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Unschooling and Parenting Digital Natives

Unschooling and Parenting Digital Natives

Written by
Wendy Priesnitz

Wendy Priesnitz

Wendy is Life Learning Magazine's founding editor. A writer and journalist for forty years, she is the author of twelve books, a former broadcaster, and a lifelong changemaker. She and her husband helped their two now-adult daughters learn without school in the 1970s and 80s. You can learn more about her and read more of her writing on her website.

“As soon as you accept that just about everything in our created world is only a few generations old, it makes it a lot easier to deal with the fact that the assumptions we make about the future are generally wrong, and that the stress we have over change is completely wasted.” ~ Seth Godin

Not to make any assumptions about the future, but I think it’s safe to say that our children’s lives will increasingly be influenced by technology, and it will continue, for some time forward, to be a tool of creativity, innovation, and communication, as well as crucial to how they earn a living. Whether or not we personally own a smart phone, our kids are “digital natives.” And so we need to meet them in their own land. John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, authors of Born Digital, put it this way, “These kids are different. They study, work, write, and interact with each other in ways that are very different from the ways that you did growing up.” (They define “digital native” as anyone born after 1980, so you may be one of them too!)

In fact, in many families, children know more about how to navigate computer hardware and software than their parents do. So learning about how to use technology in smart, safe ways is an important part of their education (and ours!). However, you might be among those with concerns about kids and their use of electronic media, and that might tempt you to limit “screen time,” filter their content exposure, or otherwise police their usage. In this article, I’d like to help you address those concerns and suggest ways to make dealing with them congruent with the principles of life learning.

"In many families, children know more about how to navigate computer hardware and software than their parents do. So learning about how to use technology in smart, safe ways is an important part of their education (and ours!)."
But first of all, I should tell you that my school-free daughters, born in 1972 and ’73 are not digital natives. When they were young, personal computers were in their infancy, a novelty, even. I remember our youngest daughter, at age twelve, teaching herself how to do simple coding on a Commodore 64. She’d copy some simple code for a game from a computer magazine, then experiment. Perhaps because we had no clear vision of a future where technology would reign, we didn’t worry about her spending hours at a time at the keyboard; I’m glad we didn’t.

Secondly, we should keep in mind that research about children’s electronic media usage is typically related to the amount of time available for being in front of a screen in relation to time spent playing outside, reading, studying – and attending school. The lives of life learning kids are clearly different from those of kids who attend school, with more time available for pursuing all sorts of activities and personal passions.

After all, that’s one of the reasons you are unschooling, isn’t it?

Thirdly, we should consider Seth Godin’s words about our own reaction to change. This is not the first time parents have worried about new inventions warping their children’s minds; the invention of the printing press and the television – among other innovations that have provoked drastic change – were both the cause of much angst about the state of the world and people’s brains.

Beyond Worry

So here’s the thing: Life is full of dangers of various sorts, real and imagined. And taking risks is one of the ways we humans learn how to manage those dangers. That’s easy to understand – until it comes to our children, whom we naturally want to protect from harm. But I think that one of our jobs as parents is to help our kids learn how to calculate risk and act accordingly, rather than to limit themselves by being fearful of or even avoiding new possibilities. This is especially important for life learners because exploration is how our kids learn. So what to do? The same as you do with every other parenting dilemma: Help them get the right information and empower them to use it to make good decisions. (We cannot assume that because they are “digital natives” they know to keep themselves safe.)

In my childhood, I might have been considered to be “addicted” to books or at least a compulsive reader. I was, instead, called a “book-worm,” which was likely more socially acceptable – at least in my bookish family. From time to time, my mother worried that I wasn’t getting enough sunshine and exercise because I always had my “nose in a book.” So she’d boot me outside for a while. I remember once going out the front door and sneaking in the back door and into my room so I could finish a chapter. I also remember resenting having to sneak around to read – to indulge my passion, in effect.

My resentment was fueled by the fact that I saw both my mother and dad always with their noses in books too! They didn’t go outside much….and why didn’t they need sunlight and exercise like I did? Our kids notice the sort of behavior we model; if you spend a lot of time on your phone or tablet, especially when your kids are around, expect them to do the same.

“The invention of the printing press and the television – among other innovations that have provoked drastic change – were both the cause of much angst about the state of the world and people’s brains.”

