The Wonderful World of Television

Schuyler Waynforth, 25 July 2009, London Unschooling Conference

Hello, I’m Schuyler Waynforth. I’m the mother of Simon and Linnaea and the wife of David. And I think of myself in those terms.

I live in Norfolk, in a small village called Carleton Rode or Rod. Apparently Rode is a olde worde for cross and so the E at the end should just disappear into the O somehow and become Rod and not Rode…Anyhow, I’ve discovered more about Carleton Rode in the few days that Sandra has stayed with us than I had in the 18 months up to her visit. That’s been really fun. Having new eyes to look through has helped me to see more closely, to find the shiny and interesting bits that are near instead of always looking so much further afield for engagement. I’ve even gotten to pull the sallys, the soft bits on the bell ropes, possibly named for the Latin sallyx (sp?) which means catkin, on the second nearest set of Church bells to us with the bell ringing group that covers the 5 churches we sit amidst all because Sandra went to Carleton Rode, or Rod, church last Sunday.

Anyhow, I’ve been unschooling since Simon was about 4 years old. We lived in Japan and I wasn’t willing to send him to school at 3. When he was 4 I heard a radio programme about home-education that interviewed a family in Washington State who followed what they called “child-initiated” education. I spent the next week searching the internet for anything I could find. I found unschooling. I found Sandra Dodd’s webpages and a woman named Heather Madrone. I found the blog of a woman who had one child, a son. She wrote that each year that she unschooled wasn’t a lost year and that she could always stop the next year. The stories and the pictures and the opportunities and the method drew me in. It all clicked for me. That was 8 years ago and we haven’t switched directions mid-stream yet. We could, any day, any week, any month, any year, we could stop doing this and go back to the schooled approach, but I doubt it. This feels so good and so right and so true.

I live a wonderfully insular life provided in no small part by the e-mail lists I’m on like Always Learning and Unschooling Basics where television is typically not derided or feared, at least not without a long involved discussion with many voices. Actually television and video games come up a lot on those lists, so it wasn’t a novel experience when a woman posted to a local list that her children were watching too much television. She said they were becoming compulsive television watchers. She was afraid. She was afraid that they were moving toward an addictive relationship with television. But the responses to her plight were very different from what I’ve grown accustomed to. There were a lot of posts commiserating with her experience; lots of women sharing their own stories of children who could do little other than sitting in front of the television for hours at a go. Others joined the discussion to tell of their plans to limit or even remove the television from their homes with one planning to put up bookshelves in its place (as though televisions and books are mutually exclusive). These women were working themselves into a frenzy of fear, each supporting the others as they reached for bigger responses to take when protecting their children from the power that they believed the television has; the power to destroy a child’s natural curiosity about the world.

I have sympathy for their concerns. I myself haven’t been doing the embracing all things as learning approach to unschooling for the whole 8 years that I’ve been unschooling. I had doubts when it came to whole life unschooling, radical unschooling. Things like food and television and video games made me leery. When I was a child television was a behavioural modification tool: if I didn’t do as requested or as well as hoped, it could be taken from me. My brother and I would alternate nights to choose television. Sometimes he’d trade me doing dishes for the right to choose. I remember once on my night the first television airing of Carrie was showing and he was desperate to trade. But the 1978 (thank you Google) made for television adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was on and I would not budge. He offered to take my dishes night for a week and nothing. But then I got bored. Little Women was boring. And I had to do the dishes yet that evening and maybe he’d trade. But he didn’t, I lost my chance. My memory is that we did watch the end of Carrie and I did do the dishes.

Television wasn’t an innocent thing in my childhood; although it was certainly a valuable thing. My neighbours gave it up for lent; they sacrificed television to show their love of Jesus. Although Jeannine Worthing would come over and watch it in the reflection of the windows in the French doors that opened into our family room. I don’t know if that negated her sacrifice. I don’t know if I am to be held as an accomplice in her Lenten crime. But television wasn’t a good thing. It was a turn that thing off thing, it was a rotting your brain thing, it was a waste of time thing. Not a good thing, not a pleasurable thing, not a tool for exploring the world thing.

The voices from my childhood and my young adult life were filled with the knowledge that television produced slothful folks, violent folks, stupid folks. As I was writing this I thought of the Royle Family with Ricky Tomlinson. There is a sense of laziness, but they aren’t really, they are active and funny and chatty and family all in front of the television and it wasn’t their image that stuck to me. It wasn’t the idea of The Royle Family that kept me from buying a television when I moved out of my University dorms or made me angry at my brother when he bought a Sega Dreamcast for us when Simon was 2. That was all fear of the overreaching power of the television to be the opiate of my mass. Television and video games were bigger and more powerful than I was and I needed to protect Simon from them.

