Screens, “Doing Nothing” and Being “Behind”

From a question in the Unschooling Special Needs group on Facebook.  Reposted here with permission from the original poster quoted.

The original question was (in part) about her child who Homeschooled for several years, but the struggle over school work was too much so she sent her child back to school.  He thrived for 2 years in “positive private schools,” but once he had to change to a public charter school, much of the progress he had made was lost.  They’ve begun Homeschooling again, but here’s what mom says about it:

“Homeschooling sucks. The only thing my son will do is listen to stories. He can read himself but will only do so at bedtime. It is video games and if I try to moderate and take him off he will literally do nothing all day. I have to be online a lot of the day and if he sees me online he wants to be able to use electronics too. I am so heartbroken . . . .  He is a zombie at home. And he is “behind” on a lot of math skills for his age.”

There was also a post from someone else in that group the day before, asking for help in letting go of arbitrary limits on “screen time.”  The problem for her was that even watching 1-3 shows seem to correlate with out of control tantrums.

Here’s my response to both of these posts:

Unschooling is trusting your child to show you the way they learn best – and then LISTENING TO and HONORING THAT.

If a child is drawn to screens it’s because they are getting something from it.  When we can look past the “evil screen” and see that the screen is actually a window to a wider world of experiences, it is easier to see what kids might be getting out of it, and see what they are learning from the activity that just happens to be delivered through this vehicle we call a screen. 

Now I know some people say the screen itself has negative neurological consequences for their child, and that might be true in the case of a very few kids with neurological differences or other special needs, but often times we parents blame the thing we don’t like for the behavior we don’t like. 

If we’re already biased against “screens” (or television content or video games or another “unacademic” thing) then it’s much more likely that we will see connections between that awful thing and the awful behavior or symptom.  When we can step back and more objectively look at the situation and behavior, it might become clear that there are many contributing factors, and screens might or might not be among them.

Another thing that often happens with a bias against screens (or anything else deemed “unacademic” like listening to a story instead of reading it) is that we will see activities involving screens as inferior to activities that are traditionally considered educational.  We will then blame these “unacademic” activities for any behavior or result that we perceive as negative.  (Doing nothing, being behind – again a judgement that seen through a different lens wouldn’t be negative.)

EVEN “special needs” kids can be trusted to show us how they learn best.  Even my “barely verbal” 7 year old who has yet to potty train and can tantrum like a PRO can show me what he needs.

But I’ve had to learn to listen in a different way than I would listen to my other kids (or really to every other human being I’ve ever dealt with in my life) so it’s a steep learning curve for ME, but that’s just it – MY lesson to learn. 

It’s MY work to let go of my biases – whether they are about screens, or math exercises or reading “on time” or the importance of college or when it seems my kids are “doing nothing” all day or the zillion other things Unschooling parents worry about when their kid is “behind” according to mainstream educational standards.

In actuality there is no such thing as “behind.” There’s just where you are – where your kid IS. A wise woman, Danelle LaPorte once said “Comparison kills.” When I read that I said “YES that’s IT!  It’s the key to SO much of the trouble parents have with Unschooling.  Ms. LaPorte was talking about the difficulty that arises when we compare ourselves to others but it applies to EVERYTHING and ESPECIALLY children. Comparison is damaging. Period.

Whether we’re comparing siblings against each other, or students in a 3rd grade class, or all 8 year olds in the world, or my yoga pose to the teacher’s pose, or my car or house to my neighbors’ . . . comparison to another person is NEVER helpful. Even when we compare and think we’re better, or our child is better, we create a FALSE sense of superiority.

If we simply work with what we have right in front of us, and take the LONG view (not assessing progress in days or weeks, but in YEARS) we can relax and live in the moment. We can SEE our children better. We can hear THEIR NEEDS more easily. If we want to truly honor our child and THEIR natural way of learning and growing and developing, we have to work hard to let go of our biases and baggage. We have to stop comparing them to any on else and REALLY SEE the child in front of us.

Unschooling is both easier AND more challenging than school-at-home Homeschooling.

It’s easier because the battle between you and your child is diffused. But the internal battle for parents is often intensified. The battle between our instinct and what society has taught us is “responsible parenting” or “appropriate education” is often a daily or even hourly challenge. 

