This week on the podcast, we’re sharing a new episode in the Unschooling “Rules” series!
We use the word “rules” in quotes to draw attention to the fact that there is no such thing as an unschooling rule! It can feel easier to reach for a set of rules to follow, especially when we’re learning something new, but we want to offer you space to look within, to find what makes sense to you and what makes sense to the individual members of your family. There are no unschooling police. Nobody is going to drop by your house and give you a failing grade—or an A+. Our goal with this series is to explore these apparent “rules” and cultivate an environment for self-discovery, for inquiry, for agency, and for growth.
In this episode, we’re diving into the “rule” that unschoolers have unlimited “screen time.” We explore what that term even means, examine the fears and underlying beliefs that we carry, and share about the kinds of conversations that families have when they’re navigating technology use.
We had a lot of fun diving into this topic and we hope you find our conversation helpful on your unschooling journey!
THINGS WE MENTIONED ON THIS EPISODE
Watch the video of our conversation on YouTube.
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We invite you to join us in The Living Joyfully Network, a wonderful online community for parents to connect and engage in candid conversations about living and learning through the lens of unschooling. Our theme this month is Revitalizing Our Nest, and we’re exploring it through the lenses of autonomy and flow.
So much of what we talk about on this podcast and in the Living Joyfully Network isn’t actually about unschooling. It’s about life. On The Living Joyfully Podcast, Anna Brown and Pam Laricchia talk about life, relationships, and parenting. You can check out the archive here, or find it in your your favorite podcast player.
ERIKA: Welcome! I’m Erika Ellis from Living Joyfully, and this is episode 349 of the podcast. I’m joined by my co-hosts, Pam Laricchia and Anna Brown. Hi to you both.
ERIKA: We have a fun Unschooling “Rules” episode for you today. And before we dive into that, I wanted to share a Living Joyfully update. If you’ve stopped by livingjoyfully.ca in the past few weeks, you will have seen our brand new website. The design has a new look and we added new areas of content as well.
Pam, Anna and I have been brainstorming all about the vision of Living Joyfully, and we realized that everything we talk about is really about relationships. Over the years, we’ve seen just how powerful the shift can be in our families when we change these paradigms and learn tools to help us in our relationships, and we want to bring that focus on relationships front and center in all that we do.
To that end, we have this podcast as well as the Living Joyfully Podcast where Pam and Anna share so many of these same ideas, but without the lens of unschooling. We also have the Living Joyfully Network, our online community, where we dive deep and learn together. And now, we’ve added individualized coaching and consulting opportunities to our offerings.
If you’re curious and would like to learn more about our relationship coaching and unschooling consulting, please visit livingjoyfully.ca/coaching. We can’t wait to hear from you.
Okay, so in this episode we’re going to talk about the unschooling “rule” that unschoolers have unlimited screen time. And first, we want to remind everyone that with this Unschooling “Rules” series, we use the word rules in quotes, to draw attention to the fact that there’s no such thing as an unschooling rule. It can feel easier to reach for a set of rules to follow, especially when we’re learning something new, but we want to offer you space to look within, to find what makes sense to you, and what makes sense to the individual members of your family. There are no unschooling police. Nobody’s going to drop by your house and give you a failing grade or an A+. Our goal with this series is to explore these apparent “rules” and cultivate an environment for self-discovery, inquiry, agency, and growth. So, Pam, let’s dive into screen time.
PAM: Yes, yes, yes. Let’s. Okay. Okay. You probably know by now from me that the first aspect I would like to talk about is language. And what is meant by the term “screen time.” So, at this point in our culture, that is a very general term, right? Because a screen can be, it can be a TV, it can be a laptop, it can be a desktop monitor, a phone, a tablet. It can be found in your house, in your car, in your pocket, maybe even in your fridge. So many of our day-to-day activities now involve screens in some ways such that the idea of “screen time” really doesn’t add much value to the conversation.
Screens are pretty ubiquitous in our lives. So, saying someone is in front of a screen is pretty meaningless. It tells us practically nothing about what they’re doing. Screens are just an interface, a way for a person to interact with technology, with a piece of hardware.
It’s what they’re using the screen to do that is interesting. What’s behind the screen? And that is an incredibly rich set of possibilities. It’s pretty much anything and everything. It can be an activity we really enjoy, like playing a video game or watching a movie. It can be a way to connect with others who also enjoy something that we love. It can be tips and tricks for improving our skills. It can be learning the history around an interest or an activity that we’re curious about, so, deepening our understanding of that it can be a way to find community, both online and off.
