baby brains, struggle-free discipline

Unschooling: Wherein I clash with myself

So a discussion with my mother-in-law over Skype yesterday came perfectly timed to my research into Radical or Whole Life Unschooling. Whenever I listen to unschoolers talk or read their articles and blogs, I find myself nodding in agreement. Yes, kids learn best when self directed. The arbitrary structures of contemporary education squash the innate love of learning. Yes. Respect and partnership is key to peaceful parenting and happy kids. I whole-heartedly concur!!

Then I get to the parts about no bed times, letting them eat whatever they want, and worst of all NO LIMITS on TV or video games! Ok, bedtimes, I can see being flexible. But sleep is important, so I’d want to be sure my daughter gets plenty. And the science backs me up when I say going to bed by 10pm facilitates better sleep! Between 10pm and 11pm your body temperature begins to drop as do cortisol (stress hormone) levels. At sun down the body starts producing melatonin to prepare you for sleep. 10:00 is the ideal bedtime from a physiological perspective. There’s no way around that.

And food! I’m all about offering ONLY healthy choices so my daughter develops a taste for what is good for her. I have so many digestive issues (food allergies, leaky gut) because my parents let me eat whatever crap I wanted. I don’t want to do that to her! I’m modeling healthy eating, without making things taboo. As she grows and wants to try things, we won’t stop her. But she’s not even two yet! I want to start only good habits!

And here’s where my discussion with my mother-in-law comes in. After my daughter was born we sold our TV. I did not want to use it as a babysitter, so I chucked it all together. Best choice ever! I’m able to be more present, and so is my husband. If we want to watch something we go online, but there’s no idiot box running as background noise day after day. It’s blissful! Not to mention that many studies indicate that tv for kids under two years impedes language development. I feel we are doing what is best. I believe in evidence-based peaceful parenting.

My mother-in-law loves tv and has it on in the background, as do many in her generation, much of the time. When we arrived in Boulder with no tv she almost couldn’t wrap her mind around it. She called my husband the Arabic word for “poor dear,” as if he were being deprived of some essential part of a happy life. She offered to give us her old one.

Cookie-MonsterFast forward to yesterday’s conversation. I’d been showing my daughter old Sesame Street videos and she loved them. She loved them so much that she became cranky when they were over and howled. She would also forget or refuse to use the potty when absorbed in them, thereby peeing all over mommy’s lap.

This brought back memories of my son at age 14, so absorbed in his video game habit that he shat his pants rather than take a break from the screen. Now, any activity that causes one to forego basic bodily needs is not healthy in my opinion. My opinion before dealing with my son’s video game addiction was the same as the radical unschooler’s. Let him play as much as he likes, and he’ll eventually move on when he’s gotten what he needs from it. Yeah, that didn’t happen. He just became a game zombie. He became irritable and difficult to talk to, grunting rather than speaking. He could barely be summoned to eat a meal or go to a concert we’d bought tickets for. He stomped around angrily all the time, and shouted if I tried to ask him about what he was playing. I finally set limits and he emerged to join the living once again.

So now when my daughter shows the signs of heading there – the crankiness and peeing herself (granted she is only 20 months old, but she uses the potty well at other times), I believe it’s time to back off from the media consumption. And that’s what I said to my mother-in-law.

“Maybe it’s because she doesn’t get to watch very often. Maybe if she knew she could watch whenever she wants, it wouldn’t be a big deal.” That was grandma’s response.

My knee-jerk reaction was “No way! It would be one the only thing she ever wants to do.” The stink from my teenage son’s briefs was still fresh in my memory.

But I have to say, as I listen to unschooler’s like Dayna Martin and Sandra Dodd, I start to wonder if grandma isn’t onto something. My son was not unschooled and much of his life was controlled and regimented. Perhaps when you are offered a small piece of freedom within a life of restriction, it is like a drug. Maybe it was his life not the game that was a problem.

But my daughter has been peacefully parented from the start. We never use the word ‘no’ in an arbitrary manner. We say yes when it causes no harm. She’s got lots of freedom to explore her world without imposition.

What if she could watch Sesame Street whenever she wanted? What would happen?

I know at times when I’ve let her watch for 30 or 45 minutes she’s been cranky at the end and didn’t respond well to being diverted to other activities. But what if, for argument’s sake, I let her decide when she’s done? What if I stopped worrying that I’m hurting her brain? What if I didn’t try to control it? Trust your child, the unschoolers say.

Honestly, I’m a little afraid to try it. Because bringing a kid back from media-induced coma is not easy! But I want to trust that my daughter can learn to regulate herself. She’s not yet two, but she never overeats and doesn’t have a sweet tooth. She sleeps when she’s tired, without a struggle, and always before 10pm. When I’m easy going with her, she’s easy going! Obviously she’s getting something out of Sesame Street that she’s craving.

Will I throw caution to the wind? I don’t know, yet. I’m not quite convinced. If I do, I’ll be sure to write a follow up. Hopefully it won’t be titled “My Zombie Toddler.”

Have you heard of unschooling? Do you restrict your child’s media consumption?

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