I’ve been seeing an increased number of posts and commentary coming out of the unschooling and positive, free-parenting movement. And although this blog is not a parenting blog, I ascribe to peaceful parenting principles, and raise my child with very “free” range style of parenting. That is, I provide him with as much freedom and choice as possible, without violating his autonomy, while meeting his emotional, cognitive, and physical needs, in ways that are appropriate for his human development.
I bold that last part because it seems to be a missing caveat in the rhetoric I see coming out of the circles of free and radical unschooling crowd.
This isn’t a post where I’m bashing the unschooling core philosophy. I agree with it. However, the unschooling community tends to be largely a privileged class, and some of the blanket statements coming out of the rhetoric of the unschooling “gurus” isn’t taking into account intersectionality.
Not everyone is coming to unschooling, or the concept, with a background in human development. So when certain things are said like, ‘children should have free-range to food, no bedtimes, and unlimited screen time’ without caveats as to when this is age-appropriate, I am compelled to speak up with some critical thinking.
We can give our children freedom and choice, but it has to be in alignment with what they can handle, developmentally. This paradigm of unquestioned free-choice operates on a premise that isn’t consistent with what we know about human development. For example, two year-olds can’t understand cause & effect. They don’t have the cognitive capacity. Toddlers & young children don’t understand time in the same way adults do, so they have limited ability to manage time, or plan ahead. Toddlers can’t self-regulate. That is a developmental skill; it’s a milestone just like ability to use pedals on a trike and tie a knot. Part of parenting is guidance and direction. Reasonable boundaries with explanations as to why such boundaries exist.
I want to focus and critique specifically, the premises and rhetoric that children should always have free-access to whatever food they choose, should never have enforced bedtimes, and unlimited screen time is harmless, since these are the points I have the hardest time with, and the place where everything in my well-educated brain about nutrition, human evolution, and child development pulls out the red-flags and demands some critical thinking. So, step out of our GroupThink box with me, and let’s discuss why free-access to food, no bedtimes, and unlimited screen time may not be in the best interest of our children.
It’s one thing to choose your food battles, and not make things like cookies, sweets, etc. a ‘forbidden fruit’ where it’s so off-limits that it becomes a problem. BUT there has to be limits on sweets, salts, and fatty foods because of the way our bodies respond to those things. This belief that allowing children to make their own food choices, and allowing free-access to food (something I support with contingents) means understanding how the human body reacts to fats, salts & sweets. Simply saying that by giving a child many options, and believing their bodies will tell them when they need to eat their carrots and kale, isn’t necessarily congruent with our biology.
If our current food choices were as they were in hunter/gatherer societies, free-access to food wouldn’t be problematic because snacks would be raw food, mostly. Unfortunately that is not our current food systems, and socioeconomics, access and availability of healthy, raw food choices, and knowledge about our food sources, are major inhibitors to all families having access to the same food choices. Most food available in supermarkets is processed, high in sodium, likely comprised of GMOs and lacking in nutritional quality. Further, most of our food is packed full of what our bodies crave: fats, salt, sugar, because evolution didn’t take into account processed foods.
We evolved to crave fat, salt, and sugar because those things are not plentiful in nature. The bodies of our children are going to respond and crave these unhealthy options as well, and to give them unlimited access and ‘free choice’ to salty, fatty, sweet snacks, counting on their bodies to crave healthy snacks, is inconsistent with biology and evolution.
Further, it is privileged to assume everyone has the same access to healthy food options, the same knowledge about our food systems, and the same means to provide children with unlimited access to all food.
Another thing that is missing from the equation is the notion of community or familial needs. For example, my child has several food allergies. If it was up to him, he’d eat wheat and dairy and feel like shit all the time, and everyone would be miserable, and we’d all suffer from the ramifications of that “free choice.” We also live on a food budget, like nearly every family I know, and sometimes scrambled eggs aren’t an available option for dinner because I need those last few eggs for breakfast for the family in the morning. And our collective well-being is something to be balanced in the equation of “free choice.” That isn’t robbing my son of his autonomy, it’s teaching him that his needs are met within the context of the family’s needs.
And this is how we teach our children awareness of others. Our choices are never truly ‘free’ and our choices have implications for other people in our family, community, and world. We are interconnected, and we should want our children to understand this concept. Even within their own family. Otherwise, aren’t we just raising coddled, privileged, people who don’t understand their connection with humanity?
Bedtimes aren’t necessarily squelching the light of our children, either, if they are centered around natural circadian rhythms. Circadian rhythms are our natural sleep/wake cycles, hardwired into our biology. Although specific circadian rhythms vary from person to person, there are ranges of normal sleep/wake times, and natural times our bodies are tired as we progress in human development. We all know babies need and do sleep much more than toddlers, who sleep more than adolescents, so these rhythms of when our bodies are naturally tired, obviously change with development.
As parents, we are developmentally capable of identifying when our children are naturally ready for a nap or bedtime, and ignoring those because children should *choose* their bedtimes, again, rests on false premises about child development. When a toddler is showing signs of fatigue, providing quiet and routine places to sleep, at these biologically designated times, that occur at roughly the same time every day, is not imposing parental wills on children. And I’m not suggesting sleep training or CIO is acceptable. But laying down with my 2 year old around the same time every afternoon so he can take a nap, is not denying him free-sleep-choice.
Further, when we teach our children to listen to their own circadian rhythms, we are empowering them to develop life-long healthy sleep habits. Evidence shows that when we ignore circadian rhythms and developing bodies are not sleeping at the right times, it inhibits both development and optimal functioning.
Limiting screen time isn’t also denying choice or infringing on autonomy either. I understand the premise of unschooling that says when we give our children diverse choices, they demonstrate they are capable of exceeding our expectations. I see this in my own child. He gets his share of screen time, and he has apps he knows how to access on the ipad, and there is a lot of freedom. But I still vet the media I allow him to be exposed to because not all media is created equally. Too much “junk media” is just as bad as too much junk food, and we should still be acutely aware of the impact media can have on our children. It’s also only one way of learning. When a child assembles a puzzle on a tablet she is not developing and using the same skills as when she assembles a puzzle with her own hands. Our children need to be exposed and immersed in diverse ways of learning. (Duh, that’s what unschooling IS).
Further, this element about content should be balanced with family dynamic. While mature video games and content may be appropriate for an adolescent who can cognitively handle the incoming stimuli of such media, isn’t the developmental capacity of the four-year old in the home also to be considered, since she can’t ‘freely choose’ to remove herself from a home where digital violence is being streamed. Even if violent video games are the ‘free-choice’ that children make, those choices don’t exist in a vacuum. And what happens when violent video games are the only choice a child is making, and there isn’t diverse stimulation? At what point do we abandon the well-being of our children in exchange for ideology? And I’m not suggesting this hypothetical situation exists, but with these conversations about unlimited screen time, shouldn’t we also be discussing the content at hand?
Because there is evidence to show exposure to violence, even digital violence, alters the brain in not so great ways. And there are a lot of cultural messages being sent in every piece of media out there, and most of these messages are misogynist, misandrist, racist, classist, ableist, sexualised, and bullshit.
I think most unschooling parents already know this. But isn’t it also privileged to assume everyone coming to unschooling does? Especially if unschooling is going to revolutionise education? Shouldn’t we be considering how these messages about unlimited and unrestricted access to food, sleep, and media may be interpreted and applied?
If we aren’t placing caveats at the end of our statements about autonomy and free choice, and what’s age appropriate, then we’re doing a disservice to both unschooling as a really needed philosophy about learning, and our children and their developing brains a bodies.