Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Screen-Free Week

Last year I blogged about Screen-Free Week in a post titled "Enjoy Media with You Kids Week." Well, it's that time of year again, schools are pushing "Screen-Free Week" or "TV Free Week." And even though Screen Free Week doesn't officially begin until April 30th this year, I have already seen parents posting on facebook about their children being unhappy with the TV being turned off because their school district has declared it TV Free Week. In my previous post I touched on why parents feel they have to go along with what the school says their family should do. Screen Free Week is a prime example of one of those times when parents go along with the system even though it creates an increase in conflict and unhappiness in most families. This unhappiness is irritating to the parents who feel they must enforce the rules set for the week while coping with the frustrations of children who express how they are feeling through their behavior.

Parents and children feel that they have to turn off the TV, and possibly all the other screens, during this week even though there are often other times when screen time naturally decreases. In our family we recognize that screen time increases as the wet cold Pacific Northwest winter wears on, but we know that as the weather improves we'll all be outside more often and spending less time gathered together on the couch or playing games that involve screens. For some families screen time takes a dramatic dip when they go on vacation, for others it occurs when cousins come into town or it's soccer season. Doesn't it make more sense to turn off the TV when there are other interests beckoning instead of during some arbitrary week that someone who has never met you selected?

One of the problems with an enforced screen free week is that when you try to control or restrict anything, not only are you creating an increase in tension or conflict in your relationship, you are also increasing the desirability of the thing you are controlling. Think about this in terms of candy. My kids can eat whatever they want whenever they want, no restrictions. However, many kids live in homes where candy is restricted. My kids may have times when they eat quite a bit of candy but there are other times when they don't eat any. My kids also have times when they eat a lot of fruit or salads or broccoli and then have times when they don't eat any of those things either. When kids who don't have free access to candy come to my house they will eat a whole lot of candy. They will even eat the candy that my kids have decided they don't like that has been sitting around for ages, and they will often stuff a piece or two in their pocket to take home for later before they leave. Those kids see candy as being highly desirable because it's restricted in their homes. It's that age old concept of supply and demand, decrease the supply and you increase the demand. I used to hate candy because of the conflict it created in our family but now I have changed so much that I wrote a blog post entitled I Love Candy.

The Screen Free website says that screen time is linked to poor school performance, childhood obesity and attention problems. I disagree. Looking at the facts I would say that school is more likely to cause these things. You don't have to take my word for it, Peter Gray has written quite a lot on the subject over at Psychology Today in posts such as "ADHD and School: The problem with addressing normalcy in an abnormal environment" and "Experiences of ADHD Labeled Kids who Switch from Conventional Schooling to Homeschooling or Unschooling."

When children are in school all day, mostly sitting and being controlled and not being provided with opportunities for authentic engagement (that means doing things they find interesting, that relate to their lives and that they have a purpose for learning), they get home and they need to decompress and use those hours to do what they enjoy and that they can't do at school. Often this involves technology and screens of some sort. Of course there are those kids who are scheduled and controlled for every waking house, but that will have to wait for another blog post. Kids have no problem paying attention to media or a book or any activity they choose and enjoy because of intrinsic motivation. If they aren't paying attention in school it's generally because they aren't engaged, they find the school environment inhospitable or they are coping with the social challenges of school including bullying. If we really want to "improve children's well-being" as the official site says we would take children out of the institutional setting of school and create opportunities for learning that are fun and innovative instead of pretending that making kids turn off media for a week is a "fun and innovative opportunity."

We need to look at how much we gain from media in all its forms and how games, TV shows and the internet can enhance our time together with our children and expand our opportunities for authentic engagement in learning. Learning takes place with all forms of media, not just "educational" TV shows and games. Screens are not the enemy, screens are a useful tool for learning, fun, connection and communication. If you have your doubts Google "benefits of gaming."

If your kid comes home from school talking about Screen Free Week remember that you don't have to be the school system's enforcer. You can talk with your child about why they want to participate, you can agree to support them in giving it a try and if they change their mind half way through you can acknowledge that choice without heaping on the shame or guilt. You can also respect each person in the family's right to make their own decision about participating, or not.

When my oldest child was in school she decided she wanted to participate because the school was making a big deal about the prize the kids would get at the end of the week. We told her that we'd support her in participating but her sisters were very little and weren't going to participate, and there were two shows that the adults wanted to watch after she went to bed during that week. At the end of the week she got her prize, which turned out to be just a sticker. She was not impressed by the sticker and that was the last time we gave into the hype around Screen Free Week.

In our house we are partners with our kids in the exploration of life, and that includes media. If our children want to explore what life with all screens turned off is like then we'll support them in that. However, it's their choice and if they decide part way through the experience that it's not for them we won't be enforcers, we won't tell them they have to start what they finished, instead we might discuss why they changed their mind, what it was like when the screens were off and then how things are different once they turn them back on. I actually have kids who will choose to turn off their computers for set periods of time because they decide they want to take a break from all computer related activities. Just yesterday one of them let me know she'll be turning off her computer for the first week of April.

