This week on the podcast, we’re diving into another Bringing It Home episode. We’re looking deeper at our last Unschooling “Rules” topic, that unschoolers have unlimited screen time, and exploring what it can look like to navigate technology with our unschooling families.
Unsurprisingly, there is no one right approach. It’s so much about seeing through our children’s eyes and understanding the choices that feel good to them. Having conversations that involve the whole family makes navigating technology both safer and more fun!
We hope you find our conversation helpful on your unschooling journey!
Watch the video of our conversation on YouTube.
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PAM: Hello, everyone! I am Pam Laricchia from Living Joyfully, and this is episode number 351 of the podcast. I’m joined by my co-hosts, Anna Brown and Erika Ellis. Hello!
PAM: So, in our last Unschooling “Rules” episode, we talked about the idea of unlimited screen time. We talked about how the term screen time is at this point, a pretty loaded yet meaningless phrase, and that unlimited doesn’t mean hands off.
So, in this Bringing It Home episode, let’s continue the conversation and talk about ways we might approach navigating technology, particularly when a child’s tech use isn’t feeling good to the parent. And before we get started, we want to just let you know that we have released a course entitled Navigating Conflict. It will help guide you through different aspects of conflict and give you some concrete tools to help you just more gracefully navigate your way through it in all your relationships. Because conflict is not a zero-sum game where one person wins and the other person loses an equal measure. Often, we really can find win-win paths through a situation.
I also wanted to mention that the course content is available in both written and audio format. So, whichever style works better for you. So, maybe you’re listening on some days or reading on others. It really can fit into the flow of your days, whatever they look like. And you’ll find it in our shop at livingjoyfullyshop.com, so you can check it out and just see if it’s a good fit for you right now.
So, Anna, would you like to get us started talking about navigating technology?
ANNA: I would. Okay. So, I feel like in our last episode, we really focused on the higher level understanding of our language, the areas we can dig into and make sure we’re being intentional and focused on the present moment. In this episode, I think we can dig into what we can actually do, how it can look in our homes.
I mentioned this briefly last time, but whenever we find ourselves worried about how much time our kids are spending engaged with technology, instead of clamping down out of fear, we can lean in and learn more. No matter what interest area is being explored by technology, there are ways we can learn more about it and engage with our children around it.
I found it so helpful to learn the terms, especially if we’re talking about video games, levels, bosses, inventory, character names, story arcs. Understanding the specifics helped us have conversations, showed my children that I was interested in what they were diving into, and gave me so much more information about all the complexity of what they were doing.
And sometimes leaning in looks like being a listening ear. I’m sure we’ve all been on the receiving end of the very detailed information about a character or a game, or sometimes a random aspect of history. It isn’t always easy to be fully present for every power and evolution of each and every Pokemon. But those moments are when we can focus on and celebrate this thing that is capturing their interest. We can see the complexities and the thinking that goes into their engagement. Sometimes that alone is enough to calm any fears about what they’re doing and what they’re learning and how they’re engaging with it.
We miss that, I feel, if we just brush it off or oversimplify it. Really listening and taking the time to learn just makes such a difference, because it’s really about how to learn and how to engage with material, not about the material itself. The material is going to change over time, but that quest for knowledge and understanding is a muscle that can be flexed while digging into all kinds of interest areas.
And one of the ways that I would show that I was listening was to then find things outside the game that were somehow related. So, it might be Animal Crossing plushies or Zelda jewelry. “I see you, I want to celebrate and support what you love.” Sometimes, it was traveling to places that they saw on a show or finding ways that their interest came into play in other areas that maybe they weren’t aware of.
So often, we think it’s about getting them to stop the game or move away from it or move away from the show, but really, it can be about just broadening the scope and finding ways that we can all engage with the interest and end up learning so much more.
