My daughter is 5. Since she was born I have done everything in my power to be a good parent. I read books on parenting and believe in children’s ability to make smart decisions, be understanding of their limitations, and be exceptionally wise as they discover the world. I believe children need space and autonomy to do these things, and in turn, my husband and I have chosen to send our daughter to a Sudbury model school.
The Sudbury model is kind of a scary concept for a parent. The school’s foundational principle is trust in the student- the students decide for themselves how to spend their days. Their innate desire to play, explore, and gain competence flourishes, and like babies, they are naturally curious and will continue to learn without specific direction (or will seek out specific direction when needed). The school is run as a democracy, and all of the students, ages 5-18, sit on committees and participate in the regulation and decisions the school needs to make. This can include anything from Judiciary Committee handing down school discipline for those breaking the rules (my daughter spends a lot of time in JC for making messes!) to voting for the tuition rate for the upcoming year. It is a model that you absolutely have to trust. For more information on the DC area school, please visit http://www.fairhavenschool.com.
Part of the culture of this school is freedom; freedom to explore, freedom to eat, freedom to rest, freedom to learn, freedom to interact with people of different ages (there is no division amongst age or education); freedom to be who you are. This can be challenging for a parent of young children because of all the normal questions that come to mind; will my child actually want to learn? Will she be able to without workbooks and reading activities? Will there be bad influences due to mixed ages? Will they be safe? The list could go on and on. As a parent, I felt confident that my daughter, age 5, who thinks she is as big as the world and carries the confidence and social skills of an adult, would thrive in this environment, and she has. She is learning to read, loves numbers, and surprises us with questions that seem beyond her years. What I wasn’t prepared for was how allowing this freedom would make me have to come to terms with MY emotional baggage; the same baggage that in turn has made me such a thoughtful, well intentioned parent.
Day after day I have been packing a healthy lunch, much in the way any parent would do. I make sure there are whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and protein so she can grow and thrive. Day after day, my daughter comes home with her lunch partially or completely not eaten, but expresses how she had something delicious at school-a cupcake, a ring pop, chips, etc. This has been grating on my nerves; 'why am I wasting food? Why can’t you just eat your lunch? How are you going to stay healthy and strong?' This escalated to the point of threatening to withhold lunch from my 5 year old. ‘If you are going to waste your lunch, why should I even send you with one?!
I pulled my favorite teacher aside at her school to discuss this problem. I expressed my effort, my concerns about the wasting of food, my worry about her health. She assured me it wasn’t as bad as it seemed, as the kids shared lunches often, and that what happened at home still had the biggest impact. Then this nurturing teacher, who acknowledged my feelings and assured me of her own struggle with the topic while her girls were in school, said to me, ‘you might not want to hear this, but you might just have to waste some food for a while. The more you try and control it while they are here, the more they want to do it’. Part of me balked at this; we live on a tight budget because her school tuition and our healthy food choices take up the majority of our income. Suddenly, this moment hit me like a ton of bricks; I found myself fighting off tears I wasn’t expecting. MY baggage is food. MY baggage comes from a history of feeling fat, unhealthy, trying to diet, and sneaking food, even as a young child.
I am much healthier now; these issues will always be with me, but it is important to me that I make healthy choices both for me and for my daughter so she is not saddled with the baggage of weight issues as she grows. I do not sneak food, I eat well, I exercise, we keep healthy food around the house, and we strike a balance of fun food (read: sugar laden deliciousness) and food that is nourishing. As I am speaking the words to this teacher about my concern for her health, I realize that I was the one causing the health problem. I was the one making food an issue for her. These conversations led to my beautiful, perfectly healthy, bright, energetic 5 year old melting into tears because I was projecting my disappointment onto her for her lack of control.
I sat with this for hours, tears still stinging in my eyes. How could I, the mom who is trusting, thoughtful, educated; the mom who is a feminist willing to push back against societies stereotypes; the mom who is hyper aware of teaching my daughter to be confident in both her appearance and her demeanor; how could I be the one projecting these vile, anxiety ridden emotions of choosing to eat ‘the right way’?
I realized that no matter how hard I try, I will always have triggers. Triggers usually come from a place of unprocessed baggage and they manifest in different ways; yours might demanding your child listen the first time, because you have a history of not being heard. It might be aiming to please everyone because that was what you were expected to do and suddenly you find yourself burning out. It might be lashing out about welfare programs because you grew up poor and didn’t have anything to your name. Or, it might be overreaching on food regulation for your children so they never feel the way you used to feel.
It is my job to reflect on my parenting and ask if what we are doing is working. Is she learning? Is she healthy? Is she confident? Is she funny? Is she clever? Is she thoughtful? Does she respect her body? Does she respect others? Is she happy? My daughter is all of these things and more, and I need to recognize that I have done a lot right. If my words, my anxiety, my behavior, and my attitude cause her to feel stupid, unhealthy, ashamed, or embarrassed, those are the moments I am failing her. Five year olds need discipline in the form of learning, education, and modeling of behavior, not in judgement or disappointment. It was the perfect reminder of how my skills as a doula impact my everyday life, and how I can always be better.
I trust her school environment to be a place she is learning and growing without direct assignment. I need to trust that her home environment can support that education as well. I will continue to model healthy choices, and maybe for a while, at the sacrifice of limited sugar and less vegetables eaten. I have to believe in the long run that she will grow up to be a healthy, vibrant young woman, not because I forced her to eat her vegetables, but because I gave her the space to have a healthy relationship with food, her body, and her choices; the chance to be herself.