Limits can be so ... limiting

Published by Lori Pickert on January 20, 2010 at 04:28 PM

There are some great comments on my last post, In Defense of Reading ... Which Should Need No Defense, touching on the topics of self-regulation and limits.

Daniel points out the similarity between this issue (video games and reading not excluding one another) and project work: it’s all about the connections, people.

We have a tendency to assign “good” and “bad” (or at least “not as good”) labels, not just to media, but to all kid activities.

Playing outside is better than playing video games.

Reading books is better than watching TV.

Playing educational computer games is better than playing non-educational computer games. (Reading is better than playing computer games at all, of course.)

There are a lot of “shoulds” in childraising, from how they should be socialized to how they should play to how they should entertain themselves. Some of the shoulds come from other people (who are always *so* generous in sharing them with you!) and some of them come from ourselves, from our fondest hopes about what our child’s life will look like.

So we sit down with the giant Richard Scarry color-it-yourself poster of all the things kids *can* do and we carefully start blacking out the parts we would prefer they avoid so they can instead spend all their time doing better, more valuable activities.

Spongebob, no. Nova, yes! Drawing manga characters, no. Drawing birds at the birdfeeder, yes! Running around inside whacking each other with cardboard tubes, no. Nature hike, yes! Garfield, no. Elevating literature, yes! And so on.

But here is the rub, people. Everything is connected. When you carefully black out some pathways, you aren’t just eliminating a less-desirable interest or activity — you are making it more difficult for your child to navigate from here to there.

I have written before about very controlling teachers and their strict, purist ideas hobbling kids and keeping them from doing big, vibrant, exciting work because they insist it *must be done this particular way*.

When you stand in a child’s way and prevent him from making connections — by *limiting* what he has to work with (materials, ideas, methods, interests) — you are setting limits on how much he can learn. You are trying to decide what he can and cannot be interested in. You are trying to decide what will and will not set fire to his imagination.

Of course you should make decisions for your family that match your family values. But don’t be afraid to put society’s prejudices to the test. Find out for yourself. What’s really bad for you?

If we are going to help children build their own path, we need to clear away the obstacles and open up as many possibilities and opportunities as possible. We need to go along with our children as their learning mentor and support system while they explore the world.

If we try to send them down a narrow chute toward the results we want, we may be shutting them off from the experiences that would help them figure out their own interests, their own strengths, their own path.

If we shut down their interests and their ideas, we may find that we didn’t just kill off their interest in video games but we accidentally shut down their curiosity altogether.

Sometimes we are so focused on controlling the how, we forget what we were aiming for in the first place: the why.

You may also be interested in:

I Am the Boss of You

Homeschooling Infrastructure

Control Issues

The Sliver, or How to Stop Fighting About Screen Time


Comment by Holly on January 21, 2010 at 01:56 AM

I am quite guilty of this. I struggle to follow my son's lead in the books he wants to read, when I *know* what would be better. I'm getting better at it.

We had this conversation today. He's started at a scool 2x a week, which he loves, but it's only 2x a week. And it is only 2x, no option to go more. So, what is it he loves so much? Can we bring that here? Well, the kids. I'm not a kid, can't be a kid. But some of the "feeling," the things they do, the atmosphere they create, the tension I've unwittingly created with my own expectations, yeah, that can change.

Comment by Lauren on January 21, 2010 at 02:13 AM

Wonderful post. I mostly read - rarely comment -but thank you.....

Comment by Kristine on January 21, 2010 at 12:11 PM

Great food for thought. I see it so much in my parenting of my 3 year old. I can see their is too much water in the jug and stop her pouring it into the cup as I can forsee the spillage and the subsequent cleaning up, In stopping her she loses not just the immediate learning but also the opportunity to create a plan and follow it through - the opportunity to be a learner.
I'm really working on watching more and redirecting if it's a real issue. "Let's try this outside (not next to the computer!)"

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 21, 2010 at 03:08 PM

holly, thank you for your comment. :^) it is a work in progress — always trying to improve in getting out of their way and allowing them to manage their own learning!

good luck setting up that feel at home — i’m sure you can do it.

thank you, lauren! i really appreciate that! :^)

kristine, what a great example. if you are expecting to allow her to do things herself and anticipating what may happen (water on the table and the floor), you can be more relaxed about it, more prepared, and ready to support her as she figures it out for herself. in the same way, we can go into project work with the expectation that they will make false starts, make mistakes, travel down the “wrong” roads, but eventually find their own way — and we can be prepared to help them do that.

lol re: the computer ;^) that’s being prepared!

