Friday, November 03, 2006

Changing My Mind about Screen Time

by Tracy Million Simmons

Our local unschooling list has had some wonderful conversation, of late, regarding television and the role of “screen time” in an unschooling world. It’s been an excellent opportunity for personal reflection on two levels.

First, to recognize just how much my mindset about television has changed in the last few years. Second, to reflect on how much my mindset has changed, in general, in the 8 or 9 years since my first introduction to unschooling.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I was still sorting television programs by those that were quality and educational and those that were not. I was still falling for a bit of the “good mom” cultural message that goes something like… good moms don’t let their kids watch too much television, or better yet, any television at all. I limited the time my kids spent watching television. I avoided channels that were heavily commercialized. And I had good, solid excuses (involving one television, small space, “important” things needing to take priority) for staying on top of the television habit in our household… or so I thought.

Thankfully, I never stopped seeking input from experienced unschoolers. I didn’t necessarily consider television a “problem” in our house, but I kept bumping up against advice that was pointing me in another direction, and I must have never been fully comfortable with the way we handled TV watching, because I kept trying new things (new restrictions, guidelines, tactics for getting three kids through a day, happy with their TV options).

The answer, of course, was right in front of me all along. Unschooling was working for myself and my children in so many wonderful ways. The fact that I still felt a need to control the television and its contents was… well, complete silliness, one of those “rocks in my head” as I’ve come to think of them… a notion that remains, though all the evidence I have about trust and life learning and healthy relationships with people (my children in particular) show me that my “wisdom” on the matter is not sufficient to give me power to dictate television rights.

We still live in a small house. We still own only one television. We still have to share and to coordinate and to be considerate of four other people in the house. Yet, I can’t remember the last time we had any problem balancing television time with whatever else was going on in our world. Some days I still marvel that an entire day has passed and the television hasn’t been on for a single minute. The kids no longer worry about getting in their daily TV time, because it’s available to them at any time. I see now that I had raised the value of screen time by limiting it. Other days I marvel at the programs my children discover, or the pieces of information they pull from the shows they watch. I find myself stopping to see what they’ve found and my kids, better than I, seem to know when it’s a good day to just curl up with a blanket and the remote and snuggle in with a good movie.

Finally, I am free to have true discussions with them about my thoughts on television. I can express my amusements and my distastes. I can explain why I dislike particular kinds of television and I can listen to what attracts them. We only found this freedom when I was finally able to step back and treat them as equals, allowing them the same power to choose that I have. Trust with television programming and screen time should be no different than trust with anything else.

The whole email conversation on television has led me to think back to my early introduction to unschooling. I was just beginning my journey as a mother, but I already had a lot of ideas about the type of mother I wanted to be and the kind of relationship I wanted to have with my children. When I first read about unschooling, it was a little spark that just wouldn’t go out. It felt true and right, yet I approached it cautiously. It was so different, after all, from all the other advice that was out there.

My first experience on an email discussion list was with a group of unschoolers. They were radical and amazing, thoughtful and full of words and ideas that inspired me… and perhaps frightened me a bit, as well. Looking back, I must have been exhausting to them at times. I wish there was a way to contact each and every one of them, to let them know just how much I appreciate their continued conversation, their words of wisdom and their gentle shakes to help me empty all those “rocks” from my head.

Now I continue to frequent those lists and I encourage others to do the same. Sometimes it takes an outsider looking in to help you recognize just where you still carry rocks in your head. You may think you have it down, thinking you are unschooling in the finest fashion, and then someone asks a question or gives an answer that makes you stop and ponder your take on a particular topic all over again.

Keep asking questions. Keep listening to the answers. As parents, we have at least as much room to grow as our children do.

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