Sunday, January 06, 2008

Unschooling Q&A - How Did We Get Here? Part III

<-- First Post - How Did We Get Here? Pt I
<-- Previous Post - How Did We Get Here? Pt II

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.


K. said...

Sometimes as I read a blog post, I already have my comment percolating in the back of my head. Certain points that catch my attention, things I think I can add to the subject, or witticisms that might be appropriate and make me look smart. Often my comment morphs as I read a post, and this is how it evolved in my head as I was reading this one:

"You sure do talk pretty."

And then, "How amazing is it that just when I fully embrace the unschooling experience that I'd been flirting with since the moment my first child was born, I was lucky enough to stumble onto a person like you, who is so eloquent at expressing exactly how I feel and why I do what I do and what it took to get here?"

And finally, "I think you need to marry me." (I suppose we'll still have to keep our husbands because they're pretty fab, but seriously, Laura, I am so enamored of you in this moment.)

I think my final comment in response to this post is just going to have to be, sincerely and with all my heart, "Yes."

Joanne said...

Excellent post! Can I suggest submitting it to Unschooling Voices? :-)

Silvia said...

Joanne beat me to it! I was going to say the same thing. :) I think you should also submit it to the carnival of homeschooling, and the carnival of education--they could probably use a different perpsective and you did a great job presenting it!

whimsigal said...

Laura, the posts you have written on this topic are incredible. They have helped me see that unschooling is a transformation and not one that necessarily happens overnight. I agree with Silvia and Joanne that you should submit these. Undoubtedly, many people would find them as illuminating as we all do!


denise said...

Interesting. My boys are little and we like the au naturale toys and activities which seem to keep them happier and more connected, but we also do have a TV and computers (and even my 3 year old knows how to use it). Lots to sink my brain into as a mom starting this US trip. :)

Speaking of. You said you are coming to the US conference this weekend? Still going? I wasn't sure about planning but looks like I am now going. :)

Beverly said...

Nice post!
I agree with you all the way through, except then you talk about the Packers, and well, I'm from Minnesota, so you know ...
Really, though, my husband and I enjoy computer games, so it is no surprise that our kids do, too.
I would never want to be the TV cop. They get bored with the TV if there's other stuff to do, which there always is.

piscesgrrl said...

k. I'm blushing and laughing - my first marriage proposal! Ok, second. (Ok fine, third. Sorta. Long story.) But first from my blog! That was a proposal, right? Anyhoo, I think you've got me on eloquence, so coming from you, this means a lot. A whole lot.

joanne - done! :)

silvia - done! Ok, not carnival of education. I didn't feel like sticking it to the man today. Maybe tomorrow? :)

whimsigal - thanks! I learn a lot from you too!

denise - I think au naturale is fantastic, and am certainly not advocating against them. I can see you and your kids have a verrrry rich life with all the amazing things you do! It's about not making an adversarial relationship over what each of us needs and desires. For us, screen time has enriched our lives in many ways. I had a picture of how I wanted things to be - but reality doesn't always match it! I will look for you at Saturday's conference so I can say hello!

beverly - exactly! ok, 'cept for the Minnesota part. Actually, I'm not much of a fan of any team (though I can recite the Chicago Bears "Superbowl Shuffle" for ya, if'n you want :), but don't let my husband know that a Vikings fan is reading my blog... he might get twitchy. :)

Colleen said...

I agree with K. As I read this I couldn't stop thinking "I sure do hope I sound like this some day!" I hope I sound certain, and satisfied, and wise, like I have good advice to offer other unschoolers, and like I know what I'm doing!! I'm going to put a link to this on my blog. I love it. :)

Not June Cleaver said...

Nice series of posts on the transformation. I found you through thenewunschooler's post today.

If I ever get my thoughts in order (and get back to posting more interesting stuff than what I've been posting lately), I'd like to copy the school conundrum paragraph and link to your post. Is that OK?

denise said...

"It's about not making an adversarial relationship over what each of us needs and desires."

Exactly. :)

"I will look for you at Saturday's conference so I can say hello!"

Hope to see you there! I'm six feet tall with long hair and a gray streak. I'll be identifiable as the twitchy one since I am not too comfortable in a room full of people I don't know at first! ;)

laura said...

Just found your blog! I just jumped off the unschooling cliff officially about two days ago. I am freaking out, because my kids are only 6 and 4 years old, and I live in a capital "S" state (NY), where the regs are scary and I'll have to start testing in fifth grade, and they've been on the peepandthebigwideworld website for three hours and don't want to play Boggle Junior with me and and and...GASP...I think I'm having a panic attack. But I am greatly comforted by your posts, and will continue to read. Thanks.