So, for me, instead of using the lens of screen to examine our days and whether or not my child is using one to engage with something, I am much more curious and have found it much more meaningful to know what that something is. What are they interested in? What are they exploring? What are they learning about? How are they learning about it? What tools are they using to help them move through their day? What entertains them? That’s the level at which I can actually connect with them, be in relationship with them, where I can better understand them and their interests and in turn, better support their learning, all the pieces. I learn so much more about who they are as a human being when I move beyond the screen interface and focus on what they’re using that screen to engage with.
ANNA: Oh my goodness. Okay, so you know that I love language, too. Really the three of us, this is something we enjoy, toying around with the words and thinking about being intentional about it.
So, I’m really glad this is where we’re starting, because I think that the words we choose set the energy for our actions and absolutely impact the stories we tell about our lives.
And so, think of the differences in these statements. My daughter was on screens all afternoon. My daughter watched four hours of cooking shows. Okay. That’s without me putting any tone to it, which I could have. And you can see how much more we learn and convey with just that tiny shift. If one is watching cooking shows for four hours, there’s something to that interest. There’s something there. And when we engage at that level, like you were talking about, Pam, being interested in what they’re enjoying, we learn even more about what they’re getting out of it and where it’s taking them.
We can think about screens as the interface to technology and then the next question, what is the technology bringing into our lives? Because like you said, it can be so many things. It could be about having time with friends and chatting and strategizing and solving complex problems and working as a team. It can be about exploring music or art, the storytelling, a way to dive into any particular interest. YouTube is this gateway to pretty much anything to study and just way too many to even name. I feel like it’s such an amazing time in the world where we can dive into any question or interest and go as deeply as we want or just scratch that surface for a quick answer all at the tip of our fingers.
And as someone who loves to learn all the things, I am grateful every day for technology and the myriad of screens that I have to interact with. And I really think being intentional with our language is such a great place to start, because it helps us to remain open and curious about what’s happening around us and connected to the people involved.
ERIKA: Right. Yes. I love this shift so much, because when we say our kids are just on their screens, I feel the distance that that creates. Now I’m way over here looking at them, really barely even looking at them. Maybe I’m just looking at the back of the screen they’re looking at. I’m seeing such a small sliver of what’s actually happening, and it can cause this reaction in me.
If all I see is a kid with a screen, I can think, they’re not doing anything. They’re not using their brain. They’re not being creative. But I actually have no idea what’s happening if I’m keeping myself at that distance and not letting myself see what they’re actually doing. So, challenging myself to be more specific with my language brings me that one step closer to who they are and what they love.
It puts me closer to being in connection with them. Well, it turns out my daughter was drawing on Procreate, creating a new character, or my son was playing Roblox with his friends. Or at another moment, maybe he was figuring out who that background actor was on Agents of Shield, and she was watching an exotic animal vet show.
So, that’s why it makes sense to take a pause if you’re tempted to use the word “screen time” and challenge yourself to go deeper. Really, all I have to do is think about my own life with my phone, my iPad, my computer, how many different things I use those devices for. It feels ridiculous to describe all of that time as “screen time,” and it’s the same for my kids. It’s always so much more real and more connecting to look closer and see what they’re actually interested in.
ANNA: Right. It really is. And it’s such an easy thing to do and it can really light up our kids when they see that we see them, that we’re genuinely interested and that we’re actually just naming what they’re doing and noticing what they’re doing. It’s so important.
So, a couple of the pieces that I want to touch on require a bit of introspection. So often, we find ourselves judging how our children or really anyone is spending their time. When we find ourselves doing that, I think it’s so much more about us than about them.
And one of the things that can be at play is fear. So, releasing our fear is really critical here, because when we’re projecting out into the future with fears, we’re pulling ourselves out of this moment and we are most likely harming the connection with the people in our life. It’s pretty safe to say that fear clouds our judgment, puts us into kind of this reptilian brain where we’re not using our critical thinking skills, we’re not engaging. Like you said, we’re on the other side of the room, looking over here, casting this fearful glance.
I feel like fear can be such a helpful red flag. There’s a purpose for it, but I personally just never want to act from that place instantly, unless it’s a tiger coming at me. You know? I want to use it as a clue to dig deeper, understand, where is it coming from? Time and time again, when I would dig into my fear, I would find some old wound or some outside noise from people or systems that didn’t know anything about my kids, and they definitely didn’t know anything about our life.