Comment by patricia on January 21, 2010 at 03:40 PM

This topic has been a longtime worry/fascination in my life as a parent. You capture it so well--the Richard Scarry poster metaphor made me giggle. I jokingly refer to this syndrome as "my Waldorf guilt", and find myself writing about it often.

As my kids have grown, my feelings about them spending time with "inferior" activities like computers has shifted from a worry to a fascination. My kids--my oldest especially--really had to teach me the value of *all* of their interests. I've learned that if a kid is interested in *anything*, a homeschooling parent has been given a gift. The spark is there, and that's the hardest part to try to manufacture. If I hadn't allowed my oldest the time on the computer that he demanded (and I worried about) he would never have developed his passion for filmmaking, and that seems to be where his life is heading.

I recently read Michael Chabon's book of essays "Manhood for Amateurs" (and am re-listening to the audiobook, it's so good.) Again and again throughout the book, Chabon returns to the notion of the "crap" in kids' lives, and how it's not necessarily a bad thing. He writes of "making something new of what you have been given by your culture". And really, Chabon is the poster boy for the idea of learning from "crap": he spent his childhood immersed in the world of comics, which I'm sure might worry some parents. But what did he grow up to do? Win the Pulitzer Prize.

For a book based on comics.

Comment by Tonya on January 21, 2010 at 05:12 PM

Wow, this is something we are always trying to balance in our home. We simply don't have television except for movies and computer is only a laptop where the older teenage boys are allowed one hour a day. We do have homeschooling, and then they have huge amounts of free time after the daily chores. (I know it sounds like a lot but it really isn't).
Sometimes when they choose things I wouldn't choose, I worry,,, but hope and pray that there is a reason and that all will be well in the end.
Thanks for reminding me that maybe their choices are for a reason.
Warm wishes.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 21, 2010 at 05:39 PM

patricia, that is the same thing i say over and over — the spark is the hard part! let your kids provide it and it’s the difference between rolling a boulder downhill or pushing it uphill.

your story of your son and his interest in computers/film-making addresses another important point — we adults cannot imagine the lives that our children will be living in 20 years. we cannot predict what jobs will look like, what leisure time will look like. should we be shutting off entire ways of communicating and learning because we are prejudiced or afraid?

better to do what you did and let your children show you what value they have found!

and lol, great point re: chabon .. in the current issue of dwell there is a story of a man who had a very customized apartment built with special shelving for his enormous collection of comics. he said his mother was always nervous/negative about his interest in comics, but it led directly to his very successful career as an art director. :^)

thank you, tonya — and you know, i was just thinking about something someone else said to me about teens the other day (my older son just turned 13) … they were expressing the fact that teens need a lot of guidance, and i said in response that i believed that to be absolutely true but i thought most of that guidance had to be delivered in the first 12 years of life. :^)

Comment by Courtney on January 21, 2010 at 06:35 PM

This is the most interesting thing I've read in a while. I love everything you say, even if in my mind you look like a snowman (due to your little signature :^)

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 21, 2010 at 07:53 PM

hey, are you calling me a carrot nose?! :^D)

even snowmen need a little warmth, you know. just not too much.

and thank you, courtney!

Comment by mary on January 22, 2010 at 10:19 PM

I have found that as my girls have grown my limit setting has evolved. One of the ways that I get to make choices for my girls is in what I bring into the home. I may limit what I purchase for them but I don't limit gifts given to them.
One day the girls got a bag of barbies with no clothes. They played with them for a bit and then kept asking for clothes. I went to the store to buy them but felt all the clothes were inappropriate for their age. So the next time they asked I pulled out my fabric scraps and encouraged them to make their own. They now spend hours wrapping and tying and creating outfits for their barbies. Part of me felt like such a stick in the mud but whenever friends come over they all want to spend time making clothes for the barbies. And who knows maybe one of them will grow up to be the next hot designer.

Thanks for the great posts. Nice to see you back.

