Shelli's family watches documentaries every day—and screen time has become an important ritual for their homeschool routine. Here's why their daily documentary works for them.
I love Facebook as much as the next mom—my friend Stephanie’s feed makes me smile pretty much every time I look at it—but if you’re feeling burned out, incompetent, or unhappy in your homeschool life, logging off social media may be just what you need.
The sunny selfies and highlights reels of other people’s lives can make us feel worse about own lives, especially when we’re in a bumpy patch. According to a study in the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, spending just one hour on social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter correlates to lower life satisfaction. It’s not hard to see why: When your kitchen’s a mess, your kid has spent a whole year studying multiplication without managing to learn a single fact, and you’re just plain exhausted, those beautifully staged pictures of clean and happy children reading in clean and sun-drenched rooms can make you feel like a complete failure.
The solution: Take a social media break. Sure, it’s hard to cut the connection when you’ve gotten into the habit of logging on every day, so start by checking in once a day and giving yourself a time limit—say, 20 minutes. Spend that 20 minutes catching up with people you care about, leaving a quick comment instead of just clicking “like,” and speed scrolling through your feed. Gradually reduce the time you’re spending on social media until you’re on a full social media break—ideally, one that lasts at least three weeks. As you detox from social media, focus on finding joy in the moments of your everyday life without the pressure to capture them on camera or with the perfect quippy caption. Be in the moment with yourself and with your kids.
After your social media break, ease back into online life with the knowledge that you’ve gained. Most of us aren’t going to want to cut the cord completely, and that’s fine—but maybe there are people whose posts we probably shouldn’t follow so closely or limits it makes sense to make on how much we’re consuming other people’s lives. The idea is to make social media something that boosts your happiness—that connects you meaningfully to the people and things you care about—and not something that makes you feel less than.
Your mission this week: Pay attention to how much time you spend on social media and how it makes you feel to be on different sites—and how you feel afterward. (It may help to keep a log—most of us spend more time on social media than we realize.) Set a specific goal to spend less time on social media in the next week—you might want to limit the number of visits or give yourself a time limit. Be sure to set a goal you can live with—there’s no “right amount” of social media consumption, just an amount that’s right for you.
During those idle moments when I’m too tired to think, I start surfing the web. Without fail, I’ll usually come across some kind of article warning parents about the perils of screen time for their children. I’ve read that screen time can hurt children’s social skills, can cause obesity, or it hurts children’s brain development. I’m not arguing that these points are completely false. Too much screen time isn’t good for anybody, but I’m growing wary of these articles. How about an article telling parents to trust their instincts when it comes to screen time? How about an article saying that if your life is well balanced with many different activities throughout the day, including screen time, you don’t have to worry so much?
If your child begins to misbehave, or you notice other negative consequences from letting your child play digital games or watch television, then by all means, create the boundaries you feel they need. For me, I believe screen time should complement an already busy day. We watch a lot of documentaries and entertaining shows together as a family (about 30 minutes each at lunch and dinner), and as we watch, we laugh, pose questions, and sometimes get inspired to try new things. You might be surprised that we allow this during mealtimes, but my husband and I very much consider our program-watching part of our home education. It’s yielded too many good things to consider it otherwise.
In the late afternoon, the boys have about 1-1.5 hour to play digital games. After this, they either go outside to play if the weather is nice, or they watch some television, if the weather isn’t nice. At night right before bed, they also watch a couple of programs.
When I talk to other mothers and learn about their screen time allowances, I realize we let our kids watch and play more than most parents allow. But I also hear a lot about children’s misbehavior…or perceived misbehavior. They cry and fight because they want more television. They get lost in a video game and won’t stop, etc. I don’t know if it’s my boy’s personalities or the way we deal with screen time, but my boys never ask for more screen time or give us other trouble about it. At the most, I sometimes have a hard time getting them to quit a game, but it rarely escalates. I always allow them to reach a natural stopping point, which seems fair to me, so they are usually fine when it’s quitting time.
