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On an unschooling e-list I subscribe to, a new-to-unschooling mom wrote about her fear that her kids will do nothing but play video games all day. She wrote:
"My problem is I'm having a hard time finding learning. All my kids do is play video games. I have them doing housework with me everyday. But I just can't seem to [see] the learning."
As I pondered her words, I thought back on my own experience of making peace with the idea of screen time. I recalled feeling the same way, and seeing only the faults in tv and video games, and worrying, too, that my kids, if left to their own choices, would turn into balls of mush; uneducated, brainless zombies, uninterested in anything else. Unable to function within society.
More pressing, though, was my worry that I'd be perceived as a bad mom. Good moms agree that tv is bad. Good moms don't allow their children unfettered access to video games. Good moms roll their eyes and look down their noses at parents who allow a lot of screen time.
I've now got the benefit of hindsight, and two bright, busy, varied kids to prove otherwise. But the concern is a valid one, considering our society's love/hate relationship with tv. While production company masterminds work their magic to create more shows and more video games, with more action, more high definition, better graphics, and more intrigue, the child development 'experts' criticize tv-watching as a hobby.
The conundrum makes me think of school. We enroll our kids at a very young age, when they are still highly dependent and easily influenced, and then we rally against much of the peer pressure and influence they receive while there. Starting at age 5 (soon to be younger, if the politicians have their way), we send them away for seven hours a day, and expect them to make the social choices we want even though we're not there to aid them, guide them, support them, or navigate it with them. We chastize our kids for not standing up for themselves or what's right. We roll our eyes at them for giving in to peer pressure. Do we honestly believe we can send them out to fend for themselves and stand against their peers? I remember feeling saddened by my students' rush to turn on their own friends if it came down to a him-or-me moment. But then I realized that when we toss a child into the deep end and tell him to swim, he will do anything to reach the side - sometimes that means shoving someone else out of the way in panic.
We send mixed messages about tv all the time, more than we know. Our televisions and computers are often profiled front and center in our main living rooms, with all the seating focused around them. Where there used to be conversational arrangements, now there are side-by-side tv-watching arrangements, couches with built-in cup holders, four remote controls to operate the electronic enigma that takes up whole walls. That's fine, if that's what you desire, but why give it such a prominent placement if we don't want our kids to watch it?
Once I realized most of my concern about unlimited tv was about my own need for affirmation and acceptance as a good mom, I knew I needed to examine it. My kids really, really liked screen time. My husband grew up in a tv-watching family. (They had a collection of twenty videotapes and used a notebook to track their content. They'd cross off a show after watching it, freeing up that particular cassette for re-taping.) So three out of four family members desired more screen time and I was elevating my dogma over their desires. I really believed that if I loosened up my control, they'd morph into zombies right in front of my eyes, never to be rehabilitated. I really believed they'd never want to do anything else. I really believed I'd be a bad mother. "It's for your own good" type reasoning had taken up residence in my brain. And while I railed against that sort of authoritarianism in many realms, tv was different.
I sure gave tv a lot of power.
So we ate our organic food, used our earth-friendly cleaning products, wore our resale clothes, and embraced our dandelion-filled yard every spring. (Jonathan is still the voice of reason on dandelions, proclaiming, each time I cringe, "They're beautiful, mom. They're my favorite! A whole yard of flowers!") And I pondered the idea of loosening my control on screen time.
Turns out, there was no heralded announcement, "Now you are FREE! Go forth and watch!" Rather, my control began to quietly, gradually slip away. The kids would watch or play beyond their time limit, and Rob and I would argue about my unwillingness to be the screen-time cop. They would beg to watch "just one more episode" or play "just until I can get to a level where I can save" and I would relent. They would forget they'd already used their allotted time and sneak in more. It was exhausting. I felt like the bad guy all the time, no matter what. If I controlled their time, I felt like a warden. If I didn't, I felt like a permissive parent. (Don't even get me started on that derogatory slur often aimed at homeschoolers.) Rob thought I was weak in my enforcement. The kids thought I was unfair in my keeping-of-the-time. It was not fun.