My brother sent the Sega Dreamcast to celebrate buying a piece of property in Western Nebraska; in an almost entirely agricultural bit of the U.S. he had found a little house nestled in a little valley next to a creek. David and Simon and I had gone and checked it out for him when it was only pictures in a brochure that he’d gotten from the estate agent and we were en route between Minnesota and New Mexico. And to thank us for our small part in his joy he sent us the Sega Dreamcast with Sega Bass Fishing and an adaptor for the controller that turned it into a fishing rod. When Simon and I unwrapped the package I seized up. I saw this lovely and sweet gift as the first step in a slippery slope to Simon living in our basement at 35 playing video games in a poorly lit room on a sagging and broken couch. We didn’t even have a basement. I saw it as a route to mindless violence and a life that was largely virtual.

I am slightly overstating. The fear wasn’t that acute. But it was there. The sense of moving toward a pointless and meaningless life wasn’t so deep, but there was some of that boiling away at me. But we hooked up the system and we played Bass Fishing and we began to look in game stores for games to add to our collection of one. David found Tokyo Xtreme racer and I found Pen Pen Tri-icelon and Sonic Adventure. Simon loved both Pen Pen Tri-Icelon and Sonic but not equally. Sonic flipped switches for him, it rang buzzers, it got him excited and he loved the game. We’d played computer games before that, Tonka Construction with a work bench that you strapped over the keyboard so that when he hit a nail with a hammer it would touch whatever key you would have pressed manually to hit the nail. And Barnyard Rhythm and Moo with Elvis impersonating ducks and Blues Clues where we helped Blue and Steve on their Treasure hunt with the cow bell ringing us through the mail. But nothing was as fun or as beautiful as Sonic the Hedgehog running through rings with Killer Whales leaping behind him. He wasn’t very good at it, but he would spin Sonic around and run into the water or jump off a cliff. He liked to watch it be played almost as much as he liked to play it. The more we played these games the less scary they felt. And then Linnaea was born and everything was scurrying about to get all ready for our year in Japan with the Sega and all the rest of our goods packed away into a storage unit. And all fears and thoughts of slippery slopes went with it.

In Japan, Simon discovered Pokemon. There were a few television programs that ran in English on Japanese television for educational purposes. They ran older episodes of Pokemon in English and the new ones in Japanese with a section at the end in De Englishu. Misty often lead those with repetition of one phrase first in De Englishu and then in Japanese. Anyhow we watched those together. Pokemon was amazing for Simon, it started him down this path of weaving the stories he watched into new stories with him in them. Sometimes he would tell me the stories after he’d told them to himself. As he was creating he would run down our hallway and back again making these action, adventure noises (pwee, foom, wvheee) while he did it. 3-year old Simon was creating fan-fiction. And in doing so he was showing me that he was more powerful than the television. He was able to use it to create a bigger and brighter and more engaging world for himself. He didn’t passively take it in, he used it to form new worlds and new stories and new creations. He wrung those television shows for all that they could offer him and he was so joyous in the whole experience.

And yet, even with all of that, my gradual acceptance moving to embracing of video games, my intensely joyous boy whose engagement with and around the visual stories that television offered him, showed me so much about how strong an individual is and how little control television holds over someone outside of the relationship they choose to have with the box in the lounge. I still turned the television off for a week when 5 year old Simon hit Linnaea for turning off television. I remember talking to two women at a local grocery store during that week. Two women who home/unschooled their daughter and as we stood near the refrigerated section we talked about the television problem, and they said they didn’t use television in that way, for them it wasn’t the behaviour modification tool it had been in my childhood. But, because it is so hard to criticize a stranger’s parenting they said they could understand why they had done it. They didn’t help me see from Simon’s point of view, not that that was their job in those few minutes in the local alternative grocery store. They didn’t say he was probably intensely enjoying the show when she turned it off; they didn’t say do you have pre-existing issues with television?; they didn’t say could you have stepped in and helped Linnaea to find something else to engage with, something else to distract her? All questions that I would ask someone who came to any of the unschooling lists I’m on, or even of myself if and when I find myself reaching for old tools, hearing voices from childhood that suggest that I can control someone else through punitive or limiting means.