Unschooling is also harder sometimes because we can’t just follow a prescribed set of beliefs about education and we can’t just use a curriculum straight out of the box to make sure “all the bases are covered.”  We have to follow and TRUST our children’s way.  They WILL cover all of the “bases” that are important to THEM.  We have to trust that other “bases” will be covered when the child sees a need.  When the child’s life experience has caused them to ask the questions and develop genuine curiosity about that topic.

Unschooling is hard for many of us because we have to put faith in the process and detach from the outcome.  We have to take a leap of faith that many around us will say is “crazy.”

But Unschooling is MUCH EASIER than Homeschooling once we do a certain amount of work on that internal battle and let go of our biases, programming and brainwashed beliefs that certain subjects or vehicles of learning are superior or inferior to others.  

Once we are more comfortable with following our instincts AND our kids’ instincts Unschooling becomes just an exercise in managing the flow, finding the right resources for our kids and then letting them expand and grow in their own way and in their own time.  No pressure to perform or measure up against anyone else.  The only measure of success in Unschooling is the amount of JOY we and our kids are able to experience!

Can limiting “screen time” HURT our kids?

Last week I attended the Rethinking Everything Conference and was fortunate to see Dr.Peter Gray speak.  It was a highlight of the conference for me since I have enjoyed his Blog on Psychology Today for a while now.

I also highly recommend his book, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life.KidsUsingiPad

Ever since the conference, something he said about limiting screen time has stuck in my head.  I wanted to share it since there seems to be such a push in “mainstream” parenting advice to limit children’s time in front of the various screens we now have in our homes.

Dr. Gray talked about hunter-gatherer societies and compared the way children learn in these societies with the way they learn in Sudbury Schools and in Unschooling.  In both environments children are free to play almost all the time.  Gray said that in these environments there is an “extraordinary indulgence” and trust in children ages 4 and up.  Kids choose how to spend their days and often choose to play with the tools that adults in their respective societies use.  They pretend scenarios that they see in the adult culture.  Through their (mostly unsupervised) play in mixed age groups, they are able to practice and learn many of the important skills that they will need in adulthood, from interpersonal and relationship skills to problem solving and technical skills (using the tools of their society).

Dr. Gray said, (and I’m paraphrasing from my notes) “It’s no wonder that the children in our society have a strong drive to ‘play’ on devices with screens.  Screens are tools in our society.  Parents often ask me if I recommend that they limit ‘screen time’ for their children, and I say no – limiting screen time in our culture would be like limiting ‘bow & arrow time’ for a child in a hunter-gatherer society.”

This struck me so deeply.  In the past few years I have embraced (almost fully) unlimited screen time for my 3 children, but occasionally I wonder if I “should” work harder to re-direct their attention or encourage other activities when I’m feeling like they are using screen devices too much.

I fully appreciate all the advantages of trusting our kids to make their own choices, but have worried that there might be some deleterious physical or psychological effects from using the screens.  I can see many ways that activities using screens will prepare kids for the future, but I still had that nagging doubt that resulted from always hearing about the “latest study” on screen time and ADHD or sleep disorders.

Dr. Gray’s point showed me yet another way that imposing my agenda (based on fear or influence from society) could possibly hold my kids back.  I accept without reservation the idea that trusting my children to choose how they spend their time will give my kids the gifts of self-confidence, self-regulation and trusting themselves fully, but I sometimes felt conflicted in putting this theory into practice and always honoring their choices when it came to “screen time”.

I see now that by limiting my kids’ opportunities to fully explore activities they enjoy because screens are involved, I could not only undermine their self-confidence and self-trust, but could be thwarting some learning that is preparing my child for the future.  After all there is no way to know what skills and knowledge will be useful 20 years from now, but if they continue to practice activities that utilize the tools of our society as society and technology changes, they will always be “proficient” in the current technologies and will be well placed to make the leap to the next level of advances.

I will still continue to provide opportunities for my kids to get outside, connect with nature and partake in social and other activities that don’t involve screens.  I do think balance in our activities and connection to nature is VERY important for all human beings.   But I also appreciate deeply Dr. Gray’s perspective which has quieted those nagging doubts and supported my instinct to allow my children to learn freely in the ways they choose.

Invitation to Share:
I believe that there is no ONE correct way to raise or educate children.  We each have to find what works best for our children individually and for our families as a whole.  My experience is likely to be different from yours and I believe that in sharing our experiences we can help each other find the way that fits our families’ needs best.  Please share your own observations and experiences on “screen time” with your children in the comments below.
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