--another Laura

piscesgrrl said...

colleen - thanks for the link! As for sounding wise, um, well.. stick around for a while, I'm sure I'll lower the bar here soon enough. :)

not june cleaver - love your username! Sure, that's fine. Thanks! I'm off to peruse your blog now!

denise - I'll look for you! I'm about 3 feet tall (ok, not *quite* that short) with gray streaks all through my hair. Or is that light brown streaks in my gray... :) I went to a L&L conference where I knew no one, and found it oddly satisfying to be alone and take it all in without all the usual intense socializing. I look forward to meeting you!

laura - hi! And welcome to unschooling! Yep, lots of deep breathing is needed in the beginning. And in the middle. And still now, 9 years in. It gets easier, you'll find your stride.

jugglingpaynes said...

Thank you so much.
Sometimes I get so tired of defending my children's screen time as it relates to our homeschooling.

Excellent post!

Sha Bish said...

Gee- I am so glad I found your blog. I really love the idea of child led learning. I really do try to let my children follow their interests but lately I've been having the tv problem and I just don't know how to handle it. I too feel like I just can't let her watch tv all day, what kind of mother would I be if I did. I just can't let it go. I hope I evolve quickly how you did and get to that comfortable place. I thought our life was very interesting but perhaps I could add something.

Thanks again!

Sandy Feet said...

You perfectly described my own angst about screens, the tension with my husband, and the final realization about releasing control. So well put. Glad to have found you through the carnival.

diane said...

Laura, so glad I went back to read this old post. We have been homeschooling for half a year, and it has been an amazingly positive experience for our entire family. Ten minutes into our first day home together, I knew the only way we would make it would be through unschooling. With that said, the tv has been our one point of "ergh". We were going down the same road you did, initially. Thank you for your beautifully expressed thoughts on this! Taking a deep breath and letting it go..wish us luck!!

Anonymous said...

This is an awesome post -- one I'm bookmarking to come back to when I have more time to savor it. ;-) I think you're right that, in our society, "good parenting" is intertwined with limiting electronic entertainment. I think it's because the stereotype of the parent who's "permissive" with allowing TV and video games is that she's using the "electronic babysitter" to avoid being actively engaged with their kids.

Andrea said...

Oh, I LOVE this post! I am so IN IT right now, with the computer taking over our lives! I am going to try and give it less power, as you stated so well! And I need to be more interesting, which is really the HARDEST thing to do! Oh, and the "BAD MOM" feelings can really ruin the day, thanks for reminding me that maybe I'm not so bad!

piscesgrrl said...

diane - good luck! It helps a lot to be on an unschooling e-list. Helps me to stay the path during the tricky times. Are you on any?

Mama Monkey - I think you're right about the electronic babysitter thing. Unschooling has opened my eyes to so many things - one thing, for sure, is to remember that things are not always as they seem.

Andrea - a lot of times, as soon as we shift our thinking, things suddenly get better. What you give energy to, grows. So put out that positive energy and good things will happen!

Charlie Roy said...

A rather radical read but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I give you credit for having the guts to do this. I work for the system (catholic school) albeit, and an administrator none the less, and I've toyed back and forth with the merit of what we do all day. I put your blog into my google reader and I'll enjoy following. I'm not sure why the departure from the Church was part of this conversion? I'm curious about that part. Love to hear more on that. Also if you haven't read Frank Smith's "The Book of Learning and Forgetting" I think you'll really get a kick out of it.

piscesgrrl said...

Hi Charlie Roy - welcome! Thanks for the book suggestion - I took a peek at that book at a recent unschooling gathering and could tell right away I need to read it. Thx for reminding me! As for leaving the Catholic Church, that wasn't so much to do with unschooling as it was about my entire transformation. As I began questioning why I do the things I do, I realized that I'd gone through the motions at church my entire life - church every Sunday, CCD, etc - and it had never resonated with me. It was an obligation, what our family "did," but I realized it just didn't move me. I tried to stay - I took a closer listen at services, met with the priest, did some reading, even signed my son up for CCD classes. Bottom line - not me. I have no antagonism toward Catholicism. Rather, I have a fondness for our little rural church that's just down the road and I still attend on occasion with family (though it is rather awkward to stay sitting while my family takes communion). It was a huge decision and it was hard on my father. But I found a UU Church (suggested by a friend) and I immediately fell in love with the community and the message. (I didn't expect that!) It suits me. :) I admire you for analyzing the merit of what you do - that's an important thing for anyone to do. Keeps us honest and true to ourselves and our principles (not to be confused with principALS ;-).