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"I'm hungry!" Unschooling principles applied to very young children.

by Beverley Paine, Aug 2014

Here's the scenario that was put to me to comment on:

Child under 5 years of age asks for a specific snack, which she is given. She take two bites, leave the rest, says she isn't hungry and runs off to play. Fifteen minutes later she says she's hungry again but wants something different. She's given what she wants and takes two bites then runs off, coming back in a few minutes, not wanting either unfinished snack, asking for something different. As an unschooling parent, do I let her have what she wants, which will mean throwing the uneaten food out at the end of the day?

I used to spend a great deal of time talking to my children about the nature of hunger and the nature of what is going on in their minds and bodies when they request food (or whatever). I would frequently say "hungry for what?" and the "what" didn't have to be food. I would explain that sometimes we're hungry for attention, love, being heard, a cuddle, something else we're not sure of but can only think of food right now. I'd ask them about how they felt in their stomachs, what else they were feeling.

It took me years of parenting to realise I could handle situations like this in this way. I'm still learning to practice it with my grandchildren and not jump to the conclusion that just because they said they were hungry they want food.

Also, consider the developmental needs of the person... and the temperament and personality. Know the nature of this child... what works for one child won't for another.

Also work with the energy flows happening: is there something you can do to direct and make more appropriate use of those? Consider what is driving the behaviour, for example, what is typically happening before the child comes back to ask for something different to eat. Is this act an avoidance tactic or similar: as in, is something unpleasant (or boring) happening that triggers the request? Is the child seeking to control the parent (for whatever reason). Little children go through stages of learning how to manage their growing sense of control over their environment and this it takes several years to work out. They experiment a lot. What is a big deal to us may simply be a natural expression of experimentation with control.

Often when this comes up in conversation with other parents the chat starts revolving around unhealthy relationships with food. I personally think the unhealthy relationship isn't not with food, it's with a person. For me, in my situation as a child, that was mum and probably dad. Dad because he called the shots from behind the scenes, the big boss that teased and tickled and smiled but also metered out the 'big' punishments. Mum had food issues too, but that's probably because she wasn't in a happy or healthy relationship with him either (or her dad, who died when she was nine, so how could she?) Using food to satisfy other needs, not hunger, as a parent can have lasting effects on our children. So when the kids start doing this it is important to look at how we, as parents, treat food and diet. Our attitudes and values and behaviour are keen observed, mimicked and adapted by our children from very early in their lives.

It doesn't have to come down to a battle of wills although that is where most of us feel we end up. This conflict arises out of our need to establish and manage our sense of control. For most of us that sense of control is competitive: one of us, parent or child, will win and get his or her way. As unschooling parents that isn't what we want - we're aiming to help our children develop an awareness of their needs and to manage them appropriately. It's not about control. Moving away from the control reality and creating one that works to meet the needs of parent and child is a major aspect of unschooling life.

But we're novices, we didn't have the opportunity to learn this way ourselves. We are still experimenting, having a go, seeing what happens and fine tuning our parenting skills. We're bound to stuff up and not achieve satisfactory results for either us or our children every time. There will be tears and that's okay. And there will be days when stress snaps us back into old patterns of behaviour and we seek to control the situation or our child again. Parenting is a tough gig. Unschooling doesn't make it any easier, not in the short term anyway. It's worth the heartbreak and confusion though. Truly. Keep trying, every small step takes you to where you want to be.

Our children look to us to manage our own lives, emotions, behaviour, etc. They need to see that in action, experience it all around them, so they know what it looks and feels and sounds like. If you are like me and you aren't very good at managing your own life, we can let them know that and apologise when we lose the plot and stuff up and behave in ways that we don't think are great examples. It takes a fair bit of honest self-awareness and it helps to reflect on what our needs are in the moment. This self-awareness of our own behaviour enables us to explain to the children what we did and what we could have done to better meet our needs. And how, in little and big ways, we're learning to manage our understanding of control and the essential role it plays in our lives. Even little kids take in the words we say, even if they don't understand them straight away, the mantra will be reassuring to them and eventually make sense.

Very young children thrive on habits and routines. They'll accomodate other people's routines if those routines make sense and meet their needs too. As they discover and start to consciously explore their sense of self (who they are) they naturally start to express confusion (often expressed as anger) about things that don't make sense to them. We can do a lot to help them create experiences that make sense to them and work for us too. But it takes creativity (problem solving and lateral thinking), observation and attentive listening with intention. I call this tweaking the environment and how and when things happen throughout the day so that the individual needs of the anyone are naturally met.

Providing a range of snack foods that are easily accessible could be one way of tweaking the environment. Stocking healthy and nutritious food that meets the dietary needs of everyone, taking into account likes and dislikes, is key too. Allow the child to graze on a range of healthy foods throughout the day and make sure water is available too (drink bottles work well). A child may not eat a 'balanced diet' within a day but over a week will select foods that meet her body's needs if a range of nutritious foods are available.

My grandchildren (under five years of age) are learning that if they ask for specific 'favourite' food to be made for them they need to finish it before asking for more, if hunger is given as the reason. They commit to eating the food when they ask for it, are given choice over how the food is prepared and the various ingredients and often help to prepare the snack or meal.

If wasting food is an issue (for you), why not say a thank you (to God, the universe, the plant or animal that grew and died, whatever) before each snack or meal? A 'gratitude for what is' habit might not curb the wastage in this moment while the children are very young but it's not this moment that we're most concerned about as parents: we're worried that if we don't control this wasteful behaviour now our children will grow up to be wasteful, not just with food but in every other area of life. And that might be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our worries about this issue... What the 'gratitude for what is' habit does is put a pause in the eating game, redirects the thoughts from stomach and want to the bigger picture of being alive, connects the child with the world outside of the child.

I reckon I could do with a bit more of that kind of thinking when I'm in a 'me' focused space as an adult! (note to Beverley... read this again and practice this tip!)

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Together with the support of my family, my aim is to help parents educate their children in stress-free, nurturing environments. In addition to building and maintaing this website, I continue to create and manage local and national home educating networks, help to organise conferences and camps, as well as write for, edit and produce newsletters, resource directories and magazines. I am an active supporter of national, state, regional and local home education groups.

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