If your child or your family chooses to participate in Screen Free Week this year remember that nothing is more important than your relationships with each other and that definitely includes turning off the TV because someone somewhere decided you should.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Schools, Suicides and Stockholm Syndrome

Without fail, when I talk or post about the public school system and compulsory education among people I know who have children in the system or who plan on putting their children into the system those people tell me, "Our school is different/better/good," "I went to public school and I turned out fine," "What you are saying is really hurtful to teachers and the people who work so hard to make schools a wonderful place," "My kid loves school."

And there are times when I doubt myself and all that I know to be true about education, learning, schools and society. I may for a moment wonder if perhaps I am part of the lunatic fringe or if I drank one too many cups of the Kool-aid.  But then I look at my children, our life before we entered the school system and the detrimental affects of seven years in the system. I remember how much fun we all had together before school convinced my children that they should only be friends with kids in their grade, who were their exact age. I remember how easy it was for all of us to learn together, to explore all kinds of interests with books from the library and adventures into the world. And I see my children shy away from things because they are "educational," and how they are still figuring out what exactly it is that they love to do, something that was never an issue before school entered their lives. As a family we are still finding our footing in our relationships with each other and with learning after three years out of the system.

This week there was another teen suicide in our community. The girl had been bullied for two years. As I read further articles I found that there have been at least seven suicides locally, all teens in middle school and high school, in the past year. Those are the seven we will hear about, the kids who died, but there are so many more kids in crisis. Statistics and estimates vary but there are at least 11 attempted suicides for every one reported suicide.

As the parent of a girl who was bullied in middle school I know how difficult the situation can be. Will contacting the school make it better or worse? How do you support your child when the people they are required to spend hours with every day are making them miserable? How do you deal with girl bullies, who often use non-physical methods of torment which are much less obvious but no more less destructive than they physical abuse favored by boys? The psychology of bullying is complex and the roots are found in the families, schools and society that have caused children to feel that having power over someone else, making someone feel small and helpless, singling people out because they are different and punishing them for not conforming makes you feel strong and important and gives you power in a world where you ultimately have very little control. Because those who bully have usually been bullied, by other kids maybe but most likely by the adults in their lives. And as with most kids they have grown up with very little control over how they spend their days, who they spend them with, what they eat, when they sleep, when they stand up, sit down, talk and even when they can use the bathroom. These kids have been belittled, demeaned, disrespected and neglected by the very parents and schools that say that bullying must stop. And this probably confirms that I am a part of the lunatic fringe but I contend that the bullying starts at the top, you know, with the government. No child left behind really means no child shall not conform, and every school district must do whatever it takes to ensure conformity.

And if you doubt that teachers can be bullies let me introduce you to my daughter's 1st grade teacher who forced her six and seven year old students to walk silently in a single file line with their arms crossed on their chests where ever they went. If she deemed their walking was not up to her expectations she would routinely make them walk the distance again. And one day when those little children, most of them six years old at the time, failed to line up quickly and quietly for library she made them practice standing still and silent in a line for 50 minutes. And when those very young children started to cry or even went so far as to throw themselves to the ground in desperation she said they were being defiant. She told me this with no guilt or shame or acknowledgement that she might have been pushing things a little too far. Actually she sounded annoyed that those students dare to defy her by "throwing fits." I talked to another mother of a student in the class and she had no idea that it had ever happened. She also didn't know that her son spent many hours sitting alone in the hall because he was academically inclined and often got bored during class and his inability to sit still and be quiet made him a target for the teacher's wrath. This could happen to your child and you would never know, kids often don't report their teacher's bullying because they worry their parents will come down on them for misbehaving in class, or as they grow older because they have come to accept that they have no power in the classroom.

And if you have read everything I've written so far and you still think I've had too much Kool-aid, that your school is different, that your child loves school, that your experience is or was different then I have two words for you: Stockholm syndrome.

"In psychology, Stockholm Syndrome is an apparently paradoxical psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness." Thank you Wikipedia. 

Go ahead, defend your captors who have become the captors of your children. It's understandable, really it is. You have grown up in a society that tells you from birth that you have to go to school. As a parent you have been primed since your child's birth or before with materials on Kindergarten preparedness and the importance of development from birth to age five, the importance being that you need to pack as much as possible into the formative years so your child won't already be behind when they enter school. You have been encouraged to put your child in daycare, preschool and then kindergarten. You have read books to your child about the wonders of kindergarten and you and every other adult in their lives has primed your child's pump with worlds such as, "Wow! Now you're 5 and in the fall you get to go to Kindergarten with the big kids!" And maybe that first year really is great, sometimes it is, but as the years stretch from K to 12 the magic wears thin. At that point it doesn't matter, the system has you and your kids. You believe that your kid has to do the homework the teacher assigns even if you know it's too hard or too easy or totally irrelevant, you cave to the principal's authority when she suggests your child needs medication to help him sit still and be quiet, you let the school district tell you what time to get up in the morning, what your kids can wear that day, and even if they should stay home and play in the snow or get on the bus as usual. You blindly trust the standardized curriculum and the classes required for graduation. You become the schools enforcer of homework, attendance and dress code. You accept that teens rebel because that's what teens do, never realizing that most of the angry words and hurt feelings that spring up between you and your child are grounded in the requirements of the school district. You support the schools agenda often to the detriment of the things your child passionately loves to do. Video games are a waste of time, drawing manga will never pay the bills, and sports are only important if you are good enough to score a scholarship in the future. You and the district make sure your child knows what's really important: math and science and passing the tests.