Processing my bits and setting aside those outside voices allowed me to tune back into my children and see what they were exploring and all that it was bringing to them and our family. And so, it is that clue of like, when I’m not noticing what they’re exploring, I’m probably in my head with some fear pieces. And so, there’s one more piece I want to talk about, but just I feel like you probably have a couple things to say about fear, too. So, I’m going to throw it back to you, Erika.
ERIKA: I know. I do. But I think it’s connected to what I was talking about before with the feeling of the distance that can happen. It has that feeling of disconnection. Because fear is something that’s happening because of my thoughts, and we talked about this recently in the network Marco Polo group, how there are the actual things that are happening. And then the next step is the thoughts that I have about those things and then the emotions like fear come after I’ve had my thoughts. And so, a situation that feels totally safe and comfortable for one person can feel scary to another person. And so, that’s why to me it’s so valuable to unpack my thoughts and beliefs.
Is my fear about screens really a fear about what other people would think if they saw my kids on screens? Is it one of those future projections, like you were mentioning, Anna? So digging into our fears and questioning them can be so powerful in so many areas, but I think it really is so common when we’re talking about the “screen time” worries, and then it’s all about getting out of our heads and all those thoughts and back into the moment of what’s actually happening in real life. And chances are good that the fears are really just coming from my own thoughts and beliefs that I can release.
PAM: Absolutely. So many kinds of fear can bubble up in this situation. And I found that people often mention the fear that they’re doing their kids a disservice by not insisting they do other things, that screens are addictive and their kids need protection.
But again, like you were saying, Erika, those are my thoughts and I can work through them. So, for me, processing those fears encouraged me to lean into engaging with my kids around their tech use and my own as well. Noticing how over time, more and more everyday things can now be done virtually through a screen interface.
So, for example, most often I don’t need to run to the bank anymore. I can do my banking through my browser or an app. We don’t need to go to the game store anymore to get a new game. We can download it through the console or the computer, again, either way, a screen. And sometimes we can’t choose to go to the store to browse for fun. So, yes, I definitely interface with screens more than I did a decade ago, but it’s often both more effective and efficient.
I remember moments and still have these moments where I’m sitting my computer. It’s like, okay, I’m going to do something else now. And I think of, what’s the next thing I want to do? And then it’s like, oh. I’m doing that on my computer too! I’m not even moving. So, leaning in with my kids helps me see the variety of things they’re doing and helps me engage with them around both what they’re doing and how they’re feeling about it. A wealth of fascinating conversations bubble up over the months and years as we just explore and learn about tech use alongside each other, because it’s something we’re all kind of experiencing for the first time as it grows in our lifetimes.
ANNA: Right. And that piece is so important, just our own experience of it and being maybe more honest about that than letting the fear take hold and cause that to clamp down. It’s always a great idea, I think, to just take that second look when we’re feeling that little bit of grip with fear, or like you said Erika, maybe the sign is just that you’re kind of pulled apart from your kids a little bit. That that means maybe fear is involved, you know?
Okay. So, another place to dig in and peel back is the fantasy that we create around our children and family. It makes sense. And I would say that most of us have done it at some point, thought about the children we would have and the family we would create. I remember having lists of names for future children when I was in middle school. And after our children actually arrive, we can still buy into some of these fantasies, ranging from future sports star to Ivy League academic or children dressed in woolen clothes frolicking joyfully in the woods.
We create ideas around what type of activities have value based on how they fit those visions. So, if you’re holding onto the academic vision, sports are a waste of time. In the sports vision, hanging out with friends is taking away focus from the sport. You can see how those visions really tunnel us in. And that’s one thing if it’s about us pursuing a passion for ourselves, it’s quite different and way out of our lane when we’re boxing in another person based on our vision for them.
The key for me was truly understanding that my children were unique humans on their own personal journeys. And this quote from Khalil Gibran has always spoken to me and grounded me in this understanding and idea. And I think I’ve actually read it on the podcast before, but I’m going to read it again.
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.
They come through you, but not from you.
And though they are with you, they belong not to you.
You may give them your love, but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies, but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”
And there’s so many things about that poem, but I’m just going to take the “house of tomorrow” piece, because I think it’s related to this conversation. Because with each generation, innovation takes us to new places that the generation before doesn’t understand and often vilifies.
