Limits and Influence

Choices have transformed our lives. Limitations do not transform lives. They limit lives. ~Sandra Dodd (December 2014)


Clare Kirkpatrick responded beautifully to this one day:
"I don't see any reason that you CAN'T limit their time on the computer or game playing."
I see lots of reasons for NOT limiting my kids' time on the computer or game playing or watching tv or knitting or reading or playing with barbies or playdough or baking or anything. Those reasons are that where joy is, you will find learning. Where joy is, you will find flow. These are all things we want to *help* our children do *if* that is what they want because we want them to learn. I could, if I wanted to, name many, many things that my children would *not* be doing if I had limited their time doing the things they love, including being on the computer and gaming.


"Conventional wisdom" (those truisms that too-often aren't true) says "children need limits," and that good parents have lots of limits (the more limits the better the parent). We've all seen (and some have been in) families where stifling limits caused the very problems they were expected to prevent. But without a counter-mantra to "children need limits" it's easy for parents to fear that it must be true or people wouldn't keep saying it.

If by "limits" people mean "safe boundaries," sure! If by "limits" people mean "someone to watch and care," absolutely! But what people usually mean by "limits" is parents who say "no / don't / stop / forget it / when you're older."

When unschoolers discuss limits they're often discussing arbitrary limits, trumped up to make the parents feel good, or used as magical talismans to guarantee that their children will be creative, healthy and safe. What creates much more magic is to help children discover and do and be.

—Sandra Dodd


Deborah Cunefare responded, on unschoolingbasics@yahoogroups.com, to this:

Do you recommend any limitations on hours of tv time or setting up a system of earning that time?

Only if you want to make SURE that your children know that TV is incredibly important. Only if you want them to absolutely positively make sure they watch that amount of tv every day and not a moment less. Only if you want to make sure that thinking about the tv dominates much of their day, even when it's not on.

It's a simple economic theory. Things that are rare have a higher perceived value.

Deborah in IL


Deb Lewis, responding to a public post in 2007:

I feel it is our job as parents to guide our kids,

I do too, and I've never read unschooling advice on this list that claimed otherwise. When we write about not controlling or limiting our kids we don't mean we ignore our kids or that we don't care about what they're doing.
I wouldn't let my just turned 7 yr old watch adult swim cartoons, because at 7 I don't think she should watch violent humor.
When Dylan was little he liked monster movies and science fiction/ horror movies from the fifties and sixties. There's no gore, really, in those old movies. But he liked all kinds of science fiction and horror so he gradually saw newer movies. I watched with him and I knew what was going on with him by the way he'd talk to the TV and get down and act out scenes. I would sometimes elaborate on a scene, "That guy is so mean!" And Dylan would talk about why characters made the choices they made. He wasn't alone when he watched. I understood what *he* could handle. It's sometimes hard for parents to separate what they think their kids can handle from what the kid really can handle. That comes from our natural instinct to protect them, and it's good we have that instinct, but we also owe it to our kids to let them grow in their own way. They're timetable shouldn't be set by us. They're born perfectly suited to being individuals.

If I thought there was a scene in a movie that might disturb Dylan I'd just tell him what I thought. He (in every case, if I remember right) decided to watch the movie anyway. I remember at the end of one of the Godzilla movies, (The one where he's melting in the volcano) Dylan turned the TV off and said "I'm never watching THAT again." When we talked about it he said he felt sad for Godzilla and they shouldn't have ended the movie that way. We made up different endings. At first they were all about Godzilla stomping the guys who tricked him into the volcano but our made up endings gradually got sillier. After some days he decided to watch the movie again and we talked about the special effects of Godzilla melting. He now fondly recalls his viewing of that movie, all these years later. We still love to watch those old Godzilla movies together. We throw popcorn at the bad guys (and the monsters are never the bad guys)