Some families set rules and time limits around technology usage. If my daughters were young today, I wouldn’t do that. Instead, we would have conversations about how to balance gaming and social media appropriately with their other interests. We’d talk about relationships and the difference between face-to-face interaction and the screen-based sort (non- judgmentally, because both have their place). We’d also discuss issues of privacy, ethics, and safety. We’d explore the social uses and abuses of technology. We’d research the very real health effects of using computers, Wi-Fi, and cell phones (and continue to do it because research develops). We’d work together to understand and implement ergonomics and best practices for computer use to minimize eye strain and other physical problems associated with incorrect work habits or over-use. We’d talk about whether or not they think they’re getting enough exercise and sleep, and how much time they want to spend on other pursuits like reading, relationships, sports, etc.

Our daughters often set their own schedules and boundaries around a variety of things – like sharing space or toys, or around sleep and food, or other choices, decisions that could be good or bad for them. They also, from time to time, would ask us to help them with those things, and I saw it as part of the process of learning how to manage themselves and their time (they’re both surer about many aspects of that now than I’ve ever been). In our family, communication about a huge variety of issues was always possible, and we regularly sought out each other’s perspective and advice. So I imagine sorting out any issues around technology usage wouldn’t have been any different.

It’s easier to stay calm and connected if your child’s interest interests you. So if you’re not a computer person, you might have a hard time with this. But that is a really important time to support and understand your child’s interest. In an article in Life Learning Magazine about her challenges, as a pacifist, with her son’s interest in war planes, Suzanne Malakoff wrote that not honoring the interests with which you have difficulty may result in rebellion and entrenchment rather than sending your child off in what you think is a better direction.

So, rather than being negative and creating limits, join your kids at the computer, allow them to share their passion with you, and ask them to explain what interests them about it. Put your fears and preconceptions (about computer gaming being antisocial, etc.) aside and have fun. You might be surprised at where the game playing and conversing take you, and them. You might also be surprised when they invite you to go outside for a hike.

“If you squelch their passions and interest in favor of ones you think are safer, maybe you should ask yourself if that jibes with the sort of education you think you’re facilitating for them.”
Seymour Papert, a critic of conventional schooling and considered the world’s foremost expert on how technology can provide new ways to learn, contends that problems arise with kids’ computer usage only when the machines are isolated from the learning process and from life, rather than integrated into the whole, as they are for unschooled children.

Undoubtedly, electronic media are changing us in many ways, some of them worrisome for some of us. For instance, when author Nicholas Carr asked, in an Atlantic Monthly cover story “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” he tapped into a well of anxiety around whether or not Internet usage is negatively affecting our ability to read and think deeply. His subsequent book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains describes how human thought has been shaped through the centuries by “tools of the mind” – from the alphabet to maps, to the printing press, the clock, and the computer. He explains the neuroscience behind how the technologies we use to find, store, and share information reroute our neural pathways, with the interruption and distraction of following hypertext links impeding the sort of comprehension and retention “deep reading” creates.

Although this reconfiguring of our brains can have both positive and negative results, it is a configuration that our children will inevitably develop as they live in an electronically-based world. So you might as well help them make the best of it, and nurture your relationship with them at the same time. My advice? Stop reading research studies about the effects of electronics on schooled kids. (I’m personally concerned about their effects on young babies, but that’s not who we’re talking about here.) Instead, in partnership with your kids, observe how using electronics affects you and them, and adjust your usage accordingly.

If your children are happy, fit, and healthy, and they regularly communicate with you about issues in their lives, I don’t think you have much to worry about in regards to their technology use. On the other hand, if you squelch their passions and interest in favor of ones you think are “safer,” maybe you should ask yourself if that jibes with the sort of education you think you’re facilitating for them. Always keep in mind that one of the cornerstones – perhaps the whole foundation – of life learning is trust. Our kids are capable of making many more decisions for themselves, at a much earlier age, than our culture gives them credit for. So in this partnership style of parenting and educating, you can give them the tools and the trust, then sit with your fears and see what happens. You might learn something important!

Writer Pico Iyer recently wrote in a New York Times essay that the information revolution came without an instruction manual. I suspect that together with our life learning children, we can find our way to the best, most balanced use of computers and other electronics in our lives.

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