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.
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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