I do agree with Cameron in that things can influence some people. We don't know for sure what will or won't influence our kids.
Humans are being influenced all the time by everything around them. People were being influenced before TV was ever invented. Our kids will be influenced by family members, neighbors, friends, smells, tastes, textures, temperatures, grass, music, bees, water, dreams, cars, sculptures, mountains, paintings, dirt... We can't and shouldn't try to be the only influence on our kids. All people are not the same, all of us evolve as we grow and all of our growth and evolution comes from our experience and environment. The more we experience (safely, with the help of people who love us) the more intelligent and capable we become. That's how it should be. Our kids are not destined to become some fresher version of ourselves. They are themselves and we need to let them be themselves. That brain is not ours. (dang it anyway, I could use a fresh brain. HEY, that may be why I love zombie movies!)
We can hope we have raised them to know right from wrong, and what is pretend humor on tv and what is real.
It can be more than a hope. What's that quote? "If you can't be a good example then you'll just have to be a horrible warning." We can model goodness, kindness, honesty. We can model thoughtful decision making and respect for others. We can and will influence our kids. We can't help but influence our kids! We just can't expect to be the *only* influence. That wouldn't be good or natural or healthy. But we are the steady influence. We are the continuous feed from birth and there's a lot of power in that. We need to be more dedicated to being a helpful guide for our child's individual journey than we are dedicated to trying to make them just like us.
I realize Cameron's son is older but in a way from reading your posts Cameron I would say he is asking you for limits even though he says he is not. It's just the feeling I get for what its worth.
I think it's a mistake to let the voice of our unfounded fears overpower the voice of our children.
...if he is looking for limits because as someone pointed out he doesn't trust himself that is not a bad thing, it's just how he feels at this point in his life.
I think it is a bad thing. We all have doubts and rely on others for help or reassurance from time to time. But a healthy survival depends on our being able to make good decisions. If we can't trust ourselves we can't make good decisions. Kids who don't have confidence in themselves are much more likely to be at risk of deception by others. It's not just a bad thing, it's dangerous. If a child of thirteen is always depending on adults to make up his mind he's at risk. Not all adults will have his best interest at heart. We only become capable and confident when we know and trust ourselves.
maybe he will begin to trust himself as the unschooling life unfolds.......I don't know.
I do know. People don't learn to trust themselves until and unless they have a lot of experience making their own decisions. Kids will make poor choices. We all do. But making some questionable choices doesn't mean we should be able to or can't continue to make choices. And parents need to be aware of the difference between a poor choice and a choice the parent just doesn't agree with. One is not necessarily the other. As difficult as it has been for me to accept, I am not always right. We can help our kids. We can ask questions. We can express our concerns and even say "I think that's a bad idea and here's why." But that doesn't mean our kids have to agree with us, and it doesn't mean we're right. Our kids definitely need our thoughtful guidance. They also really need to make their own choices.

Unschooling can't work in a home where kids aren't trusted. It just won't happen. Learning takes exploration and in order to explore a person needs to be free. Unschooling parents need to be brave and let their kids be themselves.

my question is why is it not truly unschooling if we help our kids by setting limits?
Controlling other people is counter productive. First, it's hard. It almost never works the way we wish it would. Once you set a limit how do you enforce it? You either have to trust the kid won't exceed the limit or you have to set in place some other kinds of limits to ensure the first one is maintained. If you could trust him, why the limit? It's complicated. And control is an illusion. We might stop our kids from doing something when we're around but what about when we're not around? What about when we're asleep? When they go to a friend's house? When we go to the store and they stay home?

Unschooling only works when people are free to explore. That doesn't mean "left to their own devices" as talk show hosts are fond of saying. Our kids shouldn't be ignored or neglected or scooted out the door with a broom so we can clean house. We should be involved in their life in fun and helpful ways as much as they want us.

Limits are things people talk about a lot but don't think about too much. We hear from our parents about our limits and when we're grown we hear about how kids need limits and when our own kids come along we're fairly itching to set some limits because that's what parents do. We start our life with our children believing they're always on the verge of doing something they're not supposed to do so we are ever on the look out for ways to stop them.

But unschooling parents don't think of limits as things that "help" children. Unschoolers think *help* helps a child. Unschooling parents believe their kids are doing exactly what they're supposed to do. Exploring the world where they will spend their whole lives. Instead of looking for reasons they should be limited in their explorations we look for ways to help them explore safely and happily. We're not standing in their way. We're not the roadblock between our kid and where our kid wants to go. We're the tour guide, helping him go just as far as *he* wants. Its a big world. We're not going to be the biggest part of our kid's lives for very long. The very best thing we can do for them is to help them come to know their world and be confident in it. We can't do that by setting up unnatural boundaries.

Deb Lewis


Limit a child's listening to audio books! (Deb Lewis objects elegantly.)

Principles vs. Rules Choices "Yes" Economics of Restrictions Respect