I went to Kelly Lovejoy’s Live and Learn conference in 2007 in North Carolina. Among the speakers was Rue Kream who did more of a circle chat than a talk. And she had her husband Jon and her daughters Dagny and Rowan. One of the things that got mentioned way more than once was the idea that control over someone else is illusion. You can ask someone and you can limit someone, but you can’t control them. If your daughter wants to date a boy you can ground her, you can tell her not to, you can do lots of things to make it more difficult, but if she really wants to do it, she can run away, she can sneak around behind your back, she can murder you in your sleep.

So when I posted my comments on that local list about television, when I wrote about how in our house television isn’t a succubus squatting in the corner of the lounge waiting to snare my children’s souls and imaginations, it was with all that experience and world view whirling around behind it. My words weren’t well received, at least not by the vocal minority. When you know that there is a clear and present danger in your children’s life it doesn’t help your world view when someone else come along talking about the amazing opportunities available by embracing that so obvious danger. So I left the discussion hoping that I sowed seeds more than I got people’s backs up. And I left with a quote from Alistair Cooke’s 1950 Christmas letter From America which had been aired on the Radio 4 just in time for me to pass it forward. It’s a beautiful letter describing what’s on television in an average day in 1950 U.S.A. He dwells with almost loving detail on the weather report which must have been on such a much larger scale than a televised BBC weather report. At the end of his radio broadcast he says:

There has been quite a bit of comment her in the last week or two on (the poet) Mr. T. S. Eliot’s comment that Britain should beware of television as a grave threat to…these were not his words but I think his sense…as a grave threat to leisure, to intelligence and culture in general.

The great question—what will it do to our children?—rocked around the nation last year.

A lot of us sympathise with Mr. Eliot but honestly see the facts going against us.

For instance mediocrity practically doesn’t exist to a child, mediocrity is in the eye and the judgement of the beholder and I would hesitate to say what is good or bad for a 10 year old.

I know what is educational but I don’t think that’s necessarily the same thing as what is good or bad.

However to the dismay of us conscientious, culture-conscious, and perhaps slightly hyperchondriacal parents, Northwestern University has just published the results of its survey on what television does to the child.

And its answer is—nothing, nothing that hadn’t already been there or been done before.

Television, it seems, is a reflector of what’s in the child, not a poisonous snake infecting him from outside.

They found, for instance, that the amount of time spent on television by any one or any 100 children has no sort of correlation with their marks in school.

Perhaps it does, after all, go in through one eye and out through the other, causing no pain and I must confess a lot of pleasure.

The rising generation then is going to the dogs just as fast, or as slow, as you and I did—remember?

It’s a hard world for us moralists isn’t it?

I loved that quote. I was proud of that quote. It was British, although by an ex-pat who later became an American citizen. It was lyrical and there was a bit of science thrown in for good measure. Perfect.

But the mother who was going to replace the television with a bookcase had a good return. She volleyed Roald Dahl’s poem Television back to me. Roald Dahl is so very good at describing in great detail the horror of that which he despises, even if he makes a living creating within that abhorrent medium. He tells of children zombified by television, children sucked dry. He exhorts parents to save their children from television and the only way he sees for that to happen is to remove the television and replace it with books.

There are so many things wrong with Roald Dahl’s poem. His rant, his shout:

is so without footing.

Television has fuelled so much of Simon’s storytelling. It has resulted in games and in the most amazing conversations. Linnaea played Fable 2 this past winter. Fable 2 has behavioural feedback programmed into the game. A karmic generator. So what actions you take and how you treat others predicts how you will be responded to and treated by non-playable characters in the game. Ethical behaviour became a huge topic of discussion as Linnaea wanted to be a good character. At the end of the game, though, when asked to sacrifice her sister and her dog to recover the lives of 100’s or 1000’s of others, after much consideration and discussion and weighing of the potential repercussions, she chose her family.

Roald Dahl is wrong when he talks of television pushing books out of the lives of children. On a teen panel at a conference I went to earlier in the year, a friend, Chloe Maier, said that she reads thousands of books. Having stayed in her home before coming to the conference I can say that her book reading is not at the expense of television and movies and video games. Those things all happily coincide in her rich and engaging home.