So, when I was a kid, many, many years ago, having a telephone in your room was the thing that was literally going to bring doom and rot our brains, like that’s what we were told. Talking for hours on the phone was pretty new when I was in high school, because I remember actually as a little kid, we had what was called a party line. So, we shared a house phone line with 10 of our neighbors. So, you’d actually pick up the phone and see if somebody was talking. And so, you never lingered on a call because so many people were using it. So, this makes me sound like a hundred years old. I am not. Just 54. And that’s how fast things change.
By high school, I had a corded phone in my room and spent many nights talking to friends until the wee hours only to have to get up at the crack of dawn for school, which I’m sure concerned my parents. They were pretty chill about things, but you could tell. Because this was the buzz that was going around the culture is that these phones are bad for these kids and they shouldn’t be on them. And the thing that’s so funny looking back is that it wasn’t even just phones. People would complain about book reading. I’d hear this. “You’re spending too much time with your nose in a book.” Like what does that even mean, when we think about it now?
So, whenever we find ourselves needing to judge how another person spends their time, we can pause and remember that it’s probably saying a lot more about us and also maybe highlighting a lack of connection or really understanding the child or the person in front of us and what it is they’re engaging with. We maybe haven’t taken that extra time. Instead, we can focus on leaning in, finding ways to connect, learning more about their interests. Why are they enjoying this new thing so much? Learning the terms to be able to have a conversation to really see them and what they love.
I focus on connection because I feel like that’s where we learn more about ourselves, more about the person we love. And oversimplifying and trying to control another person’s interest is not a means to connect, be it sports, books, or technology. Behind those simplified descriptors is a world of nuance and learning. So, understanding the richness of any area of interest is such a simple step to take for the people that we love.
ERIKA: Oh I love this part. It’s so natural to have a vision of childhood and a vision of what our family would be like, and it could be based on what we remember from our own childhoods or just things we see on social media or read about. And it can feel like there is a right way to be a child or a right way to be a parent. But when we open up to the idea that I love so much that everyone is different and that we have so many ways to find our interests and to learn, it just takes a lot of pressure off. There really is not a perfect way to be a human.
I think a lot of people are really drawn to the latest technology, because it’s the cutting edge of human creativity and there’s so much potential there, but not everyone is drawn to it. And different people have different goals and interests and ways that they want their lives to look, and that’s pretty exciting.
And it can also be challenging as a parent when our children are choosing interests that we don’t understand, or that didn’t even exist in our childhoods. And that’s, I think, where that open and curious mindset comes in so handy. And maybe putting up a print out of that poem you shared too, Anna. That was really beautiful.
PAM: Well, you know what I loved, Erika, what you said there not being a perfect way to be human. That takes me right to the people are different and my way is okay. And even different people with different ways are all okay, too. And even while that can feel overwhelming at first, it’s like, oh my gosh, like everybody’s different. Oh no! I found it more approachable when I thought about it in terms of exploring the possibilities with an eye to discovering what I’m curious about and what works for me in terms of engaging with those interests as well as with people that I love. And it changes over time as we learn and grow and change ourselves.
So, for me, it becomes the ongoing mystery of life. I know that kind of sounds cliche and all, but truly isn’t it true? Just think about it for a minute. I’m a mystery to myself and that’s why I keep connecting and engaging. My kids are grown now and it is still so fun to connect with them and hear what they’re up to.
So anyway, this leads me to all of that connecting and engaging and, especially when they were younger, it was discovering what makes their eyes light up. And not judging whether or not the act of accessing those things involves a screen. That was just a piece of the process. It wasn’t the thing. It wasn’t, they love screens. That said so little about them. Right?
ERIKA: And so, when we’re in that connected place and actually seeing what we’re, what they’re doing, and we’re not in that fear place or that fantasy place, we’re now using language that’s connecting instead of just calling it “screen time,” now I think we’re ready to have conversations with them. And I think it can be pretty automatic at times to want to just make a rule or a proclamation, like, “No screens before 4:00,” or, “No screens until the weekend,” or, “One hour of Roblox per day, period.”
We hear about those types of rules and it can feel like they might be a good solution to our fears and concerns. But without communication and conversations, top-down rules and orders are so disconnecting. There’s such a big difference between a parent proclaiming that all screens must be turned off, and the whole family deciding together that they like how it feels when they have dinner and no one brings their devices to the table.
