The slippery slope of screen time

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A few days ago, a member of a Facebook group I participate in asked if anyone else allows their children to watch/play on phones or tablets during meals. I confess I was a little appalled at the idea, for though I know we live in a screen-addicted society, I was blissfully unaware of the existence of children who can’t get through a whole meal without some kind of stimulation by an electronic device.

I want you to know that I’m not feeling smug or superior, and I get it. I really do. When you are tired and frazzled, and it has been raining for three days straight, with your children bickering nonstop all that time, and you are ready to throttle someone, and every time you talk to your kids it somehow turns into yelling at the top of your voice… well, I’ve been there. And flicking on a movie or a computer game to get some blissful peace can be so, so easy. And I’m not saying you should never do this – just be aware that it comes with a price. Screens of any kind – phones, computers, tablets – are extremely alluring and addictive, and once kids (and adults, too) get used to this being their primary source of amusement, it’s hard to switch them off to other things.

Admittedly, we are aided by our lifestyle as Orthodox Jews. Since our Shabbats are tech-free, we know we can get through a day without screens, and make other days tech-free or low-tech too. And we live in an area with frequent power outages, which means that on many winter nights, the power just shuts down whether we want to or not, and though naturally our kids will whine and grumble if it happens in the middle of a movie, they eventually settle down to do other things, like drawing by candlelight (or better yet, early bedtime!). Also, we are blessed with lots of outdoor space for the kids to play, and plenty of animals to keep us all entertained.

Now, I’m not saying screen time is all bad. We take advantage of some wonderful educational videos and games I wouldn’t want to give up on. But I really, really try to make it only a tiny portion of our day, because I don’t want my kids to get used to passive entertainment.

Getting weaned off excessive screen time can be hard, and if you’re trying to do this, you should be prepared for quite a bit of mutiny and lots of complaints of being bored. But then, as everyone settles in to a new routine, good things start to happen – more reading, more arts and crafts, more outdoor play, more family time… better, healthier, more wholesome entertainment.

The idea of pulling the plug can be daunting, but I would encourage anyone to give it a try. I can almost guarantee that, after a little while, you and your kids will be happier and healthier, and will not want to look back.

Stay-at-home mothers, social pressure and feelings of inferiority

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, and I only hope I have enough eloquence to express myself properly.

In the first neighborhood where my husband and I lived as a young couple with children, it was lonely during the day. Most women worked, except those who stayed home with the really tiny babies. Most children were in daycare by 6 months of age. When people heard that Shira, then less than 3 years old, wasn’t going to attend any type of daycare or preschool that year, they were shocked. No, more than shocked – scandalized. Certain that I’m depriving my child of a very important developmental step. “You’ll have to work very, very hard with her at home to be as good as a daycare,” one Mom told me. I didn’t work hard. I just enjoyed life and we did fine.

I felt very much alone. In all the time we lived there, I didn’t meet one person who shared my views about education and family life. Still, I was convicted that what we’re doing is the right choice for our family. This gave me strength, though at times I reverted to what I now call “the no choice tactic” – telling people “I’m staying home to watch over my children because daycare would be too expensive”; “I’m not getting a job because there aren’t any good jobs available locally, and I don’t drive”. Call me weak, but sometimes it was just easier to do that instead of arguing with people.

Then we moved to our next neighborhood, where I instantly felt at home. Most women were homemakers. Most children were home at least until they were three years old. There was a homeschooling family with girls the same age as mine, and we immediately hit it off. We hosted sleepovers. We hung out in the mornings, watching over the kids. Until I was there I didn’t even realize how good it feels to fit in, to be – if not like everyone else – not a freak either.

Seasons passed, and due to a combination of various circumstances we were forced to move again, to the place where we live now. Socially, I now find myself in the same place as in our first neighborhood, with one further disadvantage: my children are now older, which makes my desire for us to stay together and learn as a family stand out even more. Also, I keenly feel the loss of that environment in our old home which was so supportive of our educational choices.