ERIKA: Right. I really have loved leaning into their interests. I’ve gotten pretty seriously into a lot of the games that my kids play and the shows that they watch. I had a long Minecraft phase and a Sims phase, and I play Roblox every day. And what that engagement does for me is now I speak the same language as them. I get it. And that makes a difference to them. Plus, it’s so much more fun for me.
And I love that too, about bringing in more things to their lives that are related to their interests. And that really only works if we’re leaning in to learn about it. Now I can think, oh, if you really like that game, you might like this. Or, let’s get the toys that go with that show so that we can play with the characters together. It’s just so much fun to help them take that interest deeper, obviously without attachment to the outcome.
PAM: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And I am in the midst of my Minecraft phase right now.
PAM: But yes, using that lens of learning, it just brings to mind for me the image of a web and the more connections to each node, to each piece of information or skill, the deeper, richer, their understanding of the thing is, the stronger the web is. So, if there’s something they’re interested in, how cool is it if I can find related things that broaden their knowledge in the ways that they enjoy? But I need to be engaged and understand the language and understand the complexity. We think it’s so simple when we’re just watching them, play or surf around, they make them look so easy.
But when we understand it, we see so much more. When we engage with them, we see so much more. We get a richer picture of it, which helps us broaden it, as you said, without the attachments to them just wanting to dig further, but even planting the seed that they know there are more pieces in the world that might be related maybe a couple months from now they’ll be interested in.
I wrote more about this idea in my book Free to Learn. And in there I shared a couple of connection maps that I created at the time when I was exploring this, when I was like really concerned with how much game playing there was. And with my daughter, it was Harry Potter and being really into those books. So, I created these maps looking at the connections between the interests and activities that I noticed them doing as they dove into their passions. Many of which, even back then, involved screen interfaces.
So, if I left it at, “They’re using a screen,” and just put that in the middle, I’d have known so little about all the exploration and learning that they were up to. My maps would have just been a couple of dots. And I would’ve been at a loss as to other things to bring into their lives that they might find interesting. And that’s that distinction, right? Not what I wish they were interested in, but what they might actually be interested in. And the conclusion, where I would naturally go is, I just need to get them off the screens, because this is all they’re doing. This is all they’re doing! Right?
ERIKA: Exactly. And then all those things that they love would just be mysterious and easy for us to dismiss. And I love those maps, too, and looking at all those connections that they’re making.
And I want to talk about just how important connection is in all of this. I know we keep mentioning it, but it really is what makes this approach work, because by focusing on connection, like the connection that we’re feeling in our relationship with our kids, we keep communication open and we more easily see the learning and the joy that they get out of their interests. And we learn so much about our kids and what’s important to them.
And so, of course, connection is such a key in our relationships. But I think connection is also what helps us deal with our worries and fears as well. Because one of the biggest fears that comes up when we talk about screens is online safety, which we talked about in a recent Q&A episode, too. And connection really is the answer there, too, because when I’m connected with my kids, they feel safe coming to me and sharing the things that happen. If instead, I keep focusing on how they shouldn’t be spending so much time online, they’re going to want to hide things more. It doesn’t feel good to be judged.
So, being non-judgmental, showing unconditional love and connection is what helps learning thrive, and it’s what helps keep them safe as well. I think it just helps so much when my kids know that I understand them, I understand their interests, I respect the things that they’re interested in. That just helps them trust that I can help them when they’re facing a challenge.
PAM: Oh, absolutely. Connection really is so valuable when it comes to just navigating our lives together, right? And feeling judged by a parent is kind of like dousing that connection in ice water. I can just literally feel it. Just imagine when somebody judges something you do, how you shrink, right? It doesn’t feel good and it weakens that trust that they have in us.
I think it can also drown out their inner voice. Their self-talk may well become focused on fending off our judgment rather than exploring how things feel to them. So, for example, they might not hear that too muchness message until it’s loud enough to be causing more friction in their lives than it needed to. And without having someone they trust to help them process challenges and brainstorm possibilities, they may feel stuck longer. Right.
