snacks.
I buy healthy and no-so-healthy food. They choose equally for the most part
from all the foods.
Our son who normally who turns his nose up at anything new is now trying and
liking lots of new foods. Our daughter who used to sneak snacks is now
snacking less frequently (and many times on fruits & veggies). Both the
kids have dropped some weight and are happier with meal times. If they hate
what I cooked they can have something else (something that does not require
me to cook a second meal)
There are two small restrictions that still remain and the kids are very
agreeable to them....
1) they have to ask before they have pop, in case there is not much left
(they have many other drink choices as well)
We currently have Oreos, ice cream, wafer cookies, chocolate covered
peanuts, pokemon fruit snacks, etc in the house. These items were bought
over two weeks ago. Normally they would have been gone in a few days. Dole
fruit bowls (mandarin oranges) are like GOLD around here, so is apple juice
and bananas. My birthday cake was not completely finished off and had to be
thrown out once it got old. (that is a first!)
2) if a food item is part of a planned meal (which are posted on the fridge
weekly) they should not eat it all and screw up the menu plans.
I am happy to see that this is working out for us. I have always had issues
with food. I am very overweight now, always have been. I started my first
diet at age 10 at my mother's request. She still asks about my weight every
time I see her. I noticed that I used to eat alot of junk food when I was
around my parents. Now I try to make healthier choices.
I was happily surprised to find (when I visited my doc last week) that I
have lost about 6 pounds in 4 weeks. Slow & steady, without suffering and
without effort. So this new way of dealing with food is working for me as
From the UnschoolingDiscussion list, October 2005:
I have grown up always overweight and continue to struggle with my
weight to this day. My mom & dad were normal weight. I'm adopted
and happen to know my birth mother. She was overweight all of her
life too, as are one of my sisters and two brothers.
When I was little my adopted mom would take me to the doctor and he
would put me on a diet.... I was just a kid and I learned at a very
young age the something was wrong with me. I ate too much
(according to the doctor). That was the beginning of my troubles.
Now at 51 yo I'm beginning to understand my issues with food and my
weight. Limiting food is not the answer, because it puts the
emphasis on the food and her weight.
With my 11 yo dtr, I'm very careful about not saying anything about
her weight or eating. She goes through growth spurts and eats like
a horse and then just eats a little until the next cycle of growth.
She is not over weight and does not seem to have any issues with her
weight like I did. But, I let her eat what she wants, when she
wants and however much she feels she needs.
I have friends who don't let their kids eat candy at home and I have
witnessed those same children consuming large amounts of candy and
junk when their parents aren't around.
I guess what I'm trying to say is take the issue off of her food,
her weight, help her to become a little more active and let her work
it our herself. I'm a testament to one who is screwed up because of
diets - they don't work.
Posted to the big unschooling discussion list Thursday, February 2003, by [email protected] (in response to that first quote and related info, which was about TV, but trust me... read it)
...I just can't feel ok about that....it makes me so angry....I am not
willing to subject my children...
If you go back through this [topic] and count the number of posts that are
about the mom and how SHE feels vs. those about the kids and any problems
they appear to be having, it is difficult to believe that the tv issue is
about the the kids.
I used to be a tv controller, diet controller, behavior and thought
controller (at least I thought I was). I was trained as a child
psychologist....my poor kids *sigh*. I no longer go with that philosophy
and have witnessed with my own eyes that limiting is the problem, not the
You don't even have to have "smart kids" for them to effectively self-
regulate. Gee whiz, our dogs do it. We have two dogs that were raised in a
suburban back yard. We now live on several acres, still anytime the gate is
left open, those dogs take off and are gone for hours. We have two dogs
that were raised on our front porch without any fencing. They never leave
our yard. If a dog can figure it out, I think a child has a pretty good
This is part of a private exchange with a young mom I've known since she was a teenager. She has three children, and lately wrote in frustration, partly about food-related issues. The boldface is my friend, Hannah.
I feel like I have done a lot of the damage already with the food thing.
I mean, [the oldest is] six!
That just means she's old enough to understand that you want her to help
make a change.
Instead of just going from lots of control to "do whatever you want," a
really sweet way to do it is quickly but gradually. Quickly in your
head, but not all of a sudden in theirs. Just allow yourself to say "okay" or
"sure!" anytime it's not really going to be a problem. If something
isn't going to hurt anything (going barefoot, wearing the orange jacket with the
pink dress, eating a donut, not coming to dinner because it's the good part
of a game/show/movie, staying up later, dancing) you can just say "Okay."
And then later instead of "aren't you glad I let you do that? Don't
expect it every time," you could say something reinforcing for both of you,
like "That really looked like fun," or "It felt better for me to say yes than to
say no. I should say 'yes' more," or something conversational but real.
The purpose of that is to help ease them from the controlling patterns to a more
moment-based and support-based decisionmaking mindset. If they want to
do something and you say yes in an unusual way (unusual to them), communication will
help. That way they'll know you really meant to say yes, that it wasn't a
fluke, or you just being too distracted to notice what they were doing.
I might save this and put it where other moms can find it, because
there've been a couple of instances of people saying "I used to control
that) and now that I don't, and I told them they can do whatever they
Too big a jump.
If your kids ask for another one (potato, cookie, peanut butter
think it's helpful if you just say "Sure!" and make another one, even if
don't think they'll finish it, even if you think they'll be too full or
whatever. As long as they're not eating someone else's share (and even
so, if the
other person agrees), it's not a big deal. If they don't finish, save
leftover for someone else. If they do finish and they're "too full"
they'll learn their capacity (which will change anyway as they get
PamTellew posted this list of books:
Here's some "food" for thought:
When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies: Freeing Yourself From Food and
Weight Obsession by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter
Big Fat Lies: The Truth about Your Weight and Health by Glenn A. Gaesser, PhD
Various books by Geneen Roth and it seems there are recordings and such —Sandra
The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession with Weight is Hazardous to
Your Health by Paul Campos (this is new and I haven't read it but the
reviews make it sound well reasoned and interesting)
More inspiration to stop trying to control others' eating from Joyce Fetteroll here.
Above, someone used the term "self-regulation." That can be a problem: Self-Regulation
Thinking in terms of choices is better.
More for unschoolers, about
Food and eating