I see the women all around me. They are all such good women, mothers, friends. They all love their children, take care of them and teach them, just the way I do. They all nurture their homes, cook nutritious meals, and bake delicious treats, just the way I do. Only they do it part-time rather than full-time. They also work hard outside the home – as a personal sacrifice rather than a career achievement, I must add. Many of the men here struggle to provide for their families, and so their wives step in and work extra. Several are nurses working night shift, sacrificing their sleep so they can later be with their children during the day. The families all manage on a very tight budget, even with both parents working.

I am, truly, full of respect for these women. Seeing them sometimes makes me feel spoiled, indulged. Not that I sit twiddling my thumbs at home; I have three children and am a freelance writer and editor. I get no help with household chores or child care. I thrift shop and have become a really economical cook. Still, I sometimes wonder what it is about me that makes it nearly impossible to even let a baby out of my sight, let alone go to work for part of each day. Is something wrong with me?

But I guess that what makes me ache most is the feeling of mental isolation. I would so love to develop close, trusting relationships with at least some of my neighbors. I feel that what we have in common – the love for our G-d, our families, our children, our homes – is far bigger than our differences. Unfortunately our neighbors feel differently. I sense people are wary around us. Like it’s not enough to have a lot in common; like you have to be exactly the same to be friends. And I think that’s a real pity.

I guess the key here is that nobody should feel threatened by the different choices others make. I don’t pass judgment on the Mom whose young children are in daycare from 8 to 4, and then in various afternoon classes from 4 to 6 (though I might think this lifestyle is quite hectic). Similarly she shouldn’t pass judgment on me (though she might privately think our lives are boring). We can disagree on some issues, but we can agree on many others. And we can be friends. At least that’s what I believe.

What is learning?

Above: images of spontaneous learning which takes place around here on a daily basis.

Some time ago, I was really pleased to come across this article, which speaks about a new research showing that early academic achievements aren’t necessarily beneficial to a child’s learning process in the long run. Actually, the same principle has been discussed 25 years ago in the excellent book Better Late Than Early.

Not long ago, we were at a social gathering with another family. Their children, aged 5 and 3, dazzled us all with a display of their mathematical and foreign language skills. Turns out that such things are now taught in private preschools. To me, however, it sounded more like parroting than actual learning, encouraged for the parents’ bragging rights rather than for the children themselves.

Of course it’s possible to argue that each child learns at a different pace, and we’ve all heard of prodigies who have learned to play the piano at the age of 3, wrote advanced poetry by the age of 5, etc. However, here we are talking about a roomful of 3-year-olds who are all sat down in a circle and drilled until they memorize counting until 30, or the names of the days in the week in English (we’re talking about children whose mother tongue is Hebrew, of course).

Naturally the daily drill is sugar-coated by fun, games, colorful flashcards and lots of positive reinforcement (clap hands! Clap hands! What clever little children!). However, I believe putting an emphasis on this kind of achievement hinders the child-led learning, free thinking and free play which are so important for young children’s physical and mental development. Furthermore, the children are being robbed of the delight of learning for its own sake, of the thrill of discovery. They do what they do for rewards, attention, peer competition or in order to please their parents and teachers.

Some will say that these are musings of a lazy parent who is unwilling to teach her children anything. I disagree. Encouraging children to memorize facts and rewarding them for it with sweets or stickers is easier than promoting their independent efforts to explore what interests them, let alone finding time to answer their many questions about life and the world we live in.

Educational Attitudes

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For a long time, I had felt that unschooling is the very thing for each and every child of every age; I literally felt guilty every time I tried to teach reading or math, even if my children responded well, and doubly so if they bristled. After engaging in some very enlightening discussions with other parents, I went through a process of in-depth introspection which convinced me that:

– It’s quite alright and, in fact, advisable to actively teach children older than 6 to read, write and count.

– It’s quite alright to gently but firmly enforce discipline in homeschooling, just as in other areas of home life (chores, meal times, times of visiting friends, etc).

– I’m not a bad parent if I sometimes make my children do things they don’t like. I will occasionally encounter tears, tantrums, whining, and complaints, and my confidence as a parent should not be undermined by that. I don’t need to be afraid that they will hate me for setting some rules, on the contrary (as long as it is all done with good intentions and a loving spirit).