And so gradually, ever-so-slowly, our rules about screen time changed. Brady began showing an interest in programming and designing, and I silently reasoned that those things were educational and as such, shouldn't be restricted. Rob and Jonathan began enjoying tv together more often, finding they both loved Spongebob and football. I found a few late-night tv shows I liked, revisiting my old college habit of indulging my night-owl tendencies.
It turns out, I'd given screen time more power than it had on its own. After the controls loosened, my kids did binge on screen time for a while, as we are all wont to do when we get our first taste of true freedom. But soon enough, they proved to me that nothing has that sort of control over a person, especially not a person who has a rich, varied life.
And again, I laughed as I realized this unschooling evolution is more about me and overcoming my own biases, discarding the well-worn habits that don't serve us any longer. And as I examined the issue of screen time, one of the things I realized was this: the more I worried about how much screen time they had, the more inclined my kids were to angle for more of it. I had created a sense of urgency about it in threatening to take it away, or even in hoping they'd do other things and celebrating those other things more than celebrating what they were doing all the time, every moment.
When I think about something I really, really enjoy - writing on my blog, for example - and then think about someone threatening to limit my time doing it, what is my first impulse? Well, it's to do as much writing as I possibly can before it's taken away!
So as we give off the vibes that we're really not supporting what our kids are doing, or worse, giving off hints or threats that we're about to put controls on it, we get exactly what we don't want - closeted, binge behavior, often times.
There doesn't have to be a win-or-lose attitude here, either. Giving up control doesn't mean, "Fine, they'll just watch tv and I'll just have to get over it." As radical unschoolers would say, Make your life more interesting. If you hope to interest your kids in something, make it appealing. There are a whole gamut of options available.
We can learn more about what our kids are doing. As we learn more, we come to appreciate it more; we may even enjoy it ourselves. I know lots of adult gamers, and I know lots of adults who love tv and lead rich, interesting lives. We definitely develop more trust with our children when we show genuine interest in what they're doing.
We can offer lots of fun things to do in addition to tv, and we can find ways to support and enhance their game-playing by exploring related activities like films, books, museum exhibits, online forums, or other extensions. Like Pokemon? There are Saturday tournaments nearby. Love football on Sundays? Start collecting cards or favorite-team-paraphernalia. Love medieval video games? Learn to make foam swords or chainmail. In our house, favorite games and tv shows have led to script writing, comic-strip creation, web design, computer programming, a study of Green Bay Packer history, an intense interest in medieval history, and role playing, just to name last week's activities!
We can help them find others who are interested in the same things, and all sorts of fantastic, dynamic group work ensues. And, WE can do the things that WE most love, and as we explore our own interests, our kids will be exposed to new things which may (or may not) pique their curiosity; and at the least, model that pursuing your passions is encouraged, supported, and great fun.
It took a while, but when I finally let go of controlling screen time, things settled into what, for my boys, was a comfortable amount. My oldest almost never watches tv and almost never plays video games now, and instead knows how to create video games with computer programming. My youngest almost never plays computer or online games now, and if he does, he's usually done after about 20 minutes. He has certain tv shows he enjoys and he will sometimes watch 4-6 episodes in a row, and then he'll turn off the tv and do something else. He and his dad spend a lot of time building up their teams on sports-related video games.
In other words, they only watch and play as much as they enjoy, and don't watch or play when they're interesed in something else. It was the doubtful, untrusting energy and subconscious vibes given off by me that were contributing to their "scarcity" mentality surrounding screen time. The more I fretted over it, the more screen time they did, even if they weren't necessarily interested in it. It wasn't about what they wanted or enjoyed, it was about binging on something they feared they'd lose.
Our unschooling evolution is far from over, I imagine. But giving up control over screen time was an immense hurdle to overcome. Leaving my job and opting to homeschool seemed easy compared to this shift. If we can overcome this one, we can tackle anything.