Speaking of quitting time, we’ve kept the same schedule, which evolved naturally when my eldest was very young, for all these years. Our mornings and early afternoons are steeped in activity…lessons, playtime, time to create or run around outside. The late afternoons and evenings contain most of the screen time, though we often go outside for a while during this time too, and my eldest practices piano after dinner as well. Children crave routine, and I think this schedule has made it easier for them. They know exactly when it’s time to watch a little TV or play their games. They also know when it’s time to work on lessons, play outside or inside, make some art, practice piano, eat a meal, clean up, cuddle with mom, visit with a friend, take a family day trip, or do some other activity.
One thing I have noticed with my boys is that the time they get to play a game or watch TV is extremely important to them. It’s the thing they look forward to most in their day. I think a lot of parents (including myself) can feel disappointed when a child values screen time over, say, playing outdoors, reading a book, or any other number of activities we like to consider “productive.” But I’ve come to see that my boy’s screen time is very productive. Not only are they learning skills through the games they are playing (or the programming we allow them to watch), they are interacting, collaborating, and having discussions with one another. When they aren’t playing, they often discuss their games with each other, planning strategy ahead of time.
As their mom, I want to recognize and honor what is most important to them. So this means allowing them to have their screen time. Also as their mom, I want to make sure they are participating in a variety of activities, so I consider it my job to facilitate time for reading, playing outside, going hiking, going on a field trip, time with friends, or even science experiments… all things my boys love to do, but they aren’t necessarily going to make plans to do these things like they would plan on building a zoo in Minecraft together.
Screen time is and should be unique to each family. Follow your instincts for what works and feels healthy for your children. Don’t let the media (or even me) make you feel bad for what works for your family.
Ever since my boys were babies, we have had a lunchtime ritual of watching documentaries with them. Since our boys are still young, they enjoy nature documentaries the most, but we have veered off into some science and cultural documentaries too. As they get older, we will probably add more history and social documentaries to our list.
When they were smaller, I was hesitant to watch T.V. during mealtimes. (Isn’t that some kind of parental sin?) But I don’t believe the hype that T.V. is bad for kids. I believe some kinds of programming and how it is administered is bad for kids, but watching together as a family is different.
I dare say I think my boys learn more from our daily dose of documentaries than from my formal lessons with them. And I think it rivals my son’s projects in educational value. Because when we watch documentaries, we are all engaged and learning together. We comment on it, create more questions to answer, refer to our globe, and delight at what we see and learn. It has fostered a desire to explore, learn and appreciate our world. The programming has informed my son’s projects and given him more ideas to pursue too.
As I said, we do it together. We always look forward to where “we are going” that day. Sri Lanka? The Galapagos Islands? A raccoon’s den? These programs have opened up the world up to my sons. They understand much better than I did at their age that we live in one small place on a very large planet. It may not be the same as actually traveling there, but at this age, it’s just about perfect.
Another important note to share is that, yes, some of the programming is hard to watch. Watching animals eat each other or battle the elements is not always easy. By watching together from the time they were little, my sons have learned, as one documentarian noted, that “Life depends on death.” This hasn’t made them insensitive. I think my sons cherish nature and their own lives more. My eight-year-old has even told me he wants to be a conservationist when he grows up.
We have watched countless documentaries, and I can’t list them all. I try to keep a list on Pinterest, but sometimes I forget to post what we watch there. I can give you a list of documentaries that stand out in my mind as some of our favorites. Before I do that, though, I’ll tell you what we don’t like:
Every documentary maker has to somehow weave narrative and cinematography into a form that will hold our (the viewer’s) interest. So all documentaries use suspense or splice different frames together to tell a story. We have had good conversations with our sons about how sometimes that lion isn’t stalking that gazelle. It’s two different moments put together, but certainly lions do stalk gazelles, so it’s depicting something that is real. Or how the music and script make things seem more suspenseful. We explain how the photographers probably spent months tracking animals just to get one shot. Sometimes the script will give animals human-like qualities and emotions, which isn’t always fair. These are all things to be aware of.