– I’m not destroying spontaneous learning or my children’s interests/hobbies/curiosity if I introduce some structured learning into our day. The total of the basic subjects (spelling, reading, math) I aim to cover each day takes approximately two hours, spread through the morning: for example, an hour of math after breakfast, then a break and mid-morning snack, and another hour of writing/spelling before lunch. We don’t have homework. So this still leaves plenty of time for the children to pursue their interests, do crafts, play outside, read, write, draw or look at picture books, meet friends, and so on.

I am still a big proponent of plenty of quiet free time, especially exposure to nature, for each child, every day. When I say “free time”, I don’t mean sitting in front of the TV or computer, naturally, but anything that stimulates curiosity, creativity and imagination: reading, crafts, dress-up, exploring the outdoors, etc.

I have made a quiet resolution that I will correct my daughter’s written work only during “school time”, but not when she shows me a story she had written for her own and her sister’s amusement (unless she specifically asks me to check her spelling). I believe that a child who perhaps struggles a little with spelling at this point, but who loves to write and does it all the time, eventually will become a better writer, with a richer language, than a child who does everything in a perfectly neat and orderly way, but only as a school exercise.

This need for free time and unstructured play is felt by me especially strongly in the winter days, which are so short. I see school children coming home when the best part of the day is already gone – barely two hours left before sunset, when it gets too cold to be out. The children, as young as 6, are already so bogged down with homework that one of my daughters’ friends told us once she might not be able to attend the birthday party at our house because she has so much homework. This, I believe, is tragic. Surely little children deserve better balance in their lives.

Working in our pajamas

There are some days when, if it weren’t for the necessity to go out and feed the chickens, I’d probably remain in my fuzzy pajamas all day long. As the critters do need to be fed, and as someone might pass by and wonder at seeing me in pink pajamas and fluffy socks at midday, I get dressed, put on my muck boots, and trudge out with a box of feed in hand. Moral: if you want to have more motivation for self-discipline, keep animals. If nothing else, it will make you get dressed properly in the morning.

For most families, structure is something integral to every day. They get up, fly through the routine of dressing and breakfast, and everyone goes off their own separate ways for the days. For those who both work and learn from home, the situation is very different. We are pretty much in each other’s hair every day and all day long, and that is by necessity a mess-generator (both physically and mentally). Structure is important; it doesn’t have to stick to conventional routines or hours, but it must be there.

One of my favorite homeschooling resources, The Homeschooling Handbook by Mary Griffith, has a chapter on schedules called Structure, or Can We Wear Our Pajamas to School? Here’s a quote:

“Often families who start out with a fairly rigid structure find themselves becoming more relaxed and flexible as they grow more comfortable with homeschooling, whereas those who began with an informal and casual style may discover the need for more structure.”

We’ve been in both these places. Some years ago, a homeschooling friend told me that in her family, and in all homeschooling families she knows, later hours and more flexible meal times for kids are the norm. I bristled. Not with us! Dinner at 6, bath at 6:30, story time at 7:00, bedtime and blissful silence by 7:30. And you know what, for a long while I adhered to these principles religiously. But I paid dearly for it. Stress, tension, and constant chafing with my kids became the norm. On the other hand, I wouldn’t adopt my husband’s suggestion of just letting them run about until they drop off from sheer exhaustion. These days I’m more flexible, but I do know, and so do my kids, that once we’re on the track of dinner-baths-reading time, it leads to bedtime and that’s that.

Another great quote from The Homeschooling Handbook:

“Figuring out which part of which ideas will work for you is not easy. Often the ideas you find most attractive and expect will best fit your family don’t work for you at all. Or they work for a year or two and then suddenly seem ridiculous. Just remember that your kids are growing and changing and the relationships among you all are changing as well. It’s unrealistic to expect homeschooling to remain the same in the midst of those changes.”

Hold On to Your Kids: book review


Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need To Matter More Than Peers is a book with an important message (the headline itself, I think, speaks volumes!).

By Briana LeClaire:

“The overarching theme of the book is ATTACHMENT. To whom are your children more attached? Are they attached to you, their parents, and other adults? Or are they attached to their peers? To whom do they look for guidance? Whose star have they hitched their little wagons to?”

