Before we dive in, let’s take a moment to look at the phrase “screen time.” It lumps together devices that involve a visual interface: TVs, video games, computers, cell phones, e-readers, tablets etc. Yet we use them to do so many diverse things, from entertainment to communication to learning, that to lump them altogether as “screens” seems thoughtless and demeaning.
If we want to categorize them, I think “technology” would work better. Technology is fast becoming ubiquitous in our lives, yet it’s still all so new. I’ve seen the advent of all these personal devices in my lifetime (okay, not black and white TV, that was a bit before my time, but I remember our first colour television set). That’s a lot of change in a handful of decades.
As the longest lived in the group. let’s talk about TV. You’ve probably heard parents worriedly discuss how their children “zone out” when they watch TV. And they aren’t wrong—it’s probably what they see happening in front of them. Yet, that behaviour is not what I, nor other unschoolers, typically see when our children watch TV. Why the discrepancy? I imagine that it’s because this “zoning out” behaviour isn’t caused by watching TV, but is the result of other things in their lives that lead them to use TV as a tool to de-stress.
It’s hard for conventional parents to imagine that the TV experience might be so different for unschooling families just because our lifestyles are different. Yet unschooling parents are explicitly working to set up a home and learning environment with minimal stress. As a result, unschooling children aren’t usually watching TV to escape or relax, they are most often watching with purpose. They are actively engaged—they don’t look like “zombies”.
One of the reasons for that is that unschooling children choose when and what they watch. They aren’t watching because they’re allowed an hour between five and six pm so by golly they’ll use that hour to watch whatever they can find. They are watching because there is something they want to watch. Maybe they’re paying rapt attention. Maybe they are asking questions. Maybe they are pausing and looking things up. Their parents are often with them—answering questions, laughing at the jokes, sharing observations, and looking things up themselves. That doesn’t mean unschooling children never watch TV to relax, to process experiences in a comforting environment—that’s wonderfully okay too. But those experiences are transitory, not the norm.
Learning About Themselves
I think what this notion of limiting screen time really boils down to is parents wanting to help their children figure out how to weave into their lives the multitude of choices we have available today for how we use our time.
And that’s a wonderful idea—understanding ourselves and our activity choices is a key piece of life’s puzzle. But to try to accomplish that through rules and limits isn’t really about helping them learn about themselves; it’s about expecting them to adhere to someone else’s ideal of who they should be.
Unschooling parents are choosing to support their children as they learn about themselves. And as part of that, unschooling parents realize that the frequency, duration, and variety of activities that feels good for each of us, is unique to each of us. So without rules to fall back on, how do unschooling parents help their children discover what that might look like for them? By supporting their exploration.
Those experiences will include lots of times when their children choose and enjoy activities, and then move on. They will also include times when their children notice they’re feeling uncomfortable, and from there, times when they choose to stay uncomfortable and keep going with the activity, and times when they choose to shift to something else.
Unschooling parents notice these moments and help their children process and learn from those experiences—we don’t leave them to figure it all out on their own. How did it feel? What was the goal? What was the cost? When did you notice things were getting out-of-sorts?
Balance as Steadiness
I don’t really like to call this process finding balance because most people tend to focus on the definition of “equal distribution; state of equilibrium”, rather than the one of “mental steadiness or emotional stability.” It’s that focus on the equal distribution of activities that leads to timing things and creating limits: “You’ve watched TV for an hour, now go outside and play.” Balance isn’t necessarily about equality.
I think it’s more useful to focus on the idea of steadiness and stability—the activities themselves don’t matter much, it’s their impact on the person doing them. This perspective helps us focus on our children’s understanding of themselves, on their exploration of the kinds of activities, and how much of them, they enjoy and that contribute to their feeling steady and whole and comfortable.
Through experience, they learn how their activity choices depend on both the situation at hand and how they’re feeling in the moment. They discover the clues their body and mind are giving them that signal that a change of activity would be welcome. When we limit things for others, they get little opportunity to hear those signals.
How We Can Help
The really interesting thing is that parents are also figuring out how to weave technology into their lives alongside their children—it’s new to us too! Here’s a tip: don’t berate yourself if, in hindsight, you wish you had made a different choice—shame and guilt aren’t great motivators for anyone, so they don’t make great examples for your children.
Instead, share observations: “Wow, I just noticed the time, I ended up on the computer longer than I planned.” Share what you observe in yourself. How that might differ from your goals. The ways you try to bring your goals and your activities into alignment. How your goals may shift as you gain experience.
None of this sharing needs to be done in long, protracted conversations, though sometimes that might happen too. Maybe they’ll ask a question. Maybe they’ll share an idea for you. Maybe they’ll share their experiences. When they are interested, engage in discussions with them about it all.
Another thing to consider is making other activities available and inviting. If your children are getting tired of their current activity, electronic or otherwise, but don’t see other choices, they may stay where they are, getting increasingly uncomfortable, both physically and emotionally. If you notice this might be the case, again, share your observations. Short and sweet and matter-of-factly. Not judgmentally. Offer up a board game, a walk around the block, a fresh batch of play-doh, a trip to the park. But don’t be upset if they say “no thanks.” Remember, you don’t know for sure what they’re thinking, what they’re exploring. What you want to do is help them see the other choices available, so they remember they’re making a choice.
Though it’s more time-consuming than setting up rules, helping our children get to know themselves to this depth is an important aspect of unschooling. Support them as they explore the ways that activities impact their physical and emotional well-being, in both positive and negative ways. Encourage them as they gain experience with making choices, discovering the clues that guide them in making choices that help them feel steady and whole and comfortable.
Unschooling is about supporting all the learning that goes into being human.