There are some documentaries, however, that can get a little annoying when they dramatize things too much or repeat the same sequence over and over again, holding onto the outcome until the end of the show, to add to the suspense. We’ve noticed that the Discovery channel documentaries lean in this direction, so we usually avoid those. (Not to say that we haven’t seen some excellent Discovery documentaries too.) Once in a while, my husband will hear facts that are contrary to some science article he just read. It’s always good to let your children know that we can’t rely on a documentary (especially older ones) just like we can’t rely on everything we read. If you are interested in a subject, you should do more research on it.
That being said, here’s a list of a few favorites that we have watched over the years. It’s really hard to pick just a few. (We watched these on Netflix or PBS. Unfortunately, some of them are no longer available, but some of them you can find online or through Amazon.)
The Life of Birds :: Anything by the BBC and narrated by David Attenborough tops our lists of favorites. This series about birds was especially wonderful.
PBS Nature :: We have never seen a Nature documentary that we didn’t love, but these stand out in my memory: My Life as a Turkey, Fabulous Frogs (probably because it’s narrated by David Attenborough + I just love frogs), River of No Return, An Original DUCKumentary, Honey Badgers: Master of Mayhem, Birds of the Gods
Wings of Life by DisneyNature :: This has got to be the most beautiful documentary ever made. If you are studying plants or pollinators, you must watch it.
NOVA’s Making Stuff by PBS :: My eight-year-old has watched this series about the science of materials several times. Every time I watch, I learn something new. It really is a favorite of the whole family.
Dogs with Jobs :: This is a series of short episodes we found on Netflix, and this show was excellent on so many levels. If you love dogs, you have to see it. Even if you don’t love dogs, this show will introduce young children to people with disabilities, workers with dangerous jobs, and how we rely on this incredible animal to help us with incredibly important tasks. Dogs are amazing. (Preview first, if you have sensitive viewers.)
Saving the Ocean :: This is also a series of short episodes. Incredibly interesting, and I love how Carl Safina focuses not just on the problems hurting our oceans, but on the solutions and good things many people are doing to correct them. You can find several full episodes online.
When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions by Discovery :: This is one of those exceptions for Discovery documentaries. It was excellent! My kids learned so much about U.S. history as this documentary took us through all the NASA missions. I highly recommend it, especially if you have a kid who loves rockets!
What are your family’s favorite documentaries?
My son spends a lot of time on his computer. And when I say a lot, I mean hours… and hours… and sometimes even more hours at a time. Experts would more than likely advise that he is spending way more time than is healthy playing video games, watching YouTube programs, and being in front of a screen, in general. I’ve learned to blow those experts off, for the most part. I know that they mean well, but I’m certainly not convinced that the problems they claim exist by letting a kid have too much screen time, are actually problems when that kid is given unlimited access (without judgment) to the computers/game consoles/electronic gadgetry of his choice.
I actually contemplated a technology-free lifestyle when my kids were little. I liked the idea of all-natural toys, a focus on outdoor play, and reliance on imagination over television and electronics. There was one big obstacle, however. My husband and I both really enjoy activities that involve electronics, screens of many kinds, and new-fangled gadgets, in general.
So our family ended up taking a little different path. My desk soon had two computers. My kids had the option of working alongside me, or going out to play, or doing any of the myriad of activities they spent their time doing, pretty much any time and for as long as they wished. My kids reached for a keyboard and a mouse probably as often as they reached for building blocks and crayons.
It wasn’t a perfect system. I’d be lying if I claimed I never worried about it, but any effort I ever made to control screen time only served to make it a more valuable commodity. If I placed time limits, for instance, I could be sure that each kid demanded they receive their maximized time each day. With no limits, they might spend a lot of time playing a video game, but they might also go for days without spending any time on the computer at all.