“My son is so independent,” a neighbor proudly told me once, “he has so many friends! As soon as he gets back home, after lunch, his friends come to visit him or he visits them, and he plays together with them until it’s time for supper. He hardly needs me at all!” Want to guess how old the boy was? Only 4. And the situation described above was seen by his mother as something most natural and desirable.

There is a perspective of my own I would like to add: while the authors of the book admit that attachment between parents and children, especially young children, is vitally important, and that early enrollment in daycare and preschool is more likely to make children peer-oriented (that is, dependent upon their friends in the development of social connections, goals, values, morals, language and habits), they also say that the most obvious (and, they confess, most desirable) solution – that of young children staying at home, usually with their mothers, is in most cases an impractical, outdated measure.

Their suggested solution is creating an attachment between the child and the “parent substitute” – babysitter, daycare worker, teacher, etc. While, of course, an invested and caring daycare worker is better than a detached, unaware one, I do not think a parent-child-like connection between the child and the care provider is possible or even healthy. There are too many children per caretaker and, above all, nobody can love your child like you do. Also, there is absolutely no guarantee the caretaker/teacher passes on values and messages you approve.

I vividly remember a 3-year-old niece who kept talking to us about her preschool teacher, whose name was Ruthie. That child was evidently engrossed by Ruthie and talked about her a lot more often than she mentioned her parents. Perhaps it is better that the child was so connected to her teacher, rather than her peers, but the fact remains that Ruthie (however capable of creating the attachment) did not care about the child in the same way. It was not her child, after all. At the end of the year, the child and her teacher would part, never to meet again. Is it really good for a child to give her heart to a teacher in such a way, when we know it is to be only a temporary relationship?

Even grandparents, aunts and uncles (the relationship with whom is permanent) are not supposed to be more than auxiliary figures in child-rearing. They can provide help, plenty of help, but the biggest chunk of the job of child-rearing (in time as well as authority) should belong to the parents.

Rather than say it’s impractical for young children to remain under the care of their mothers, it is better to stress the importance of such a measure, and to encourage families to stick to it as much as possible. You know how it works: when you are convinced something is truly important, and that there is really no equally good substitute, you will move mountains to make it happen. Of course, for some parents it will not be possible to keep their child at home, and then damage-minimizing tactics, as described in this book, are in order.

While I do not think mothers at home should be directly funded by the government, I do believe that  significant tax reduction for fathers in single-income families would be a fair measure. Let people keep a larger share of their own fairly earned money and provide for their family. It would ultimately save the government a lot of money on all sorts of programs that fight violence, bullying in schools, teen pregnancy and drug abuse, and other ailments of our society.

Creative writing for children

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Being a writer myself, naturally I encourage my children to make up and record their own tales on paper. My daughters now each have their own notebook where they write down their stories – sometimes short one-shots, sometimes epic tales of many chapters and pages. They have been “pretend writing” even when they were very young, but now that they are actually creating legible, engaging stories, they enjoy reading them aloud to each other and to me, and also having their work read aloud by me to the entire family. This is so much fun.

We’ve taken this to the next level when I started writing, inspired by my daughters, a children’s humorous fantasy book about a fairy who is determined to tame an unruly dragon. In between readings-aloud, we all sat together at the table, drawing the dragon, the fairies and the enchanted forest kingdom (please don’t ask me to post any of my drawings :-)).

This was a lesson for me – used as I was to writing by myself and to myself, wrapped up in my own world, I now had to accommodate the wishes of an eager audience which wasn’t only constantly prodding me to get on and write down what becomes of the dragon, but didn’t hesitate to offer critique in the form of “this is stupid” or “change that whole chapter”.

Of course, creative writing helps children learn so many helpful language skills: spelling, grammar, composition, vocabulary; and retelling the story helps exercise logic and memory. It is really one of the best secret tools a homeschooler can use, but it’s important not to ruin the child’s creative genius by unpicking every spelling or grammar mistake, or it might put them off writing altogether, or of showing their creations to others.

One’s story or poem is a sensitive, visceral thing, and it’s better to leave a few misplaced commas in peace than discourage an enthusiastic young writer. Leave the corrections for specifically defined language exercises – and anyway, if a child reads and writes a lot, language skills and correct grammar and spelling will eventually be absorbed with very little help.