And even when children are so desperate that they are suicidal, parents and child still see school as the answer. Even then parents fail to put their foot down, reclaim their child's life and bring their child home. Why? Because they can't see any other way. Even when their children's lives are at risk they still identify with the captors, they still believe in the system because after a life time, 30 or more years, of being told that school is sacred they truly believe that without school their child will have no future. But here's the truth: when a child commits suicide they have no future. When a child is freed from the school system not only do they have a future, but their future expands and brightens, as do their chances of growing up to be a happy, fulfilled, functional adult.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Don't Change...

"Don't change so people will like you. Be yourself and the right people will love the real you."

A friend posted a graphic of this quote on her facebook wall. In a days time hundreds of people had "liked" it, and a few hundred had taken the time to share it on their own walls. It's not uncommon to hear adults talking about living authentically, discovering and following their dreams and passions, and not changing to please other people. There are blogs, books, life coaches and therapists available as resources, ready and willing to take your money in exchange for helping you live more authentically, and to support you in rediscovering what brings you joy and leaves you feeling fulfilled.

How it is that we are in our 30's or 40's or beyond and we don't have a clue what it is we want to do with our lives or who we really are or why we feel out of balance, discouraged and out of touch with ourselves? Why do we need outside help in order to discover what was inside of us all along? The answer can be found in how we were treated by adults when we were children.

When you were a child were you treated with respect and unconditional love? Or were you molded to be the person your parents wanted you to be? Were your passions encouraged or frowned upon? When you were in school were the things that brought you joy emphasized? Did your teachers recognize who you were and what you were good at and did they support you in developing those talents that were uniquely your own?

In school children are told to sit still, be quiet and learn what is required, when who they are is laughter and jokes, dancing and singing, drawing and painting, video games and technology, and so many variations and combinations of personalities and passions. Parents send their children the very clear message that love and approval must be earned with chores, completed homework, and "good behavior." If a child fails to earn that love they are sent away to sit in time out until they apologize for being who they are, or at least who they were in that moment of transgression. In so many ways, none of them insignificant to the child, children are bombarded with messages to be good, do what they are told, make mommy happy, make good choices (which really means to make the only choice that is considered the right choice by the adult in the situation), get good grades, be nice, be quiet, and to take who they really are and squash that wonderful amazing person into a little tiny corner inside, while they show the world the person that the adults around them demand that they be in order to be lovable.

Think about it: most parenting books focus on how to get a child to change their behavior, offering rewards or punishments based on a child's ability and willingness to modify who they are to fit parental expectations and requirements. Parenting books are purchased because parents want to control their children, change a child's behavior, change their child's sleep patters, get a child to complete their (often boring, irrelevant, too hard or too easy) homework without complaining, or do more chores around the house with less nagging and effort on the part of the parent. Parenting books are written to meet the desires of the parents, who want parenting to be easier, they are not written to meet the needs of children. Generally these books aren't written to show parents how to support their children in blossoming into the amazing person they were born to be, and they generally do the opposite, they instruct parents in how to create children who will some day be 40 and have no clue what it is they love to do. Children who will see a quote on facebook that says, "Don't change so people will like you. Be yourself and the right people will love the real you," and the words will speak to that part of them that was squashed down and hidden away 30 plus years before. Chances are as much as a small voice inside of then says, "Yes, that!" Another small voice will be saying, "But what if I show the world who I am and no one loves the real me?" And that small voice is the child who was shut down, who learned to do what they were told and to be who they were supposed to be,so that they were worthy of love, the child who was told that drawing, dancing, taking apart a motor, or playing a video game was a waste of time. That is the voice of the child who became an expert at being who the adults in their life wanted them to be so that they didn't get in trouble and they didn't disappoint. Or maybe they did get in trouble and they did disappoint. Perhaps they were labeled a problem child, strong willed, or perhaps even given a diagnosis and medication to make them be who their parents or the school system wanted them to be. Maybe they lived their childhood feeling ashamed, angry, or misunderstood.

"Don't change so people will like you. Be yourself and the right people will love the real you."
Imagine saying this to a child, every child. Imagine living this ideal as a parent, being the right person who loves the "real you" inside your child. When we are feeling frustrated, disappointed, or angry with a child it might help to step back, take a deep breath, and ask ourselves what it is we are expecting of the child, and to consider that our expectation might not be in line with that very real child who just wants to be loved for who they are.