Another approach? Join in their screen-time games.
As my children became savvy consumers of video games, websites, movies, and the endless varieties of media now out there, I came to rely on them to educate me. Instead of worrying that they were spending countless hours playing a Harry Potter video game, I sat down with them and had them teach me how to play. I was actually quite bad at it, but my son, at six, was satisfied with my skill level. The girls tackled the game together, making it all the way to the end (where they conquered Voldemort – yay!) weeks before my son and I got there. And yes, I found myself obsessing over the game, and together we spent hours playing, side-by-side—learning, improving, and having tons of fun together.
My son and I still reminisce about that Harry Potter video game. It was a good time of bonding for us. And he went on to spend several years where his interest in all things computer/video waxed and waned as often as the moon in the sky. There was summer when he was nine when my son spent hours, day after day, baking bread. Weird, I know, but he did it. And I gained ten pounds because, honestly, he soon made bread better than anyone else in the family.
The idea of spending each hour of a day focusing on a new and different subject is as foreign to my son as having to ask permission to go to the bathroom. He totally gets the state of flow, and I have learned to measure his subject interest by weeks and months rather than worrying about it moment to moment.
When he plugged in to his most recent video game/computer habit, about three years ago now, I was under the assumption that it would last for a season and then he’d move on to something else, as had been his pattern. His attention span is getting longer, however.
We saw a level of commitment to computer games that I had not imagined possible. He was playing them from beginning to end. He began researching the new games, and following the industry the way I might follow the local news or developments affecting Kansas farmers markets (of which I am a manager). He began writing reviews of his own experiences playing games and he experimented with recording his own video game playing YouTube channel.
My son’s interest grew into a desire to create, and so he forayed into programming. His computer, for which he saved his own money and purchased by unassembled pieces, he built from the motherboard up. It has become a tool for his life that goes well beyond the video game realm. Via an online program, he now works on learning Italian every day. His favorite games are on the subject of nation-building and he spends a considerable amount of time now reading the actual histories of the places and people he encounters in these games. He puts both my husband and I to shame when it comes to knowledge of world geography. He knows the chronological order of dynasties and dictators, world leaders and world wars. The historical and geographical subjects he is fluent in at the age of 14 are far beyond anything I encountered even in college.
And just when I began to worry that he wasn’t seeing enough (literal) light of day, he picked up a bicycling habit to get himself around town and an O’Dark-thirty workout routine that includes sit-ups, push-ups, and timed aerobic exercise. (There may be a girl influencing things here, but I’m going to remain happy in my denial. I’m not prepared to write that essay, just yet.)
It’s true, my son spends a lot of time on his computer, and I can’t imagine, at this point, how much damage I might have done had I insisted on only one hour, only once a day…
Can kids be trusted to moderate their own time, even when that time involves screens and electronics? Do we have the same worry when they dive headlong into books? Do we obsess if they spend hours outdoors, watching ants crawl across the garden gate or collecting sticks to build a fort?
I think my son is evidence that children can be trusted to choose their own screen time, and to indulge in it when and how they please. It doesn’t mean that they will 100-percent make wise choices, or that they’ll always be drawn toward studying subjects we immediately recognize and value as adults.
But if we are going to trust them, we have to trust them all the way. Trust and find the balance, but don’t sit in judgment about time wasted. If all you can see is time wasted playing a video game, force yourself to look a little closer. They need our engagement, as well as our permission to engage. They need us to believe that even though it may be okay to prod them in another direction for a while; it is also okay to follow their lead. Our doubts, our worries, are only going to impede the natural flow of things.
I haven’t done it perfectly. I’ve let the experts and their advice get in the way more times than I care to count. But I’m here to tell you, that even if they do play video games all day, it is not the end of the world. It’s just the beginning, most likely. Perhaps a world you don’t understand or have little experience in, but it’s a valid world to be in, nonetheless.