But the thing he most gets wrong, the thing that is most damning about his conclusion. He writes:

So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites the kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks-
Fear not, because we promise you
That in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start—oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.
For Roald Dahl to promise the greater love from a child when you squash their joy and take away their happiness, for Roald Dahl to promise that a happier 2 weeks from now is worth more than a happy now makes him both a liar and a thief. I got this bumper sticker from the Life is Good conference this year. It isn’t on the bumper of my car yet, but it says “Unschooling for a Better Today”. That’s the point that Dahl missed. That I missed, that the women on the list missed. All you have is right now. 2 weeks of misery for children who may thank you for that suffering later isn’t anywhere near as good as sitting down with your child and watching Sponge Bob work a 24 hour shift at the Crusty Crab and feel your love and your relationship grow NOW! And by sitting with them and watching and by cuddling up and laughing together and singing along with Plankton as he sings U is for Uranium Bomb! You are showing your child more about how valuable they are and their opinion is than you could ever do by pushing your agenda and your visions and your desires for them to be grown with some particular pieces of knowledge that you may presume may not be available with a television in the house.

Within unschooling there are some basic principles. If you hold onto those principles, if you carry them like a life-saving techniques list in your wallet or purse wherever you go, you can respond to the kinds of fear and control that may overwhelm your otherwise sunny and happy approach to parenting. Ronnie Maier gave her list the acronym RATS: Respect, Acceptance, Trust and Support. None of those principles exist in Roald Dahl’s poem. He’s all about fear and control. He’s all Cautionary Tale.

I read a few unschooling blogs and there is this beautiful blog that Julie Person’s writes. It is mostly pictures of her children and some felting figures that she sells on Etsy and preserves that she puts up from the produce she grows on their small holding in Maine. She wrote a piece for Life Learning magazine that she put up on her blog a few years ago. It was about her son, Jesse, and his enjoyment of television. She and her husband were uncomfortable with the television. But they had one and they had videos and dvds. Initially they limited Jesse’s time watching television. But she’d read on unschooling lists and in unschooling biased magazines and she figured that the best way to approach Jesse and television was to free the reins, give in to his desire to watch television, so rather than saying no when he wanted to watch something they’d say yes. Rather than making him walk down to the vegetable patch they’d let him stay at home to watch whatever he was watching. But his interest didn’t seem to lessen. He still seemed desperate around the television. He needed it, he was obsessed by it, he couldn’t let it go. One day, deeply concerned that she’d done something wrong by giving her son all the access he wanted to television, she sat down beside him and watched what he watched. She talked with him about the shows. And she did that every day for days afterwards. The more accepting she became, the more embracive she was of his choice, his choices, the less needy he seemed to be. And in a little while he was volunteering to come along to the field, to come to feed the chickens. By letting him know that she respected, accepted, trusted and supported his enjoyment of television, she let him feel less defensive about what time he had to watch. She let him relax into a comfortable relationship with television.

If instead she had chosen to follow Roald Dahl’s prescription and had taken the television away, if she had given into her fear and exerted control, she would have not only argued for the power that television wields, she would also have stated that Jesse could not be trusted with his own interests. And Jesse knew that.

When I was preparing this talk I went and explored the talks at the TEDs. The TEDs is a convention that has speakers from all across the spectrum of subjects and backgrounds who explore ideas related to Technology, Education and Design, thus TED. One of the talks was by David Perry who is a video game programmer. The talk is As Real As Your Life and within it he has a video a student of his, Michael Highlander made. It opens with Michael Highlander saying that he’s addicted to video games. The idea of being addicted to television or video games is all over the place in discussions about children and the derogatory “screen time”.

I love the addiction discussions. Addiction is bandied about for so many things. I’ve had people tell me they are addicted to chocolate and books and hikes and quite a few other things. And I hear that powerful word and I balk. The on-line dictionary, The Free Dictionary defines addiction as:

ad·dict ( -d kt ) tr.v. ad·dict·ed, ad·dict·ing, ad·dicts
1. To cause to become physiologically or psychologically dependent on a habit-forming substance: The thief was addicted to cocaine.
2. To occupy (oneself) with or involve (oneself) in something habitually or compulsively: The child was addicted to video games.
I love that video games was the second example.

Anyhow, there is this guy Bruce Alexander who was, until recently, a psychology lecturer at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. In 1978 he published a paper based on findings he made on addiction in rats. He believed that the findings about drug addiction in rats were skewed given the conditions under which the lab rats lived. So he made a rat park. It was an 8.8m² (95² feet) housing colony, 200 times the square footage of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, an abundance of food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating and raising litters. They offered them morphine, not in a behind the wheels kind of underhanded way, but in a water bottle and none of the rats would take it in an addictive way. They’d do it socially, but not habitually. In the end the only way that the researchers could get the rats to drink the morphine water was when they added a narcotic neutralizer that got rid of the drug effects. If it gave them a buzz they didn’t want it.

