Struggling with it

OK, this is a hard thing to write. But in the interests of keeping this blog meaningful, I need to be able to share the hard stuff along with the idealism and rosiness.

About a month or so ago, we switch to unlimited “screen time”.* Determined to prove the wisdom of this decision, I focus on the positive. And without doubt, there is plenty. For starters, it’s such a relief. No more arguments and whinging and wheedling around Can I use the iPad? and No don’t switch it off I haven’t finished and Please just one more game. I can drop all my anxieties some of my anxieties around The Deleterious Effects of Screen Time. Hurrah, Eureka moment, win.

K’s biggest obsession is a game called Minion Rush, in which the little yellow minions from Despicable Me race along an endless course, dodging obstacles and eating bananas. The old me winces at the obviously addictive, endless narrative of chasing and scoring up. The new me insists that his enjoyment of the game is significant enough.

Initially, the shift brings on a golden window of cooperation and reason. Motivated to maximise the new, unlimited stream of game time and DVDs, K races to get himself dressed in the morning, get his teeth brushed and his suncreen on, and get his bag ready for school**. He makes his own breakfast! We are unlimited screen time success story of the week!

It becomes the first thing he asks for in the morning and the last thing he asks about at night. (And when I say ask, I mean demand, wheedle, whine and tantrum.) He charges in to wake up Dave or me in the morning. His first words in the morning are “iPad?” (One-word question.) We keep the answer consistently yes. There are just two provisos: one, that he meets other responsibilities properly when necessary – getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth, bathing etc.; and, two, that he may not break existing commitments in favour of game time.

But over successive days he starts showing less and less inclination to do anything except ignore us, complain and argue. Any request, no matter how small or reasonable, is met with lengthy discourses starting with No but….

My phone calls become a signal for him to start talking to me loudly over any other conversation I may be having. He talks over our conversations, interrupts incessantly. When we point out that we are in the middle of a conversation, he continues the interruption. Time to leave the house incurs massive tantrums.

The peculiar thing is that unlimiting (particularly) iPad time seems to make him even more obsessive than before. It’s as though the game (usually Minion Rush) takes over every aspect of his attention. When we speak to him, he ignores us completely, or he offers a vacant, distracted or fidgety moment of attention, clearly with his focus still on The Game. When it’s time for other activities (heading out of the house for swimming or soccer), he’ll agree in principle ahead of time that we’ll go – but when it comes to the moment of switching off (even with plenty of advance notice), there is a tantrum. He’ll refuse to find his shoes or hat, or get immediately distracted when asked to fetch or do anything. Tears, screaming and hysteria. You get the picture.

We start getting into battles, and it gets more and more frustrating and tiring. Worse, I have several nights with very little sleep, which lower my tolerance and patience for the ongoing tedium of everything-has-to-be-repeated-five-times. I start feeling like a caricature of someone from a “before” picture in an episode of Supernanny.**

In a massive turnaround, we revoke all TV, iPad, computer games and other “screen time” til further notice. I’m still trying to get my head around this. At a theoretical level, it feels to me like we’re doing an Unsustainable And Pointless Thing. But at a practical level, living in a household of four people, it feels like we need to turn down the electronic attention demand until we can reach a more tolerable level of cooperation.

My husband and I have also been discussing ceaselessly what exactly is going on. Eventually, after a few days of pondering it, I find myself wondering whether it’s a delayed reaction to the arrival of the baby sister.  M is utterly enchanted by her older brother, and he in turn revels in his special status as the special one who can, without fail, elicit a steady stream of giggles and adoring gazes from her. I was expecting a massive flip-out of sibling rivalry, but it never really arrived – not in the form I expected, anyway. But here we are, a month or so after giving K a whole lot more freedom than he’d had before, and finding that we’re all really struggling with it.

Switching off the electronics goes against the grain, somewhat. For one thing, I agree with the parents and writers that advocate free, self-regulated use of electronics. For another thing, to be brutally honest, it’s simply harder work. K is a massively sociable being – he’s around, chatting, asking questions, asking for company, involvement, things to do. I’m wondering whether, without realising it at the time, in giving him an unlimited supply of game time, we had diminished his supply of much-needed attention.

