Monday, April 28, 2014

"I want to unschool, but what if my kids just watch TV all day?"

I did an interview for a new online homeschooling magazine. It will be a while until it's out, and a little while after that before I post the complete interview here on the blog, but until then I figured I'd share this bit. An answer to the question "I want to unschool, but what if..."

I feel like this question almost needs to be broken down into multiple answers.

While watching TV all day every day wouldn't be a very good thing, I do think that people tend to devalue activities deemed worthless, like TV, without realizing that even that is learning, or leads to learning. I can't count the number of times TV shows or movies have sparked Google searches on historic figures or events, discussions of tropes and archetypes in storytelling, the breaking down of harmful stereotypes and discrimination in shows... While TV watching can be something passive, it can also be something very involved, something that leads to lots of thinking, creating of stories (fan fiction is the way a lot of young writers first get into writing!), and interesting discussions. Once you start actually looking for learning in everything, not just thinking of it as something that needs to be deliberately imparted to young minds, you start seeing it everywhere.

I also think people don't full respect the power of boredom. Watching TV all day every day is going to get boring. It just will. And then they'll be looking for different things to do.

Though admittedly, if I got the food network I might just watch
TV all day every day for at least a week or two...

Another important thing to keep in mind is that unschooling parents are not supposed to be in a passive role. It's not like unschooling parents just say "okay, go learn now!" and then proceed to ignore their kids. There are times when kids definitely need their own space to learn and explore, but there are plenty of times they don't. Parents can sit down and watch those shows, initiate those conversations and Google searches. Parents can also provide a wealth of interesting library books and board games, suggest activities and clubs and outings.

Which isn't to say that worries about a child spending tons of time in front of a screen aren't things parents who are unschooling sometimes have trouble dealing with, especially when they first start transitioning to unschooling. Deschooling is an important part of unschooling if you're going from either school or very formal/strict/school-at-home homeschooling, so it's important to leave time for that adjustment to a very different lifestyle. What unschooling looks like when you first start is almost certainly going to be very, very different than what it will look like a year or two later. Along those lines, don't give up too fast! Just because it doesn't seem to be "working" right away doesn't mean something is wrong, it probably just means your child(ren) are adjusting to not having to "do learning."

For specific situations, experienced unschooling parents are going to be much more helpful than I could be, not being a parent myself so never having been on that side of things. All I'm saying is that such a worry is often unfounded, and also that there's a whole lot more to it than just "what if my kid just watches TV all day?"


  1. TV is only bad when a child choose to watch it instead of being physically active. But the biggest culprit in diminishing kids active level is not TV, it’s going to school. You are at a desk most of the day, even if you count recess and PE class (which by the way seems to be decreasing each year…)

    It’s only my opinion, but it’s based on my own experience as a kid. School wore me out so I did nothing much other than watching TV all evenings. And that included watching boring shows I definitely thought were boring (I still remember 20 years later!). I learned a great deal while watching TV, but I still think I don’t want my future children doing the same as me.

  2. Thank you for this! I wasn't unschooled until I was a sophomore in high school when my parents decided to homeschool my brothers and I so that we could tour with our band. In reality, it kind of was unschooling, as we finished our high school education early, learned about things that interested us like audio engineering, building guitar effect pedals, and in my case, calculus, and learned from real world experiences. We traveled around the world with our band, and years later, it is still our full time career. I also got a both a bachelors and a masters degree online, and I now own and operate a recording studio. So, needless to say, the couple of years of unschooling we had really influenced us. I would certainly unschool my children, and no, I don't worry that all they'll want to do is watch TV, because even if they do, they could definitely learn a lot. I really value your blog!

    In addition to my music, I'm also a freelance journalist. Here is a small piece I did on unschooling while in grad school.

  3. I don't really in force any TV rules on my kids..and guess what, my son may have a few days here and there where he's watching YouTube Minecraft videos seemingly allllll day. But then hr get bored and moves on, or gets inspired and moves on to what he thought of next. And he learns the randomest stuff this way, he taught us how to play minecraft when he had just turned 4 because he watched those videos and memorized how to do things.

  4. I am an unschooling (but not radical unschooling) Mum and this is something that I struggle with. My kids (currently 9,6 and 4) had no limits on screens for a couple of years (my oldest was aged 4-6yrs) and in the second year I noticed that he was choosing screens more and more and in the last 6mths he was resisting going out/seeing friends and choosing screens over all other activities. I also noticed that most of the time he wasn't even playing games but was (and still does) mostly choosing to watch YouTube video's of other people playing games. For the last 3 years I have restricted screen time so that between 9am and 3pm they are only allowed to use their computers (the have a computer each)for creative activities. And no restrictions on weekends. I would really like to remove these limits, but I'm worried that my oldest child will just go back to watching YouTube 24/7. What are your thoughts on this?

  5. I agree with you. Thank you for sharing the update. It is interesting to have it discussed widely so that we can gain more objective opinions.

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