ANNA: Oh my gosh. I think the safety point is so important because yes, kids are the safest when they have strong, trusted connections. They know we aren’t judging them. They know we will help them do the things they enjoy, so they feel comfortable telling us if something doesn’t feel good or feels off and they know we’ll listen and help them find a way through. They know that I’m not going to go, “Well then you should never go on that game again!” “I told you it was terrible.” They know that, “I know you love that game. I know these are the things you love about it. This is feeling weird. Let’s solve for that.” And so, that keeps them so much safer.
Because, like you said, Pam, that’s that pushing through that feeling of being uncomfortable or too much. They can do that if they don’t feel like they have the trusted advisor, somebody else to bounce ideas off of, somebody that will support them. So bringing that calm presence to work through a problem is so important. It helps our kids feel safe and secure knowing that we’re there to help without judging them or their interests. And that just creates more connection, more safety, more security, and more learning, because we’re having those conversations.
PAM: Yeah. Those conversations are everything. And we’ve talked about it before and I’m sure we’ll dive into it deeper again, but not all kids are super talkative. Not all adults are super talkative either. You don’t need to literally talk to have conversations, like to have communication. And you don’t need to have, like we were talking about earlier, long sit-down conversations, for us to process.
It could be a few words here, a few words there. It could be paying attention and watching and seeing their reaction. Seeing how they’re engaging, seeing what’s turning them off. There are so many ways to communicate.
Anyway, there was something else that I wanted to mention too, which is how ever things look right now around this, they won’t last forever. That’s our, projecting into the future all the time. One of the big worries we might have. Their interests and passions that are accessed through a screen will likely wax and wane over the years just woven into the fabric of that rich life that we’ve been talking about.
Yes, right now technology is having a season of explosive growth as we continue to innovate and see what we can do with it. The creativity is all around us.
But when we don’t bring a good, bad, judgmental energy to it, when we shine the light on what we’re actually engaging in through that screen interface, we don’t give it that power over us that often comes from fearing something, right? And instead we can just focus on exploring and learning and coming to our days with intention.
Without power and fear in the the mix, we can explore what brings us comfort, right? Because I know sometimes I just want to relax, cocoon, and watch an old show. We can play with tech-free days and weeks for ourselves or consensually together if our kids are curious, too, and just see how it feels. We can share our experiences with our kids without them receiving that big side dish of judgment, because as we were talking about, this is new to us, too.
So, over time, conversations will bubble up around how apps and loot boxes try to keep our attention and entice us to spend money, same as we talk about commercials on TV and direct mail advertising that arrives in our mailbox. We’ll talk about ways to spot scams and how people reengage with online may well not be who they appear to be, not to scare ourselves, not to create fear and run away from it, but just to become more knowledgeable, to become a bit wiser about it, to understand it more deeply. Being hands off and leaving our kids to navigate these things on their own because we have an unlimited screen time rule can make navigating online more challenging, because they have to figure it out all by themselves. We’re just saying, yep, yep. Whatever you want. That’s that disconnection we were talking about.
And having screen time rules that apply only to the kids can also muddy the waters, right? Because we’re sending the message that they aren’t smart enough to figure it out. We think less of them we’ve gotta figured out. So, we can have our phones all the time, but you can’t use the screens till after 4:00 or whatever it is that we feel comfortable with.
Instead, together we can explore what feels good for each of us right now and be open to how that changes over time. Because it will. It really will. And things can change more fluidly if they’re not covered in that goo of judgment, like that heaviness of judgment.
ANNA: Oh, it’s so true. The goo of judgment. It’s a surefire way to harm a relationship. And we’ve all been on the receiving end of it at one time or another, and know that it does not bring us closer to the person who’s doing the judging.
And I love the reminder that what we talk about here is so very different from a hands-off approach. I think it’s the opposite, really, because we’re so involved in tending to our relationships, to understanding and supporting one another, understanding ourselves. It takes time and commitment to be in a deep and meaningful relationship. But who better to invest that time in than our children?