I don’t know exactly. I know it’s a temporary solution, but for the moment it’s where we’re at. I’d love to hear from any of you that have faced similar dilemmas.

*For links to articles that influenced this decision:

The Great Screen Time Decision, by Wendy Priesnitz

Limiting Video Games is Delusional, by Penelope Trunk

Surprising parenting problems of unlimited screen time, Jamie O’Donnell for

Various writings from Sandra Dodd

The Case for Unlimited Screentime at Our Somewhat Life and Why we don’t limit screen time at Cheeseslave.

**Those of you who have been following for a while will know that my 6-year-old is at a Montessori preschool. I’ve discussed unschooling with him. At this stage, he chooses to attend pre-school.

***Actually, I’ve never actually seen Supernanny, just read some of the scathing reviews and controversies in the press.

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PLC: The Princeton Learning Cooperative

Another inspiring example of an environment that can support an unschooling approach.

“If you’re not in school seven hours a day, what is it you want to spend your time on?”

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Ken Danford: School is optional

I’m getting so fired up watching this kind of thing. Can we do this here please? Can I help? Are you interested? The possibilities give me chills.

This is what I have in mind. The only questions, really, are how to do it, when and where.

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It’s been quiet around here because….

I’ve been reading and watching so much that I barely know where to start. There is so much I want to share with you. I’m just going to post link after link, video after video.

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How to get your kid to love school

The more reading I do, the more I maintain that homeschooling is the best education option. Along the way, I’ve been talking to my family about this, and I’ve introduced Kolya to some kids who are homeschooled. He is curious about it, but also a bit puzzled. ‘But I need to go to school, mom,’ he tells me afterwards. I am surprised.
‘But you told me lots of times you hate school,’ I say, ‘So I want you to know that if you want, you can stay at home.’ Nope. Adamant.
‘We have projects at school.’ (You can do projects at home, I say.) Still adamant. ‘We have a giant art room at school.’  (We can make a bigger art room at home too, I say.) No, no, no.
‘I need to go to school,’ he says, ‘AND I need to have home days too.’

So at the moment, K is very pro-school. More so than me. I’m somewhat placated that it’s Montessori, with short school days, and with no homework or tests at this stage. I am glad, though, that we’ve shifted towards a recognition that school is something he’s choosing freely, from some real alternatives. It’s also helped to be realistic with him that this choice comes with a bunch of responsibilities (getting to bed at a reasonable hour, getting himself up and ready in the morning, and falling in with some of the stuff he’s less keen on – circle time, say). I’m frank about saying that I wouldn’t choose it… but K is nothing if not a bloody-minded Taurean sort, and choosing the opposite of what I’d choose is one of his favorite things to do. 

More challenging is the matter of home days. Last week we declared Monday a home day and we went swimming instead. When I discussed it with a friend afterwards, she pointed out that approaching school flexibly doesn’t work, especially as kids move towards higher grades. If the teachers are committing to being at school on time every day, surely the kids need to do so too? And is it fair for one child to be allowed to take home days when others aren’t? I wondered about that a bit. Is it a bit like the workplace; can you negotiate flexitime even if your colleagues haven’t? Does it matter that this would be a little more complex for a teacher to handle than simply insisting that all the kids are there every day at the same time? Am I simply indulging my own preference for questioning authority and flouting convention? Or – perhaps – shouldn’t it be possible to work with individual preferences rather than seeking to squash everyone into the same regime?  

I work as a freelancer (and have done so for ten years); I work from home and I am my own boss. So perhaps it’s not surprising that I have a very flexible and playful attitude to workplace rules and conventions. I can’t help extending the same sensibility to schooling. My friend – who is involved in higher education in a highly institutional and bureaucratic setting – has much more invested in adhering to institutional protocols.

She also says she sees too many kids who treat university as a set of services for them to consume, as much or little as they want to, and have a very entitled attitude to the university as a “service provider”. What do you think? Do schools and universities provide services? Should the students have a sense of their own consumer rights towards these institutions, and what are they?