When they put the same rats in small cages all by themselves they were perfectly willing to drink the morphine water, and went for it preferentially. It wasn’t that they were special rats, it was that they were in happy situations. When they took the morphine-loving rats and put them back in Rat Park, they stopped drinking the morphine-laced water, went through withdrawal symptoms, did it cold turkey. The addiction was based not on the subject, not on the thing they became addicted to, but on the environment.

So how is that relevant to Michael Highlander and his video? Or more importantly how is any of that relevant to unschooling. If addiction to something with such a known and scary addictive property as morphine has doesn’t occur in a good environment, an environment with engagement and community and space, than why should something like television or video games be scary if our homes are vibrant and engaging and loving and interesting? If your children aren’t needy or desperate or scared or deeply unhappy they won’t use television and video games to fill those holes, they won’t have the holes to fill. If you respect, accept, trust and support your children television gets to be this engaging and interesting part of your life. Not its sum total, nor the fearful thing that you keep locked away in the summer months so that it won’t damage or limit your children.

For me one of the more elegant parts of the understanding of why unschooling works, why a life without arbitrary limits on a child’s interests works was an essay that Pam Sorooshian wrote called “Economics of Restricting TV Watching of Children”. It’s housed at Sandradodd.com.

The essay begins: Conclusion: Restricting tv-watching time increases the marginal utility of tv watching and causes children to become extremely strongly attracted to it and to value tv-watching above other, nonrestricted, activities.

"Utility" is a word used by economists to mean the pleasure, satisfaction, usefulness, or whatever other value a person gets from a product or service. Gaining utility is the reason why a person buys a product or engages in an activity. Just like businesses make decisions in such a way as to maximize total profits, individuals make decisions in such a way as to maximize their "total utility." Economists view people as "utility-maximizing" agents. Through an economist's eyes, we're all going through our lives making constant comparisons — choosing minute-by-minute what to do, what to eat, what to buy, what to wear, what to say, and everything else, and every time we choose, we do it so as to increase our total utility as much as possible. Imagine you are standing in an ice cream store and choosing a flavor — what an economist sees is that your brain is rapidly going through all the choices, figuring out how much utility you'd gain from a scoop of strawberry versus a scoop of rocky road and so on, and then picking the one that gives you the most utility. (Notice that utility has to be predicted — we could be wrong in our pick, but we do our best given the information we have. I could decide that strawberry is my pick for today — that's the flavor that I prefer right now — the one that will give me the most utility. And then I might discover, to my dismay, that it doesn't live up to my expectations and I might WISH I could change my mind. It happens. So, our choices are actually based on our "expected" utility gains.) and she concludes:

This way of looking at choices is applicable to almost everything we do.

What's your favorite thing to do? Watch movies? Read a book? Garden? Go to Disneyland? Why don't you just do that all the time and nothing else? I mean — if it is your favorite, then doesn't it give you higher utility than anything else? Why do you ever stop doing it?

The answer is that as you do more and more of something, the marginal utility of doing even more of it, goes down. As its marginal utility goes down, other things start to look better and better.

When you restrict an activity, you keep the person at the point where the marginal utility is really high.

When you only allow a limited amount of TV, then the marginal utility of a little more tv is high and every other option looks like a poor one, comparatively. Watching more TV becomes the focus of the person's thinking, since the marginal utility is so high. Relax the constraints and, after a period of adjustment and experimentation to determine accurate marginal utilities, the focus on TV will disappear and it will become just another option.

The marginal utility argument is such a beautiful piece to the unschooling puzzle. The understanding that you can change the value of an item or an activity by restricting it or making it more available, such a straight free-market understanding of things, fits so well into the understanding of the way to change how any person feels about things. But it does not, nor should it, deny the actual utility of an item. If you are like Julie Persons, and you wait for your child to be full with television or video games and move on, it’s not going to happen. If on the other hand you reach for your principles card and you Respect and Accept and Trust and Support your child and your children in their interest and their joys, if instead of waiting for them to define themselves as who you want them to be and embrace them, enjoy them relish them as who they are, they will never be the Cautionary Children of Roald Dahl, not ever. Oh, and the woman who had bookcases dancing in her head, she contacted me on a social networking site for home-educators in the UK and told me that she wasn’t going to get rid of the television. And while she still believes that Roald Dahl’s images have some validity, she was willing to cede her parental authority to her children’s desire for this summer. I was well pleased.

Schuyler Waynforth

Television in unschoolers' lives and thoughts

Help for New Unschoolers