And what we found was that all of the things that you mentioned about the different safety pieces or the things you were learning came up in just normal conversations as we were navigating the world together. What does this mean? What’s this popup? Why are they asking me to do this? Why does this cost Robux and that doesn’t? They just naturally came up. There wasn’t a need for big sit downs or scary talks. We’d all share the things we’d find and things that surprised us, and things that didn’t feel great. And it was all just a part of the fabric of our lives.
And so, I think that can be confusing, because like you said, I think people envision the big sit down, but it’s really, we’re all on our, back in our day, Nintendo DS yelling across the room to the other person about what we’re seeing and why is this happening and we’re having good conversations about it. I think so often, we can fall into the trap of performing as a good parent, that we for forget to engage as humans.
I feel like my kids were well served by having honest, connected relationships with their dad and with me, where we could learn from one another, share our best information, chart our individual courses from there, trusting that while we are on our own unique paths, our journeys intertwined because we want them to, because it feels better. And so, we can look beyond arbitrary rules to find what feels best to each of us, knowing that it can change, knowing that we’ll continue to be there for each other as we navigate new technologies, new relationships, new jobs, all the things that come with life, all the richness that’s thrown with life. It’s the same process of understanding ourselves, understanding each other, engaging, having conversations, just being, exploring this world together.
ERIKA: Yes. It’s so much nicer than staying stuck in just this role of parent, and I really loved what you both mentioned about how a rule, whether it’s the unlimited screen time rule or the no screen time rule, both of those are so much more disconnecting than what we’re talking about. And I just love that and I’m still thinking about that image of the goo of judgment, Pam. I loved that. But it’s true. When we’re stuck in that place of fear and judging, it adds this layer of goo to the situation. It makes it harder for us to see clearly what’s actually happening and to be able to see what all the possibilities are from this place.
So, sharing information that isn’t about fear and judgment feels so much better. It’s fun to talk to the kids about the ways that online games are trying to get their money. We talk about it all the time. We’ve noticed those ads that can make it look like someone’s doing like a really terrible job playing the game to make you get so frustrated that you want to download it yourself. And I’m like, I could play that better than them. And, and I’m like, wait a second. They know that that’s what I’m thinking!
And that endless scroll of TikTok. We talk about that Maya comments on how easy it is to just keep scrolling and scrolling and it’s like, hmm, it’s interesting to notice and talk about.
And sometimes it feels fun to keep scrolling and sometimes it doesn’t. And so, it’s nice to be able to have those conversations and notice those feelings in ourselves. But regardless of what we are navigating in our world, there are going to be so many things to learn about how it feels to us as unique people. And I think it’s, again, so important to remember just how different each individual person is. And so, it helps me trust that we are all figuring out what works for us, and technology is just one aspect of our lives that we can each explore and figure out for ourselves.
PAM: Okay. I just want to bring back that scrolling TikTok example, because that’s a beautiful example, because in one moment, scrolling and continuing to like take that moment. “Yeah, I’m gonna keep scrolling,” is fun and is exactly the right choice in that moment. And then another time I’m scrolling on like, “Oh man, this doesn’t feel good. It’s time to stop.” There is no one right answer, right? Just like “No screen time,” or, “Screen time all the time.” None of it is right, except for the individual, but also the individual in this particular moment.
So, what we’re giving them when we’re giving them this space to explore is the space to have moments along the whole spectrum of when this feels amazing, when this feels horrible, what are my choices in each of those moments? And they’ve got so much more experience with navigating it than they would have if they have a framework or a rule over top of them that tells them, “This framework knows better than you do.”
At some point when they don’t have that framework, they’re going to need to figure out these tools for themselves.