I’m still thinking about all this. I’m not quite sure how to put it all together. I do know that since the last home day (nearly two weeks ago now), Kolya has not requested another one (yet). In fact, I’d say he’s about as enthusiastic about school as I could possibly imagine. We are living with all the possibilities.

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The curriculum-and-teacher narrative

When I mention homeschooling, the second thing people ask (after the ubiquitous What about socialisation? question) is: You mean you’ll get a curriculum and teach them at home? Behind this question lie a couple of assumptions:
1.  Kids have to follow a curriculum otherwise they aren’t learning (or learning ‘enough’ or ‘right’)
2. There’s a specialised activity called teaching that gets done to kids. It’s a kid of conduit that ensures the curriculum gets plugged in correctly.

Thing is, both assumptions are totally, roundly wrong.

Myth 1: We need a school curriculum for kids from age 5

Humans have been around hundreds of thousands of years. For pretty much most of that time, our learning has happened through play and self-directed exploration. Human children are evolved to learn by playing, observing and trying stuff out. Across cultures, regardless of lifestyle, income, language… the things all babies and children do is play. Give a child an object without telling them what it’s for, and the chances are, the child will play with it, in a variety of ways. He might or might not figure out the use you intended for it. He might or might not figure out some other stuff.

What we learn reflects the world around us. My 6-year-old knows how to make toast and operate an iPad, turn up the volume on the TV and use a mouse. He also knows how to swim and how to operate the button on the traffic light at a pedestrian crossing. He knows a bit about road safety and he’s learning about food pyramids. He’s trying to convince me that sweets are at the bottom, as he’s gathered that whatever is at the bottom is allowed in greatest quantity. I didn’t need a curriculum to introduce him to this world. He lives in it.

I’m also suspicious of homeschooling curricula because I’ve been a textbook writer for years. So I know how those educational publishers view homeschoolers: as yet another market, but a niche market, with money to spend. If you aren’t spending money on school fees, uniforms and sundries, aren’t you going to want to compensate with a bit of home ed resource retail? And to go with that, homeschoolers could well (especially when starting out) be motivated by fear to bolster their choice with a stack of books. You’ve started homeschooling – scared that you don’t have the teaching know-how to stand your kid in good stead? Let us take care of that for you, with this A to Z curriculum. There’s good money in that.

Myth 2: Real learning requires a trained teacher

As I’m writing this, my 6-month-old baby girl is learning to crawl. She can’t crawl yet. She doesn’t know the word crawl. Nor has she seen anyone else do it. But she lies on her tummy and pushes up her arms and legs like a skyjumper. She wriggles and kicks. She’s strengthening her lower back and her neck and her abdominal muscles – without anyone showing her a diagram of how they work or telling her to do it. When she gets a bit bored with this, she squawks and complains a bit. Sometimes she wants cuddling and connection and playing with me or someone else. Sometimes she’s happy if I roll a toy in her direction. There is no division in her world between play and learning and exploration and simply being.

Children don’t need any top-down teaching to acquire their most complex initial skills – crawling, eating, listening, speaking, walking, running, jumping, balancing, climbing. It just unfolds. The play-and-learn continuum doesn’t stop at school-going age, but schooling as we know it is a violent interruption to this. Granted, the best preschools value the power of play, and most skilled teachers know that it’s much more fruitful to allow children to direct their own learning than it is to force them into rigid teacher-centred activities. Hence the growing popularity of Montessori schools over the more traditional pre-school model.

However, what happens if we actually trust children to further their own education to more complex levels without a traditional classroom environment as we’ve come to know it? Well, until a few thousand years ago, this is exactly what happened. Humans lived as hunter-gatherers, and children would play together in mixed-age groups, developing their skills and knowledge through their everyday living and playing. In some remote parts of the world, where traditional societies have maintained a hunter-gatherer type of lifestyle, anthropologists have studied and documented how children learn and play.

Myth 3: School is all about quality education

You can tell parents all this, and then the parent gives you a version of the All good and fine but I’d never manage that… either No way, I wouldn’t have the patience to teach my own kids or No way, my kids at home all day would drive me nuts or No way, I need to work… basically kicking into assumption 3: We need schools because basically they are big childcare facilities. That’s the harshest reality. If we didn’t need large-scale childcare facilities so that parents could work, would we really need large institutional schools?

Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, showed that groups larger than 150 are too big to operate effectively as organisations, and that human beings struggle being organised into institutions or networks of more than 150. Yet most schools operate on a larger scale than this. One wonders why. Not because it offers better quality education for kids. Perhaps because there’s an economy of scale that kicks in for the school board.

When you’re looking at a ratio of one teacher to a class of 30+ kids, what is really happening in the classroom? It seems to me that the teacher is spending most of her time just getting the kids to sit still so she can be heard. When we also know that sitting still is not remotely conducive to learning either.

I’m new to this whole unschooling idea. But I’m noticing that my child is most interested when there’s something interesting to absorb him, when he has the freedom to choose what it is that he’s doing, and when someone is available for (but not overly focused on) assisting or guiding him. He maintains his enthusiasm most consistently when he senses that no one is observing and judging his ‘progress’. And nothing would dampen it faster than the prospect of a 45-minute “lesson” (be it on Lego or Minecraft or Angry Birds or making toast) – and nothing would kill it more instantly than the prospect of a test.

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Learning to say yes

I wrote a few days ago about unlimiting video games. Since then I’ve been struggling paying attention to allowing playtime to be unfettered by my own ingrained judgment about “waste of time” playing versus “quality” playing.

This means my nearly-six-year-old is totally overdosing on iPad games. This is Not Easy for me. I have strong Achiever inclinations. For him it’s frigging fantastic, and I have to keep trusting that this is a freedom that he actually needs. We’ve downloaded Minecraft (the easier iPad version), but he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of it yet. But he’s happy to spend hours playing Angry Birds, Minion Run, Cover Orange, and that (sorry guys) hideously strident Talking Tom mimic-the-talking game. He still hasn’t stopped asking me cautiously whether it’s ok to have screen time. I have, however, become more successful at resisting my (frequently strong) urge to complain about his game choices.

Interestingly, the more I notice and intercept said Urge to Complain, the more I’m able to remind myself to respect his choices – to give him a bit of sovereignty to do justwhat he enjoys. And if I’m able to be glad that he’s playing and enjoying himself, I’m suddenly freed up to see the fun of it, and to ask questions that are actually relevant to his experience of the game, rather than relevant only to my judgment of it.

Also interestingly, I notice he’s responding in kind. I feel ridiculous even noting something so obvious, but since my response to “Can I play on the iPad?” is an unconditional Yes, of course I notice there’s a whole lot less agitation and urgency and irritation and refusal to engage with me when he is playing. There’s less nagging on both sides – I don’t have to nag to get him to stop or do something other than what he wants to; he doesn’t have to nag and wheedle for a bit more time, more turns. He also doesn’t ignore interruptions in the same way as before – perhaps because they aren’t the dreaded signal that Time is Up.  When there’s something to do – say, lunch or bath or swimming lesson – which necessitates an interruption to the game, it no longer sets off a nuclear meltdown. (I’m not saying he’s turned into a magically obliging saint; but the discussion around why and do I have to now feels relatively short, and reasonable and constructive.) There’s a whole lot more Yes of course from his direction when I present reasonable requests – mealtimes, helping with stuff around the house, taking into account what I want to do. Seemingly because what he wants to do is being satisfied.

Still, I can’t say this is easy. It flies in the face of all the ‘limits’ and ‘self-discipline’ and ‘compliance’ ideas that I’ve been steeped in since forever. It’s hard not to give way, after several hours, and with the afternoon tiredness setting in, to the long-practised reflex thoughts that it’s enough now (enough for who?) and surely he has something better to do (better in what sense? in whose book?) and it just can’t be good for him to be engaged with technology the entire day (what kind of good exactly?). It’s hard to fend off the gritted-in-deep aspirational me that longs to be have the model outlier child who wants to spend hours building trains (engineer genius in the making) or constructing circuit boards (technology genius in the making) or playing the violin (musical prodigy in the making). It’s hard not to wonder that maybe one should be more Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about this. (One shouldn’t;  here’s why.)
But yes, here we are, a few weeks into saying yes. And it’s feeling good.

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