I was waiting for my son’s dress rehearsal, sitting next to a mom who was talking to the babysitter on the phone. On a Saturday. She said, “Tell Alex he can only have one hour on his DS and after that he should watch a movie or something. I don’t want him doing the DS for too long.”

The instructions sounded absurd to me, so I broke an important rule of sitting next to someone in an airplane or a dress rehearsal: do not start a conversation with the person next to you because they might be crazy and you will be trapped.

I said, “I’m curious. Why did you tell your son no DS but a movie is okay?”

She told me she thinks he looks down at the screen too much and if he looks up at the television it’s more social.

Okay. So I could have told her how the DS has mulitiplayer games and is social. I could have said that watching TV is passive. I could have said a lot of things.

But I don’t learn anything by trying to convince her to see things my way. So I tried to see things from her point of view. And I realized that if you send your kid to traditional school then you have to believe that kids cannot manage their own time. And if you convince yourself that’s true then you need to bother them about what they are doing every hour of the weekend. Because they can’t manage their own time.

If a mom says, “I leave my kids alone all weekend. They make good decisions.” Then that begs the question, “Why not do it all week?”

Since then, I’ve been noticing odd things parents do because they have signed up for the idea that school is good. For example, teachers tell kids whether they should leave their boots at school or take them home. It’s subtle, but it’s saying that the priorities of snow play at school trump those at home. And schools decide when vacation is and families plan around that because if you send your kid to school you are saying that school is more important than family vacation.

A business blogger wrote about Kumon, a tutoring company, and how they are successful because they provide babysitting after school. Kumon has contracts with school districts to provide low-performing students with after-school tutoring which coincides perfectly with the kids who need after school care.

If you buy into the idea that kids make bad decisions, and test-taking is everything, then it’s easy to put your kid in extended school all day. It’s free.

You could say, of course, that it’s family and school working together. But what I’ve noticed is that families give up more and more control over their lives to the school. And that frees up time where parents can micromanage what their children are doing all weekend. Because school takes care of how family life runs.

28 replies
  1. Jim
    Jim says:

    My kids go to public school. You’ve convinced me that this should change, but my ex is custodial (in a state where it takes an act of God to change that) and they live primarily with her. And she doesn’t read your blog.

    They’re on winter break right now and they spend every waking moment online in some game or other. It doesn’t seem to show signs of waning right now, but I have to think at SOME point their stable of games they play and Web sites they visit will lose their allure and they might show interest in something else.

    I’m not anti-game. My older boy has seriously taken to multiplayer games; he’s even a mod on a Minecraft server and is learning leadership skills. Wow!

    But there’s so much more to the world than that. It seems like there would be a time out in the future someplace where they’d start to take interest in things other than those screens, but so far I’ve seen that they have no problem playing video games from 7 am to midnight for two weeks straight.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s an interesting issue: what can you do since you don’t live with your kids? When I think about this I realize that the fundamental thing about homeschooling is the idea that the parents are there to encourage the kids’ interests. Which means the parents have to be mentally and emotionally invested in understanding what drives the kids and showing deep respect for that.

      And you can do that piece from any spot in a child’s life. It’s fundamentally about respect.

      Penelope

  2. Becky Castle Miller
    Becky Castle Miller says:

    I thought, based on the headline, that this was going to be about actual snowballs. “School snowballs,” whatever those are.

    It was a good post. But I’m actually disappointed it wasn’t about a snowball fight. I feel silly thinking that, but it’s kind of funny, and I thought you might enjoy hearing it.

  3. Julie
    Julie says:

    Families giving up more control of their lives to school coincides with parents having less and less over their local school districts. School districts keep consolidating and getting bigger and bigger. I think also that school boards have gotten smaller. PTA’s are just about raising money now. Decision making as far as what and how to teach and about testing are at the state and federal level. There is no local control, so there is very little parents can do as far as influencing schools. It is very one sided.

  4. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    What would your thinking be if one of your boys wanted to watch TV all day, instead of play video games?

    • Sadya
      Sadya says:

      she would think “wow, we dont even have TV at home, yet somehow he managed to get hold of one and watch it all day”. Yup PT does not have a TV set at home.

      • Jennifer
        Jennifer says:

        Okay, assuming you had a tv, since I imagine that much of the homeschooling population does, what would your thoughts be?

        • Jennifer
          Jennifer says:

          To convince people that they can be successful at homeschooling (with a truly child-directed approach) then the TV has to be answered. I agree that it is a largely passive activity and I disagree that making a passive choice makes a child apathetic or depressed.

      • MoniqueWS
        MoniqueWS says:

        We have a TV, several laptops, a couple gaming systems. It has been an issue at our house at times. We sat down as a family and talked about it. Dad and I shared our fears about too much screen time, not enough activity, waning socials stuff, mushy brains, normalizing violence, etc. We asked the kids what they thought about it all. They shared their fears about being screen use governed. We discussed what other kinds of things they might rather be doing than screen time. Together we came up with a family agreement about screen time that works for our family.

        Kids do not do screen time during the day light.

