Saturday, March 26, 2011

Children Can Self-Regulate

This week I've been listening to Sarah Parent's podcasts on Humans Being. She speaks about living an unschool life. She applies the principles of unschooling to eating and sleeping and television watching as well as to daily education. At the heart of these choices is the understanding that children can self-regulate when supported in doing so.

My love for unschooling has not stretched as far as eating, sleeping and screen-time yet. Parent's podcasts have helped me realise why that is. It all comes back to the 'antiquated' (in her words) notion that some things are "not learning."

While I nod along listening to Parent or reading another unschooler's reflections on their journey, agreeing with the theory, I haven't put it into practice well. I'm still clinging to my traditional upbringing and the myth that children can't self-regulate.

My stepfather spent many years drumming into me that I needed his rules and his limits and without them I would be an uncontrollable mess that no one would employ or befriend. After breaking free from his hold over my mobile phone use when I was 20 years old *gasp* I was shocked to discover that I was really great at regulating my own useage of the phone and paying my bills on time etc. I had just never been given the chance to know that about myself, and he had never imagined such a thing could be possible.

Now I face this struggle from the other side. I want to believe my daughter can self-regulate her food, sleep and screen-time intake, but I know that I'm not quite there yet. Tonight my partner and I had a chat about it and reached a breakthrough.

"Why don't I believe she can self-regulate? If we're unschooling, aren't sleep, eating and watching TV another set of subjects at our unschool. So why is it that I can so easily support her in unschooling throughout the day and know that she is going to learn everything she needs to learn by self-regulating that learning, and yet I don't trust her to self-regulate these three things?"
"Well, I think we still have quite a bit of unschooling to do of ourselves. Like last night, she was up past 11, lying on the couch watching TV in my arms. I could hear a voice from our parents generation warning me that that wasn't healthy for a little girl. But the thing is, if it wasn't healthy and she didn't get enough sleep that night, she'd just make it up during the next day or next night, so it shouldn't be a big deal. We still have these old ideas about what is and isn't healthy for a little girl."
"Yes! That's it! Like the night before when you were trying to get her to go to sleep and she was clearly not tired, happily playing. It just happened to be past 10 and we had decided that was 'too late' for her to be up. Obviously it wasn't too late for her."

We moved on to discussing television and food. If our daughter eats too much of something unhealthy (or eats too much.) she won't feel well. As parents we've tried to protect her from that, but Sarah Parent's podcast on food reminded me of something so basic that it should be obvious. Kids need to learn for themselves that eating too much will make them feel ill. That's an important lesson. It's fundamental to them learning how to regulate their food intake for the rest of their lives. Like falling down when learning to walk, or burning your hand in the kitchen when learning to cook. Humans learn by doing, we also learn through discomfort and pain. If we prevent Harri from learning that eating too much will make her ill for herself now, we run the risk of facing greater food related problems later in life.

Watching TV
Something Sarah Parent mentioned in the podcast about TV was that television can strew a child's path and I've noticed that with Harriet. Bee Movie has definitely played a part in helping her learn about bees. She loves talking about bees, spotting them, seeing honey and making the connection. Then we go to the market and eat the raw honey and talk to the bee keepers and she makes the connection back to the movie.

TV is something that is often misunderstood as a learning inhibitor, when in reality it can be a useful learning tool. In Harriet's case it has helped ignite her passion for subjects including: bees, dinosaurs, elephants, music and singing and learning about diversity of families.  

Something I find particularly interesting is what she takes away from television shows about relationships between characters. She identifies the primary attachment relationships in her favourite films and then ascribes the label "Mummy" or "Daddy" to the main character's primary attachment. In Bee Movie she calls Vanessa: "Bee's Mummy" and in Monsters Inc Sully is Boo's "Daddy" and so  on. She is also learning empathy and emotions from watching television, often identifying the different moods of the characters and telling us about it, "Oh Mr Crabs sad, need her Mummy." It's also heart-warming to know that to her all the comfort needed in life can be found in Mum or Dad :D

The result of our Sarah-Parent-podcast-inspired discussions is a commitment to try harder at facilitating our daughter's self-regulation. Once again we're reminding ourselves of Jan Hunt's wise words

Regulating her own sleeping, eating and television watching patterns is learning. Of course, right now our re-commitment to unschool living (because we had committed to it years ago but somehow ended up off track) is terribly challenging. We are living through what Parent calls "the saturation phase" where the child, used to having limits imposed upon her, enjoys rebelling and does as much as she can, as often as she can, whatever it was that previously came with limits, to make up for lost time, to get as much as she can before a limit is enforced (as it was previously). 