When we talk about not having limits on the time that our kids are engaging with their iPads or their computers, it doesn’t mean that we’re hands off. We’re staying connected. We’re having conversations when something is feeling bad, we’re talking about it and problem solving together. And when we can build trust in our relationships with our kids, they can come to us with their feelings and concerns, too.
So, like Maya has definitely told me that she wants to stop watching videos or to stop playing computer games for a while. And she knows that she can share that with me and I won’t villainize the games and the videos, and I can help her if she wants to go outside for a walk or play a board game with me instead. I can help her brainstorm things to do that are not screen-based when she wants, and I’ll help her troubleshoot when things get tricky in her games and apps too. She’s free to share all of her interests with me without judgment.
And by focusing on connection, the whole family can work together to have a rich life, rather than just me or just Josh and me as the parents like making decisions without having conversations and handing down those decisions that are really just based on my image of what our lives should look like. And so, I think it’s just a much better fit when we’re all involved in creating our family life together.
PAM: Yeah, I think that’s the crux of it for me, really. I think a rule, even one in the guise of not being a rule, like unlimited screen time encourages disengagement.
There’s the rule out there for everyone to see, so we know what’s up and we don’t need to talk about it, right? It leaves the impression that there aren’t any nuances to be had. But as you mentioned, nuances are found when real, different people are involved. When we’re engaged and supportive of each other, when we’re on a team together, we help each other navigate tricky or uncomfortable things without the judgment.
When someone’s feeling they’d like to do more things that don’t involve screens, we help them find ways to do that that feel fun and enjoyable. We don’t leap to, “Oh my goodness, we need a no screens for a week rule,” so that we can help them do this thing they want. It is okay to have a feeling of too muchness around something. I made up that phrase, but it felt so right. Those are great clues for us as we explore who we are and the things we like to do and how we like to do them.
Wanting to change things up doesn’t mean that where we are now is wrong. So there’s a quote from Sebene Selassie that has stayed with me for a while now. She wrote,
“We don’t need to make ourselves a problem to aspire to transformation.”
And that absolutely applies to our kids as well, especially as they explore how they engage with their interests and their days from food to screens to sleep, like all the things.
ANNA: And I love that too muchness because, just like you just said, it’s food, it’s screens, it’s sleep, it’s running, it’s exercise, it’s whatever. We can get into that kind of too muchness stage and then we can just start talking about how’s that feeling and what we want to do. And I think ultimately for me, and you kind of mentioned it before, this whole realm that we’re talking about at the screens, it’s about just having it be one little part of everything.
We’re having the same kind of conversations, it’s the same process, versus this boogeyman, and it’s something so big and we’re setting it aside and making separate rules about it. And I think for me, again, just that always boils down to connection and conversations for me. And that doesn’t mean big sit-down conversations with heavy energy, but light energy of checking in, sharing what’s going on with me, what I’m feeling too muchness about, listening to what going on for others in the family. Just having that be common dialogue that we talk about how we’re engaging with the world and the things around us.
I have seen families work through this and come out with some guidelines about when they do what, and I think the key for that to work is everyone being involved and also, so key, being open to things evolving, because, again, it’s not one thing that’s being restricted when we make rules around screens. Do we really want to restrict research, connecting with friends, checking the weather, looking up history of a word that you just heard that came up in a conversation? Those are just a few of the things I do daily on my phone or tab, and it would seem so strange to say those things can only happen in this pre-assigned window that we thought of last month.
And so, I think just being open to what we’re using things for, how things are evolving and just tuning into how everyone wants to spend their time. What else is happening around us? What can we bring in to enrich our lives? Those are the things that we can be exploring together so that the focus is on creating a life of using all kinds of tools and exploration.
Removing the hyperfocus on one aspect, the screen aspect, can actually remove defensiveness, misunderstanding, and open up creativity. Focusing on connection, learning about one another, building a trust that we’re all working together to create our best lives just relieved a lot of pressure around individual bits for me, because I knew we would figure things out together. I didn’t have to carry that weight and fear alone.
ERIKA: Yes. Well, I love this conversation. It was so much fun. I really enjoyed diving into the unschooling “rules” particularly and unlimited screen time. I hope you found our conversation helpful as you navigate technology with your family. And if you’d like to join in on lots of conversations just like this one, come join us in the Living Joyfully Network. You can find out more about it at livingjoyfully.ca/network. Wishing everyone a wonderful day! Bye.