Unschooling – Should I limit Sugar and Media?

This is a subject that is constantly brought up in unschooling groups and forums. Should I limit sugar and media? Of course, this is a choice that ultimately needs to be made by each individual family, but I want to explore the common arguments for each side, along with sharing which side of the fence we fall on. (If you’ve been here a while, I don’t think it will come as a surprise!).

So lets start with “For.” Parents who put no limits on sugar and media have a strong belief in the self regulating ability of children. They feel that in restricting these things they are not only stealing their child’s autonomy, but also restricting their learning opportunities. They believe that given unlimited access to sugar, sweets, TV and computers, their self regulatory system will level out and prevent them from developing unhealthy or obsessive traits. Somewhat contradictionally, these parents believe strongly in enabling their children to follow their passions, and will often talk about the many things their child is learning from the hours on end they spend playing computer games, which for plenty of children, makes up the majority of their day for many months.

Then on the other side of the coin are those parents who do put limits on sugar and media. They believe in creating a healthy and varied learning environment for their children, with access to good real food and real life experiences. They believe that although children do indeed have a strong inbuilt self regulatory system, this is undermined by addictive substances and practices. Sugar IS addictive. Screen time IS addictive. Both have a profound effect on the brain, and early exposure in excess can have lifelong neurological effects.

This is the camp where you will find me. I DO limit sugar and screen time, in fact they both play a very minimal role in our lives. There have been numerous studies done on the impact of too much screen time, exposure to the media and children targeted advertising. Rising obesity, diabetes and countless other conditions are affecting our children by the thousands. And there are also numerous studies confirming the addictive nature of these things. Yes, our children are wonderful self regulators. They have the ability to eat what they need and stop when they are full. They have the ability to focus fully on an activity or task and stop when they are done, ready to move onto something new. But that ability stops the moment addictive properties are introduced. It is our responsibility as parents to guide our children in making healthy choices and developing long term habits which will see them into adulthood.

Along with that, I really think that unlimited media in particular is undermining the beauty and wonders of the whole principal of unschooling.

Many parents choose the path of unschooling because they think their children deserve better. They want them to be free from the ever unchanging walls of the classroom to follow their passions and live a varied and interesting life full of opportunity.

For me, the real learning in unschooling comes from being immersed in real life. From being involved and included in their parents lives and daily activities, from getting outside, exploring their world and the environment. From having the time and peace to delve deep into their play and find their own passions. To me, unschooling is a natural and combined aspect of continuum parenting. It is all about trusting our children AND involving them in real life. This is the ingredient that is so often missing when parents choose not to limit media. Instead of this enriching and engaging learning environment, the children find themselves in a self imposed prison, a false and highly addictive reality, glued to a screen they can’t seem to break away from, missing out on real relationships, real experiences and real life.

As I said at the start, ultimately this is a choice you have to make yourself. But for me, there is no question that sugar and media should indeed be limited.



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8 thoughts on “Unschooling – Should I limit Sugar and Media?”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. There is far too much evidence proving the addictive qualities of both sugar and screen time for me to allow my children unlimited access to these substances.

  2. I’m with you 100% Sam. When I clicked on this post to read, my thought while it loaded is that you made excellent use of a rhetorical question in the title of your post. I really appreciate the research you put into these topics because it’s good to have some facts to back up my parental instincts! Thanks for sharing!

  3. I limit my daughter’s screen time and sugar, but, at the same time, I see that it sometimes creates an even stronger need to watch TV or eat sugar (especially the former). In her case, it is sometimes counter-productive.
    She’s 4,5 y.o. and I allow her to watch TV (a DVD, actually) 4 times a week. She has 4 TV tickets which we drew and coloured and she uses them along the week. In order for her to have an idea of what a week is, we have a big calendar to which she attaches her tickets, we count the days of the week left and the tickets left, and it usually works pretty well.
    I must confess that I have sometimes considered the first approach you talk about, that is, letting her regulate herself, but after reading your post, I’m more determined to keep things as they are and to trust.

    1. I find that the more my son has, the more he wants, and he will ask all day long for both tv and chocolate. We schedule tv to a short time in the afternoon, but when I find him becoming fixated we tend to turn it off completely (like we have this week for screen free week) and “reset” ourselves and our habits. I love the ticket idea though, it enables you to limit healthily whist also putting her in control of the situation! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for this post, a refreshing read after I was recently shocked to find ‘screens and sugar’ to be a topic attached to ‘unschooling’.

    I find it difficult to see how these things go together, or are indeed the subject of so much conversation.
    Many people that are talking about unschooling screens and sugar with their children, are, for children that are not even school age. I realise that unschooling begins before school – if we want to get technical, everyone is unschooled really.
    To me, this ‘screen and sugar’ thing actually falls under the heading of ‘parenting’. How you choose to parent over screens and sugar is the real issue here surely?

    While the parents in the first camp you describe are happy to let their children at the screens and sugar, sometimes as they watch on in discomfort, they reassure themselves with terms like ‘unschooling’ and ‘radical unschooling’, also assuming that the child is a great self-regulator.

    Children do become great self-regulators, over the years, but they do begin as babies unable to self-regulate. The key role of the parent from the beginning is to regulate the infant. When the baby is first born this regulation is everything – warmth, stress.. survival. And a partnership is born between the primary caregiver and the infant. This ‘partner’ relationship doesn’t stop when they turn 2 and want to eat chocolate, or are 3 and want to watch DVD’s for hours on end. Part of parenting is to guide and model how to self-regulate.

    I find myself wondering why this hot topic is only limited to screens and sugar? What are ‘radical unschoolers’ parenting when it comes to alcohol, cigarettes, super glue, power tools and other things that I am sure they would be guiding and modelling for and with their children rather than letting them loose.

    I read and hear from parents who left their ‘partner’ with out any guidance, either because they were unsure of how to parent, afraid of parenting like they were, or were following a certain model of parenting to the letter. They soon find that they don’t like what is going on, parenting by not parenting starts to show cracks and can be a very uncomfortable experience for the parents and children. Harmony it is not.
    And many of these conversations are from unschoolers, and many of them around sugar and screens.

    One more thing. I really don’t think you will find a person who has grown up unschooled will be in this ‘unschooling sugar and screens’ conundrum (I could be wrong), from my experience when you are unschooled you ‘know’ about the importance of regulation and self-regulation. Unschooled children still need guidance and modelling, and when it comes to things that can be harmful and addictive there need to be boundaries. Boundaries don’t have to be scary and over powering – they can be agreed, guided and flexible to a point.

    Unschooling is not about sugar and screens, its about magic way of life learning.

    1. I agree. The unschoolers who choose not to enforce boundaries can be known as radical or whole of life unschoolers – literally giving full control of everything from whether or not to brush their teeth, to whether to eat cookies and cake for dinner. They believe that it is not their right to enforce their own wishes on the child. I believe Sandra Dodd and Dayna Martin are both advocates for this style of parenting and their children are now teens, so their pages might be interesting for you to have a look at.

      From my point of view, it is not a healthy approach. I like the saying “Unschooling is not Unparenting,” as I feel it brings a sense of the creativity and parent participation in guiding and modeling which should be involved.

  5. Thank you so much for this. As I have been researching unschooling I was a little shocked at the idea of giving my kids unlimited access to media, especially knowing some of the research about how it affects the brain. Thank you for this clear and articulate piece.

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