Our challenge now is to stick to it, wait out the saturation phase, trusting that once out of her system, Harriet will come to self-regulate. She will eventually come to listen to her body, understand its cues, what makes it feel more healthy and what makes it feel less healthy and make choices that support her own well-being. This part is hard. The urge to step in is huge. The doubt that this self-regulation BS will work out is huge. The lack of trust in the process, my daughter, and life more generally is pretty darn huge

To survive the saturation phase I will need to lean on my friends who have been there, and on my partner who shares my parenting values and goals. Finally, bringing my thoughts back to "everything is educational" when they start to stray to "Aaah! She's watching too much TV! She asks for fries all the time and rarely for apples! I need a break, GO TO SLEEP ALREADY!" On the plus side better we go through this now, at three years, with one child, rather than a few more years down the track.

ETA: With this post completely written (in dribs and drabs over the course of a few days), ready to hit publish, my friend Jess published a post on children self-regulating TV watching and eating and had this to say:
"I have no doubt that children can self-regulate their food intake when faced with those foods that are found in nature and that our bodies would have specific body memory of. Where this falls down for me though, is that so many new and artificial substances have been created in the past 50 years that our bodies just haven't caught up. That and the fact that know one knows exactly what affect these chemicals are/will have on the make up of our bodies...

And it is not only the man-made things that worry me. Highly processed sugars and flours are a worry as well. Children have an inbuilt system which predisposes them to eating sweet foods. Back in the day this was to guard against eating poisonous foods (unripe fruit is very bitter for example), however this now makes sugary food very hard for them to regulate.

My children self regulate their own food intake. We have no restrictions when it comes to what (or when) the children eat. But, we also do not have anything that is very high in food additives, chemicals, artificialness or anything too sweet (they don't call sugar the white mans cocaine for nothing!) in the house (not where they can find it anyway ;P). In this way we can do the whole self-regulation thing, but within appropriately guided parameters."

Jess's point about man-made/unnatural substances is a good one, and one that came up on our Facebook page when I raised the topic of unfooding in a status. Friends mentioned the addictive qualities found in many snack foods that can appeal to impressionable young minds. My own experience with these "foods" is evidence enough to be concerned about Harriet's intake of them.

It's hard for a young bodymind to self-regulate when suffering addiction. Addiction is physical as well as psychological. That means her body will tell her she wants more of the highly processed, chemically-enhanced, junk and will not reach the point of "I've had enough now." 

In the time it has taken to write this blog post my partner and I have to-ed and fro-ed on the topic of self-regulation. There is no tidy way to wrap up this post because this is going to be such a journey for us. Instead, I'll leave you with:
Stay tuned...


Anonymous said...

I don't doubt that kids learn through tv, but it's the behavioural changes we've seen in our kids that have led to us putting a limit to it, and at times cutting it out all together.

I've found that only one of my children is able to self regulate tv :/
He tends to hang around me instead and look for other things to do.

It's interesting to me also that the one who watches the most tv is also the one who has the most trouble sleeping and we've also noticed that the amount of screen time he has effects his behaviour (it effects all of them tbh, but it's most obvious and worrying in him).

Ideally they'd have less at the moment, but I also use it as a coping mechanism and to get some 'air'...I need it so I don't go insane.

Shall be interested to see how Harri's tv and food self regulation goes :-)

Lauren said...

We've been battling with this same thing of late, as you know. Not so much with food as self regulating food has never been an issue here, nor has sleep really. Thankfully their self regulation there hasn't conflicted too much with our wishes. It's the TV that we struggle with. We don't have a TV, but the children now have free access to DVDs, youtube and iview and computer games. It's been an interesting couple of months to say the least. To the untrained eye, it looks like Audrey cannot self-regulate. But there are very obvious reasons why she spends so much time in front of the screen and they can be worked with/around. I'll do a post I think cos it's too much to go into here and it's been quite interesting to be part of.

I think you will probably doubt yourselves a hundred times over (we do), but hang in there. As long as you trust in her, you can't go wrong. x

Nat said...

On sleep. I do wonder how much we are effecting natural rhythms by having lights on and the telly on. I have noticed with D that darkening the house and turning off the telly seems to give us an easier night. She knows when she is tired but will fight it a lot. We have never forced her to go to bed, but we do change the situation a bit and she will then go happily.

Telly is a big one here too. She does watch too much. There is a balance I've noticed, a bit if telly seems to encourage imagination and she will take an idea and run with it. Too much and she can't/won't do anything but watch telly. To the point where she doesn't want to see friends or play or craft or anything.

It's so hard to let go of the old ideal. I know I'm on the right track when we are having good days. But those bad days really mess with my resolve.

Julie said...

I'm enjoying following your journey. In our case (5yo and 2yo here), there are sometimes forays into food substances that give me shudders, but not often, and only one time with an adverse effect (a rash after some red candy) that never repeated itself. Without food limits, one thing doesn't get valued over another, and I'm learning a lot from that. I'm learning to question my most fearful thoughts about food, and so far not one has turned out to be true.