Thoughts on Unschooling, Television, and Sugary Snacks

April 15, 2010

(Originally posted to the Unschooling Basics Yahoo Group.)

I grew up in a household with no TV (until my brother bought his own, for video-watching, when he was a teenager), few processed foods purchased with family money, and no computer games (there weren't any!). BUT, my parents placed no restrictions on my or my four younger siblings personal spending money, or on foods we ate outside the home, and we all talked--a lot--about health and personal desires and "voting with our dollars."

To make a long story short, I grew up, and met my True Love, Jeff, and we got married and created a home and lived together in our little nest for several years. Which means that by the time we birthed our first baby, we had two lifetimes of our personal choices reflected in the contents of our home environment. We didn't keep much sugar in our house. We didn't have a television. We didn't often play computer games. These things were/are personal preferences - kind of like how we like the toilet paper unrolling from the top, and don't like curtains, and how I enjoy sauerkraut, and how my husband and I have chosen a lifestyle where we have more time than money, and always look for things secondhand.

Nobody's going to argue that I should either strengthen or disregard my preference for no curtains in order to enhance my relationship with my newborn. A baby just doesn't care about such things! And yet, sooner or later my kid will say, "Other people have curtains! Why don't we?" Or maybe, "What is it like to have curtains? Can we have some for a while, to try them out?" Or maybe, "What is money? How can I get some, so I can get curtains of my own?"

In other words: my husband's and my decision NOT to stock a television, video games, or processed food, were our personal choices. We weren't saying, "Hey, Baby! Here's your new home, and you will never have curtains, watch television, play video games, or eat processed food, Not over my Dead Body!" We simply got pregnant, continued with our lives, and then baby joined our circle.

Interacting with and respecting a tiny child feels qualitatively different than the way I interact with my spouse, who was my equal, developmentally, from the start. A baby isn't born asking for sugary snacks, or NOT asking for sugary snacks. We don't ask a newborn whether he or she is okay with our possession or lack of a television. We respect their likes and dislikes, certainly, but many of those preferences will become clear in later years but are, at the beginning, NOT THERE YET. A pregnant woman is supported--encouraged and expected, even--to make the choices that she thinks are right to support the health of herself and her baby. Same when she's given birth, and is holding a tiny infant in her arms. The challenge/joy is, that tiny baby grows, and is, sooner or later, going to have different needs and wants and preferences as her parents. But why should we give up our own values and preferences, for ourselves?? What if not wanting sugary snacks available is more to thwart our own sweet tooth than our children's? We'll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.

Kids have needs and desires, and so do parents. Both are important, and worth considering. If I have a desire to keep certain items out of my home, and spend money in certain ways, this doesn't have to mean that I'm trying to control my kids, that we're not going to discuss my personal preferences someday (or tomorrow), or that my particular want/need/desire is unimportant enough to give up, for ME.

If we say that in order to be a Good Unschooler, all homes MUST contain a television, lots of computer games, and sugary treats, it would be as arbitrary as saying that we all NEED to read Shakespeare, spend 1.7 hours outdoors each day, and learn algebra in order to be Educated.

I'm curious why some people take TV, computer games, and junk food as a given, and assume that they exist in all radical unschoolers' homes. There's a difference between "limiting" a child's life experience, and choosing carefully a young child's home environment. We ALL "limit" our children, especially when they're babies, whether it's on purpose or not. Some of us live in the country, and can offer the wild woods and open space. Some of us, in the city, can offer the urban advantages that don't exist in a rural environment. Some of us have interests that translate into lots of income potential, which translates into more money to spend on the things our kids want. But nobody says that poor unschoolers should go out and get a better job, even if the money situation in their household presents "limits." Nobody says that people who live in the country should necessarily move to the city, or vice versa.

Every family's combination of needs and desires is different, and I am pretty sure that present company is already a select crew--we all have, or have frequent access to, computers and an internet connection. And yet we're all unique, and our different family situations are part of our awesome reality, as FREE people.

I am SO incredibly grateful to my parents for my incredibly free childhood and teenage years. This gratitude has kept me going as a parent, even when being a mama to high-needs, low-sleep children sends me spiraling into the depths of depression and despair, and I wonder how my life will ever feel free and happy (read: non-exhausted, with time enough to pursue all my passions) ever again.

But NOBODY, not even unschoolers, have a market on a universally guaranteed method of producing happy, healthy children who turn into healthy, happy adults. We all have ideas, and we have personal preferences, and we all choose the ways we relate to our children and families.

So this, I think, is key: we're confusing two different issues. Issue #1 is Personal Preferences. Some unschooling parents can't live without chocolate; some of us love backpacking; some of us are movie buffs, or love World of Warcraft; some of us are obsessed with fermentation and eat lots of meat; some of us are vegan; some of us hate to cook, and know that processed foods are a gift from the great beyond; some of us believe in a God; some of us are born again atheists. We could argue about whether or not food is bad, or cars are bad, or guns are bad, or God exists--but the point is, different ADULTS have different preferences, just as kids do. In an enlightened state of mind, this is something to celebrate.

Issue #2 is, How do we interact with our children, and respect and honor their individual needs and desires as PEOPLE, no matter how young, and no matter whether (and especially when) those needs and desires are different from our own? We unschool for the tangible ways it enriches our lives, right now, in the present moment. But we can't possibly know that unschooling in any form will prevent depression, diabetes, or addiction. It certainly may reduce the odds, I think, but then again we're not in it for the statistical likelihood, are we? Yes, my children ask questions about our lifestyle. Yes, they want to know how other people live, and why they go to school and eat candy and believe in God. Soon enough, probably tomorrow, they will start wanting some of the things that we currently don't have in our house, since they are out in the real world every day with real people who have real preferences all their own. Just as your children will, if you unschool and watch television and eat lots of candy or play lots of computer games. ALL of our kids will want to explore farther afield, and learn more than we offer at the beginning--that's the beauty of it!

And I think our common ground as unschoolers is this, in the support we give our kids, in the way we're exploring the world together, not in opposition to each other… rather than in the details. What we're hoping for is the chance to be with our kids as we all grow up, have fun, get sick, try to figure out our personal needs, get healthy, learn from all that our lives encompass, which isn't everything, or nearly everything, that anyone else's life does.