In unschooling circles, the television and video game question will come up consistently. Many unschoolers, especially radical unschoolers, talk about the idea of giving unlimited access to these types of things in order to prevent the “forbidden fruit” temptation from occurring. This means that the more you forbid something, the more it is desired. So, the idea is if you give a child unlimited access, he/she will saturate his/her need or desire for it and achieve balance.
I have a different perspective. It’s not that I don’t think the above scenario works. It might. I just think differently and my perspective has seemed to work as well. Since this television question is so prevalent in unschooling circles, I thought I might try to create a post about how it has worked in my house.
My older children don’t watch a lot of television now as either teens or adults. I know each of them had their seasons of watching a lot of television when they were young. Most of my older children enjoyed movies on VHS or DVD when they were growing up more than live television, though. I remember a season of guilt for myself when I was horribly sick during a pregnancy and my then almost 2-year-old watched a bunch of television in order that I could survive it. In fact, I think that happened on several occasions during pregnancies of various children for those in the home. I released the guilt! I don’t remember any of my older (birth) children having a problem with television viewing and balance when they were younger. On the other hand, as a whole, I didn’t have a “free reign” policy, but I didn’t have a “dictator” policy, either. I observed their choices, I gave them information, and if at any time I felt there was too much going on, or an out-of-balance situation happening, I would let them know I wanted the television turned off for that time. It tended to be a decision for the day versus a continuous need.
My youngest two children are adopted. My older adopted son, William, is much like my birth children. He has a natural balance with television. In fact, he rarely finishes watching a show before he is out creating his own reenactment of whatever he was viewing. I have seen television and movie viewing for this son as a great resource as I described in this post.
My seventh child, Joseph, has finally given me the opportunity to make a mindful choice on my position on the television question. He is my first child that seems to overuse television. He is also my only child I have had who would be classified as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) if I believed in diagnosing such a thing. He definitely has a high energy level. He is also an extravert (another of my only traits!). Put those two things together and you often have a child that likes to get up and in people’s faces to meet his needs. In my experience with many high needs children, the ages up to 11-13 years old is a time of helping my children learn skills and strategies to manage their high needs. In other words, before that, it doesn’t always look pretty around here as they figure it out: anger, impulsivity, frustration, picking, meltdowns, explosions, aggression, disrespect . . . it’s all there being figured out. How do I conduct myself in order to achieve positive relationships? That’s a huge part of my job during the 2-10 year stages.
For the first time, I noticed that television could be used to give myself a break from a high needs child. I’m pretty sure ADHD type of children often are quite calm during television viewing. Joseph was no different. Again, another opportunity for guilt . . . nah! When he was younger and his most intense, television was something he chose consistently and I had no problem with that. There still seemed to be some level of balance all in all. However, I noticed as Joseph got a bit older, and at the same time, more competent in his behaviors and relationships, his television viewing increased. All of a sudden, my observation showed that he was using television as a convenient babysitter. As an extravert, Joseph liked being with people ALL the time. In fact, I find that playing alone is not something he does very well. So, the interaction of the television filled that role. But, I noticed he would turn it on and just go from one show to the next, sitting like that for hours on end, days on end, weeks on end.
Although I noticed in myself a little bit of a desire to take the easy route and let the television viewing continue, I knew it was time for Joseph and I to release the need for television to serve the function it did. Because the fact of the matter was, evidence through observation showed that the productive function had lived its course. Joseph was more capable of interacting with people respectfully and I needed to be in a space to encourage more of it and support his next emotional and behavioral growth. Plus, for some reason, probably my age and stage as well, I just couldn’t stand the “noise” from the television. So, I instituted a “no television until 6:00 p.m.” space. I say space because rule really wasn’t what it was about. I told Joseph that “I notice that you sit in front of the television and don’t move for hours. I think you need to find other things in your life.” So, according to unschooling think, I had just created the “forbidden fruit.” I never had to do this before. I was curious myself what was about to unfold!
It’s been 3-4 months since this began. If I recall, I remember Joseph habitually going to the television. I would remind him of the new plan. Really, I think the most difficult thing for him was to figure out how to balance his extravert needs with the idea that not everyone will be available to him. Yet, William did usually want to be part of some play scenario, and now that they could do so much more effectively with both of their better emotional and behavioral skills in place, they were really starting to enjoy each other. And trust each other. At this time, Joseph doesn’t ask to watch a movie from time to time often (I separated that somewhat out from the television viewing aspect). He’s even having times of playing by himself successfully. He is engaging more often on his own initiation on focused learning. He even wanted to learn to play the violin and speak Spanish.
What I don’t see is him “sneaking” television in. Or feeling denied. Or going to friends’ houses to get his fix. I see it opening the space up for him to explore lots of other things that he wasn’t choosing to do because it was easier to sit in front of the television. I am not against television. I find it a highly useful resource. I don’t across the board make sweeping judgments or decisions or declarations about it for every person in the family. I use my power of observation, my attunement to the needs of each of my children, and assess the function this particular tool is being used for and come up with individualized plans to support each child on their journey of growth and learning. I think when that happens, good things result. It did in this instance.