Probably the biggest source of stress in our unschooling home as been screen-time. I just can't stand seeing my kids sit in front of their screens all the time! I literally ran an outdoor exploration program since they were babies, and brought them outside to play and gallivant in the woods every single day until they were too old to be easily led outside. And slowly, as they grew into teens and now older teens, computers have seeped into every aspect of their lives. As our culture moved more online, even I became a constant screen-user, and with this pandemic, well... screens have won.
My inner voice screams at me, "bad parent! You're ruining your children! Where's the outdoor time?!" And at way-too-frequent intervals over the years, my inner voice invaded my throat and I bullied and badgered my kids, tried to bargain with them, tried to limit their screen-time, even took away computers and other devices, once resulting in a physical conflict with my son as I tried to walk out of his room with his laptop and he righteously tried to stop me. None of these actions align with my own moral, parenting, or unschooling values. My kids are supposed to be self-directing! They're supposed to be free-range! They're supposed to be unencumbered by my parental fears and judgments! Definitely free from me stealing their stuff. And yet my deep shame over screen-time has caused me to break all those values so many times.
It's a struggle, for sure, and I know it's the same in so many homes around the world. But I'm writing this to share the one thing I think really helped us in this situation. Did you notice I said I was "stealing" my son's laptop? That's because it's his. He owns it. And that's the big deal, here.
My kids at 11 and 14 with their first personal laptop.
I remember a Mad Magazine comic from my childhood in which Webster (I think?) gets sent to his room, and is delighted to go up there and be with his big TV and whatever other electronics he had. I remember thinking what a good child I was to own none of those things - not even as a family, at that point in my 10-year-old life. And I think that pride set the stage for my rampant shame over screen-time.
Then I had my kids in the early 2000's. In their first few years we had one family desktop computer which my husband used for telecommuting two days a week and the kids and I shared for online adventures like videos, games, Google earth expeditions (WOOOOOT!!) and word or image processing on other days. It was pretty ideal. I felt like we were graciously treading the waters of screen-time.
Then we went to an unschooling conference where we discovered entire families of people gleefully wrapped up in creating a Minecraft version of the hotel where the conference was taking place. COOL!! I discovered that it's really OK to enjoy video-gaming with our kids, and in fact it can be a creative family experience. Enter Minecraft in my life. And with so many more amazing resources becoming available around 2010, enter so many more amazing times spent on screens. I didn't feel really bad about getting a family laptop. It meant the kids and I could use a computer even when their father was working from home on the main computer!
I saw our slow slide into more screen-time, and the conflicts became more frequent. Also, conflicts between the two kids became more frequent as their screen-time needs and values diverged.
Around that time, my kids became old enough to earn their own money, and we have always maintained that while they don't earn money for chores at home (because we don't earn money for this either; it's just a part of living in a home), any money they earn for themselves is theirs to spend as they'd like. This is basically our unschooling way of teaching them to manage their money. And they managed it differently from each other, one saving and saving, while doling out tiny bits for necessary items like gifts and dates with friends, and the other saving exclusively until making larger passionate buys. And guess what! The first big purchase each of them made at around twelve and fifteen years of age was a refurbished laptop. Now at fifteen and eighteen they're migrating to more powerful desktops as their studies and interests have pushed them into daily computer use. My daughter has recently been given a free desktop and financed her own accessories, and my son built himself a powerful machine for his rendering and digital music composition.
Why is this so great? Learning. Self-discovery. Money-management. And personal health choices. The best part of all of this is that they always financed their computer owning on their own. This gave them the independence to provide for themselves in a limited but very important way. It made them feel powerful. It means I can't freak out about screen-time, because they truly own their computers, and they worked a long long time to get to this point -- on their own terms.
Of course, I still freak out about screen-time once in a while, to my great shame, including that time I tried to steal my son's laptop from his desk, but I'm getting better over time, and so are they. The fact that they own their own devices helps remind me that their lives are not mine to control. The basic tenets of the unschooling life we aspire to mean that I will do better by loving them and leading by example than by trying to control them. Just seeing their fancy self-designed set-ups on their desks reminds me of that. Life and living in community is always a complex challenge, and my own growth as an intentionally laid-back parent is always slowly improving as well.
Most wonderfully and surprisingly, having complete ownership of their own devices seems to mean that my kids are also pretty responsible with screen-time. The pandemic has meant a lot more computer time, and I've noticed both of them intentionally scheduling outdoor, off-screen, or exercise time into their lives. I won't say I'm always calm and accepting, nor that there aren't days they rarely see the light of the sky outside, but despite all my fears over the years, I think we've done all right in navigating this one.
I'd like to thank the massive support network of unschooling families all over the place who have kept reminding us that it will be OK. It truly is. May we all keep swimming up like good little Minecraft players before all our bubbles pop, and then run around on the land exploring and being creative!