ANNA: Right. We’re taking away that discernment, that critical thinking. And I think it’s hard, because you know why people want to do it. We want to make it perfect and make sure we’re doing the right things. But, for me, I felt like the time that my kids were at home with us and luckily as unschoolers, we do have lots of time together, that’s the time to get in those mucky places, for it to feel bad about scrolling and figuring out and then going, “Yeah, I don’t like that, and why don’t I like that? But now today I love it.” I just felt like that was such a great environment to explore and learn versus me making rules when they’re young. And then they’re out on their own and I guess what it’s bringing to mind is when I first went to college just like, woo! People went nuts!
I didn’t have a lot of rules as a child. I don’t know. I was the baby and my siblings were older. So, my parents, we had a more conversational kind of environment, so I just was way more mature, but all those people that have been controlled all that time, whoa! Because they didn’t have that time to explore that with their parents as partners. It’s just so different.
ERIKA: It’s becoming clearer to me as we’re talking about it how limiting in either direction, in either direction is and how much more you can learn without that kind of structure. Oh, I love that.
PAM: And one last thing that bubbled up for me as you were talking there, and I will catch that bubble in my mind before this ends. One of the things, too, I feel, because at least I remember processing through it a lot, is that in my role as parent, I felt like I was failing if my kid was like upset about something or didn’t feel good. If my child was doing something that in the end they came to me and said, I did not enjoy doing that, scrolling longer or whatever, I would feel like that was a failure of mine. It’s like, oh my gosh, my role as a parent is to make this wonderful childhood for my child where they’re having fun all the time.
And so, yeah, it was the work of understanding the importance and the depth of allowing them or giving them the space, especially while they’re with me, to explore the wide range of experiences that life can offer or the wide range of experiences that they are interested in exploring. Because we can also go, oh, I want my kid to experience all the things, and I’m trying to take them here, do this, this, and this.
No, what’s important is what they’re wanting to explore in the moment, because that’s where they’re going to learn the most about themselves and about the thing, because they’re gaining that wide range of experiences of, how do I want to engage with this thing? And like you said, Anna, that experience with the process is what they’re learning and how they like to engage with the process. And in having a harder time or ending up feeling bad about something, they’ve learned how they start to feel bad, and then sometimes they can start to catch that even earlier. It’s like, ooh, I’m starting to feel a little bit off. I know from experience that if I keep this up for another hour, I’ll feel even worse. And then at least then they’re making a more cognizant or intentional choice. In that moment, it’s like, no, I really want where I am right now. None of that is wrong. None of that means I’m a failure as a parent, but I’m around to chat and help them process, and I can notice.
And maybe I mention, “You look like you’re starting to feel a little squirrely. Do you want to do X, Y, or Z?” And if they say, “No, that’s okay,” It’s not like, “Darn, they didn’t listen to me.” All of a sudden, the role as a parent that we can often feel and struggle with can be really impactful in this situation, too.
ANNA: Right, because that’s that piece of like, we’re not really looking at the human engagement part of it. And one last piece that bubbled up for me when you said that is that piece of how we think we have to expose them to everything during this time that they’re with us, but really life is this long game if we’re lucky. And it may be that like they realize, okay, I spent a bunch of years cocooning and doing this. All this learning was happening. Learning about who they are, what they want, different internal aspects, things we can’t even see. And then they may make different choices later, but it doesn’t all have to happen.
And I think that’s our piece of that role of parent thinking. We need to control and mold and make sure everything’s perfect and going to turn out in this one way. And it’s like, oh, if we can just engage as humans traveling along, learning from each other, figuring things out, it just has such a different feel to it.
PAM: Oh, it really does. Okay. Thank you. Thank you so much. This was so much fun. And we hope everyone else enjoyed listening in on our conversation and you found it maybe a little bit helpful on your unschooling journey. We also invite you to check out our other podcast, the Living Joyfully Podcast, as well. Much more focused on relationship specifically, and when you’re subscribed to both of them, you get a new episode from us in your podcast player every Thursday. Thanks so much and wishing everyone a lovely week.