        This is not hard and fast but it is rather a guideline. Kids do research, try stuff out, check out the online library, download music and audio books, program, design, moderate servers/games/discussion groups, etc using screens. Parents listen, play, read, discuss, listen, share, debate, etc with kids during the day. Sometimes re-direction happens and sometimes parents get the information they need to help kids make good choices.

        Additionally I suggest when folks start to homeschool/unschool that they take some time to de-school and fall in love with one another as a family before trying out and trying on different mods of homeschooling. Those hours/days/weeks gaming may be just what they need to adjust to the idea that the family can make good choices about learning and time.

    • Liobov
      Liobov says:

      I’m not Penelope but I want to reply. First and foremost, no “normal” kid is watching tv on tv anymore. I mean like in the old days where you sit on the sofa and passively consume whatever shows up on screen. I a kid does that, he is apathetic, probably severity depressed and needs help. The modern “normal” is to watch tv-shows and movies on your computer, since it’s where you have downloaded then (legally or illegally). Some kids hook up their laptops to tv-screens to get a better picture. Some use Netflix or similar service providers. Afterward kids discuss what they watched with friends, on fanboards and other social communities. Some write and or/read fanfiction based on their favorite tv-show/movies. Some write a deeper social commentary on their blogs, inspired by something they saw on tv. Some do youtube-videos instead of writing. Some make their own short movies, inspired by the stuff they’ve seen on screen. Some make clothes and throw or go to parties that are themed on particular movie/tv-show. Some make clothes, bags, jewelry and other fan-memorabilia and sell them on Etsy.

      My point is the human being is inherently social. We get ideas and we want to share these ideas. The method of getting and sharing ideas has changed. But humans haven’t. Just because your kid socialize in a different way than you do or spend time on things you don’t find important does not mean he/she is wasting it’s youth.

      • Sadya
        Sadya says:

        @Liabov- great reply. And notice, that the mother in PT’s story has to instruct the nanny to ‘make’ the kid watch TV- which means its not the most natural thing for the kid to do.

        I think it’s a good time to debate what TV is/means for this generation. For those of us who grew up in the 80s, watching TV was almost like a second job (1st being going to school). The novelty of TV and what it brought into our living rooms was simply overwhelming for that generation.

        We have far more adults who have substituted TV for social lives. It’s when they were growing up that life revolved around for their families around favorite TV shows- and you can’t blame them. That’s what being social was back then.

        Thank god that phase of fascination with TV is over. And because it has, we now have reality shows. And its not the kids of this generation who are watching them

  5. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    I was in a similar situation as Jim. My step sons live with their mom who is custodial parent and she lets them have marathon game weekends where she brings them food and they never have to leave their rooms ( I didnt ask about bathroom breaks)

    We stood firm on our rather generous game rules at our household. We lost the older one the first night of having restrictions. He pitched a fit and we didnt see him again for 2 yrs.. the younger one didnt mind the rules at first until he realized that his older brother didnt have to do homework but he did ( because that is what we expect at our household)

    So, left with a choice of living full time with mom, not having to do homework and free-range gaming OR coming over for every other weekend with dad but having to do homework those weekends and actually leave the couch, they chose the path of least resistance.

    We could have persued it in court but we lived in a state like Jim’s and who wants to force a sullen teen-ager to sit in your house and glare at you?

    I tried to plea with them that when they grow up and CHOOSE to be life time gamers that is FINE… but i dont want them doing that because that is their only choice because thats all they knew how to do…

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      Don’t you think it’s possible that your stepsons’ attitude had more to do with the fact that the amount of time they were able to spend with their father had been reduced to 2 days out of every 14 than with the rules they were required to follow while at your house? Just a thought.

      • Lisa
        Lisa says:

        Part of their attitude is they blame their dad for everything ( even things that had nothing to do with him) and if they wanted to spend time with their dad they could have put the games down and interact, but they insisted on sticking their noses in games when ever they came over. ( I did my best to limit that, but kids are resourceful, and if it pressed too hard they would skip their visit so they could stay home and play)

    • Jenn
      Jenn says:

      Wow. It’s still legal to do that every other weekend thing to kids? What a horrible situation their parents have put them in. Hopefully they turn 18 soon and can get themselves out of that life.

      • Lisa
        Lisa says:

        The agreement was every other weekend and one night a week ( wed night) As soon as they realized the Wed night meant homework and dinner, they stopped doing those visits.

        We were supposed to get every other holiday but she would always take them out of town for all the big holidays or have “plans” that the kids didnt want to miss out on. If we tried to insist the kids would cry they were going to miss something fun-ner than what ever it was that we had planned…

        We did successfully get one child on one christmas. That lasted till about 9am when the grandparents called and asked if they didnt want to come back to moms because they just brought them a new game system and wanted to know if they wanted to play with it.

        All heck broke loose as the boy went hysterical crying to go home because he wanted to not miss the launching of the new game. – inconsolable – we took him home. That was the last time we tried…
        They ( the birth mom and gparents) would also sabatoge our weekends by taking them to what ever it was we were planning to take them to before we could, making our trip redundant – so we had to stop telling them our plans in advance…

        I cant say I miss all that..

