Allowing Our Kids to Have Their Own Life Experience

I recently published a post on Experiencing Food In A New Way and ended that post with a promise that I would follow it up with another post on how this concept fits into the context of family and the bigger picture of setting healthy boundaries and allowing each family member to have their own experience. Here it is! I’m going to share my thoughts on the topic in relation to food specifically because it’s the area we’re currently wrestling with in our family, but the concept can certainly be extended to other areas. Before I get to my thoughts, here are a few podcasts and also some notes from a recent sermon at our church that relate to what I’m going to share:

The Rich Roll Podcast with Rich and Jessica Lahey on “The Gift Of Failure.” As I noted above, Jessica is the author of a book titled “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed”. Among many other topics, Jessica and Rich discuss the importance of letting go of our kids and allowing them enough freedom in their life to develop responsibility, experience trying and failing, figure things out on their own, build confidence, advocate for themselves, learn on their own, blaze their own path, discover themselves, etc. She also discusses her desire to see our school systems redefine the way our kids are taught and evaluated by moving away from a focus on performance and scores and instead embracing the learning process and journey of learning. Doing all of this in an effort to usher them into their own life experience that is independent of mom and dad and sets them up for success as an adult.

The Rich Roll Podcast on “How To Be A Little Bit Better Tomorrow Than You Were Today – Sydney Q&A” with Rich and Julie . I mentioned this podcast in Megan’s Musings #2 but in a different context. In response to one of the questions posed by an audience member, Rich and Julie discuss navigating boundaries and choices with family members around food and how to allow each family member to have their own experience. While they address the topic in relation to food specifically, the concept really applies to many things other areas of life including food, faith, life decisions, lifestyle choices, and more.

Our pastor recently did a message titled “Preaching Jesus”. He said several things that spoke to me directly in relation to faith, but after pondering the things he said, I think the lesson can in many ways be extended to parenting, including:

  • Just like the church should be a safe and welcoming place for people to come and hear the message (the Gospel message in the case of our church) without judgment, pressure, or shame, our home should be a safe and nurturing environment where the kids can hear the message (whatever the topic).
  • We can share the message with them, but then they have to take personal responsibility and choose what to do with the message and how to act on it / not act on it. It cannot be forced or there might be rebellion.
  • Our goal should be to provide a safe environment for the kids to have their own life experience. We can set up a structure, give them the tools, teach them, share with them, ask questions, inquire, allow them to share with us, etc. But, ultimately we need to give them some freedom to experience! To blaze their own path, make their own choices, and live their own life.
  • When we hold so tightly to controlling our kids, constantly monitoring and directing them, it’s essential to ask questions like the following – “why are we afraid to let go?” “What scares us about the idea of letting go?” “What is the worst possible scenario if we do let go?” “How likely is it for this scenario to happen and even if it does happen, is there not still purpose in that or hope for something better?”
  • Our focus as parents needs to be one of setting foundation and structure and then letting them fly (the part I struggle with the most!), explore, and direct. Not micromanaging (the part I’m pretty good at!).
  • We, as parents, need to step back and look at the bigger picture and our goal in the bigger picture – raising responsible adults who can make wise decisions, who can advocate for themselves, who are willing to try and fail, and have the fortitude and grit to pick themselves up after failure and continue on. Boundaries are essential and provide safety for kids, but they must provide enough room for movement, exploration, and growth.
  • Questions I’m asking myself now:
    • What will the results of restriction be?
    • What is the result of me making all the decisions for them?
    • What do healthy boundaries look like for our family and for each of our kids (because I think this can be different for each kid)?
    • How can we foster a healthy relationship with food and teach them overarching healthy principles without mandating them to eat in a certain way?
    • What is our message to the kids? Is it to behave or to behold?
    • Hmmmm….much to think about and try on for size…..

And now for my musings on the topic….

Just like I’ve been discovering the value and importance of carving out my own life experience that is unique and untethered to someone else’s rules, definitions, prescriptions, or expectations, I find myself more aware of the need for us to allow this for the kids too. They are still pretty young (9 and almost 6), but they are at an age where they are able to handle some independence and freedom in some areas and where this freedom and independence will serve them in a better way than strict boundaries and control. Honestly, this scares me….a lot! I’m a control freak. I like to have all my ducks in a row. I’m a master planner. I’m a situation manipulator. And, I feel most comfortable when people agree with me, make the same decisions that I would make, and things go the way that I would choose them to go. The truth is that my sense of control over my (or our kids’) life is an illusion. I have no real control. And, it won’t serve me (or them) any good in the end to try and control their lives. Yes, they need boundaries, but they do not need a dictator ruling over them.

We’ve tried out several approaches to handling the area of food and are still not sure which approach fits best. Prior to me going plant-based in early 2015, we were pretty much the normal eating American family. While even before to this change, I made an extra effort to feed them healthy(er) food, we still ate our fair share of animal products and other Standard American Diet mainstays. At first the transition only involved me. I continued to make meat on the side and continued to feed them eggs and dairy products for a while. Then after Scott decided to adopt the plant-based lifestyle, we decided that our home would be free of animal products but they would be allowed to eat as they wished outside the home. But, we felt conflicted about the message we were sending them. If eating this way is/was truly a value we held as a couple, shouldn’t we instill it as a value for our kids too, especially while they are young?

We attended our first Vegetarian Summerfest (I highly recommend attending!!) that summer and sought wisdom and advice from many parents who have been doing this longer than we have. We heard many opinions on the matter, but ultimately left the Summerfest feeling like it was best for our family that we all be vegan (and preferably plant-based), all the time, inside and outside the home. It was a rocky transition at first and there were certainly bumps along the road, but eventually it became the norm and the kids were generally accepting of the idea. Since most things can be made vegan (though of course not always healthy), we were able to successfully navigate most food situations without much trouble.

But, as time passed and after experiencing some trouble with our 5-year old daughter, we again started to question our approach and wondered if it might be better to give the kids a little more freedom in this area. We decided to allow them freedom to choose treats at parties and school functions even if they weren’t vegan. This turned into being a very good thing for them, but it was admittedly hard for me. One nice thing about being strictly plant-based/vegan is that it naturally cancels out many not-the-best-for-you foods, which I liked because I wanted them to eat healthy. But, this was an attempt of mine/ours to control them and their choices. Of course our intentions were/are good, but we’ve started to question the benefits and potential long-term consequences of making these kinds of decisions them.

As we step back and are trying to look at the broader, bigger picture, and our goals as parents to raise adults, not children, we are once again contemplating a new approach to food and wondering how to establish healthy boundaries but also allow our kids to have their own experience with food – to experiment on their own and experience their own trials, successes, and errors. Really, what’s the worst that could happen? They choose to eat animal products. Even so, they would still be my children and I would still love them the same. We want to guide them without helicoptering and controlling them (which arguably I/we could be doing right now). We want to shepherd them but not suffocate them because there is no room for growth in a controlling and suffocating environment. We’re not sure what this will look like for our family, but we are currently pondering the next iteration of our approach in this area.


I’d love to hear your thoughts and/or your approach to guiding your children or other family members in carving out their own life experience so please share in the comments section below!