  6. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Homework was the major way I felt the school was controlling my life. I felt like I was working for the school, having my kid do worksheets I didn’t want him doing! I preferred he read a book or play. Then also there was the expectations to volunteer at the school, show up for many evening events, tutor child all summer, it went on and on. Now I’m homeschooling, we got our life back and we can pursue our priorities. Next step: ban media. Sorry, but it is addiction at its finest for boys.

  7. John Sumser
    John Sumser says:

    Wow, Penelope. You are still hitting them out of the park. You are exactly right.

    You might enjoy disciplining your children about doing their homework. That’s where the school gets you to play prison guard.

    • Julie
      Julie says:

      Just go to amazon and see how many books there are for parents about how to get kids to do their homework. My favorite is “Homework Without Tears”.

  8. Cynthia
    Cynthia says:

    I am just seriously considering homeschooling my son. I like reading people’s perspectives about the learning process. The only curious part for me is the about gaming and the research about screens that people do not talk about anymore. Penelope, Have your read anything about screens and brain mapping? There was a fair amount of ink about 7-10 years ago. I do not like my son after he has had a fair amount of screen time because he is a total jerkasaurus (nasty and rude). He may just get overexcited (OE).

    Check this article
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/teenbrain/view/
    It is not all or none, we watch movies and search on the internet, but he acts like he just had a ton of the foods he is alergic/sensitive. In my observation, not all children have the same outcome.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, I think it’s well documented that playing video games changes how your brain works. It’s also well documented that people who grew up with the Internet process information differently.

      What is not well documented is why any of this is bad. I think it’s just different. People do not need to be the same from generation to generation in order to succeed generation to generation.

      Penelope

  9. Anita
    Anita says:

    I agree with the last comment. If my 7 year old son plays video games or watches hours of tv he is miserable or gets very hyper when he is done or has to stop. I have had to restrict to 2 hours a day. Interesting about the online conversations and social aspects etc. of gaming … He has a friend over and they have been gaming and alternately playing and building forts about the the current game they are playing. It’s been a fun day and not one meltdown!
    I wonder now if I should be hooking up the x box to have online access so his gaming is more social . . he gets the interaction and maybe less hyper/meltdowns after playing alone for hours.
    Yes, I’m a homeschooler. If it was up to Noah he would watch spongebob on Netflix all day!

  10. Jan
    Jan says:

    My younger kids (gr. 1&2) were at our community chess club today. I overheard them chatting with the assistant teacher – a fun, nerdy-hip high school guy. He mentioned something about school, and my daughter says. . . “oh, you go to school. That’s harsh! I remember what that’s like, I had to go to school for kindergarten” (we homeschool now).

    When you posted :

    “But what I’ve noticed is that families give up more and more control over their lives to the school.”

    It really resonated with me. I agree with you both, giving up control of our family life to an institution is, well, harsh.

    Thanks for your blog.

  11. Laura
    Laura says:

    We not only gave up control of our daily lives to a school, we gave up control of our finances, because to get into a good school district, we needed to buy an expensive house, and then after a few years of struggle we had to sell the house because of the real estate crisis (long and involved story). We should have stayed in our old house in an inferior school district and home schooled. Lesson learned.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s such a good point – that it’s giving up control of your finances to push yourself to buy a house in a certain school district because this country has such unequal public schools. It’s like, the school district always wants more control. They are always saying if you let them more into your life it’ll get better. Moving, homework, school events at night, summer school. But it doesn’t get better. It’s the same.

      Penelope

  12. Beth
    Beth says:

    Penelope – I love your blog and I love the premise of this post (that school controls family and is based on the assumption that kids can’t be freethinkers) but I think you are dead wrong about Kumon.

    Kumon is seen as very high-end in every circle I’ve ever encountered. In my area, all the Indian, Chinese, and Russian children of highly educated immigrants do Kumon. They pay big bucks to do so, and have their parents often waiting in the lobby, hovering over their results. Furthermore, it isn’t true that Kumon is for people who want babysitting because an integral part of Kumon is doing the daily math and reading drills at home on “off days” with your children. (Kind of like the Suzuki method and practices.)

    So, Kumon isn’t for babysitting purposes, nor is it for low performers. It’s meant to advance children in mathematics and reading in a way that most schools don’t. Most children who do it are usually multiple grade levels above their peers. I actually think Kumon would make a great complement to homeschooling.

    It’s also interesting how you’ve gotten to the root of why American kids are so bad at making decisions. If you’ve ever encountered children from foreign countries they always seem to be a little bit more worldly, more-seasoned, more free-thinking, and more capable of making independent decisions. In schools they are being told how to make decisions and they are being coddled. I get it. I’m on board with homeschooling but not quite in the way you’ve chosen to set it up. Seek further information about Kumon, too!

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      Kumon is nonstop worksheets. Definitely not what I am seeking. They are designed primarily to help kids do better on standardized tests. Definitely not my goal. Besides if I wanted math worksheets, I’d do Singapore Math.

      Want better reading skills? Have your kids read more. As in, BOOKS.

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