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 23, 2010 at 06:11 PM

mary! good to see *you* back. :^)

oh, you bring back memories of my sister and i spending hours making barbie clothes on our antique pedal singer .. or hand-sewing .. sometimes we would sew the clothes right onto them and scissors were needed to take them off again! ;^)

we made so many barbie “props”, too -- always on the lookout for the lid or box or scrap of something that would be perfect in barbie world.

what a great compromise between your values and honoring your children’s interests!

one thing *i* have noticed re: limit setting is that like many things, doing it wrong tends to magnify/escalate the problem as you go along, while doing it right tends to make things exponentially easier .. if that makes sense. i notice that letting the boys practice self-regulation was much harder at first (especially for ME) (ha) but as time went on it got easier and easier .. for all of us. the fact that they have some say, yet they know we will intervene if necessary .. we are more laid back about waiting to see how things develop (allowing new games/activities to completely engross them for awhile, knowing now that eventually things will return to “normal”) and they just keep making better choices.

Comment by Kristine on January 27, 2010 at 01:30 PM
Comment by Lori Pickert on January 27, 2010 at 04:25 PM

kristine, i had an interesting e-mail from someone who referred to me as “pro-media”.

i would not say i am “pro-media”, but pro-critical thinking, pro-thinking for yourself, and pro-helping kids get experience managing their own learning/living! :^)

now off to read your post…

Comment by Susan Gaissert on January 27, 2010 at 06:26 PM

You wrote: "don’t be afraid to put society’s prejudices to the test" I say a hearty "yes!" to that. Thanks for the post. : )

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 28, 2010 at 12:01 AM

thank you, susan. :^)

Comment by Sarah Jackson on January 29, 2010 at 07:03 AM

Just poking my head in - such a great post, and timely for me. I've spent the last couple of weeks buried in Haiti relief project and largely leaving my kids to self regulate their time (other than making sure the chores are done, and proper hygiene is being practiced). It's been a good opportunity to see how they choose to spend their time. Both of them do use the computer a lot, but frankly, so do I. I was pleased to see how they used it - for exploring their creative endeavors. They also spent a lot of time just being together and working together on projects. It has done a lot to quiet that naggy voice in the back of my head.

And hopefully, my time on this project is seen by them as a worthwhile and important endeavor, and not just as Mom on the computer. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 29, 2010 at 04:31 PM

hi sarah, you’ve done some awesome work! i can’t imagine a better example to set in terms of showing what a few dedicated people can accomplish.

congratulations on both fronts. :^)

Comment by Daniel on January 30, 2010 at 12:01 PM

Sarah, that's a wonderful story to hear.

And now, on a quasi-related tangent of thought:

Your story also reminds me that leading by example is perhaps the biggest impact we can have on our kids – especially when it comes to technology usage. It makes me wonder how much of the resistance some parents exhibit toward their kids' use of technology simply comes about from their own technophobia and not understanding how to use technology themselves to actually 'do things.' To too many adults and parents, using technology is a struggle – an unfortunate step along the way to getting email checked or flights booked. And I'd say that's been completely the fault of the tech industry itself.

Fraser Speirs has a delightful piece on Apple's new iPad (, that really cuts to the heart of what he feels its impact will be on the technology world. Instead of offering needlessly complex hardware and software to do a task, he sees the iPad as ushering in a new era of transparency – where the arcane file-system/desktop/menus-and-mouse metaphors of old computing have been abstracted away and replaced by a more simple, clear, but equally effective way of doing things. In short: the iPad shows how, finally, the 'computing' part of computing can be cut out entirely – with a new emphasis on actually doing meaningful work with the device.


"The tech industry will be in paroxysms of future shock for some time to come. Many will cling to their January-26th notions of what it takes to get "real work" done; cling to the idea that the computer-based part of it is the "real work".

"It's not. The Real Work is not formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS.

"The Real Work is teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside, capturing the table's order, designing the house and organising the party." – Fraser Speirs

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 30, 2010 at 03:37 PM

daniel, fascinating link + thoughts ...

i hadn’t thought about parents who were uncomfortable with tech being the ones who were discouraging their kids away from it, although that is probably even more possible in the homeschooling world, where significantly more people take a waldorfian view.

i was thinking that it was more of a “do as i say, not as i do” issue — like tv watching, playing outside, etc. — parents limiting their children to X amount of time on the computer and/or tv while they themselves sink into the couch.

my post was skewed more toward the first case (waldorfian) — the parent who is so sure they know what’s good and bad that they forget to take time to really investigate what their child is interested in — something that may very well be their child’s future or something key to their child’s interests/talents.

the ipad is a great example of the nature of technology — things are always changing. does technology improve our ability to connect with others? absolutely. does it damage our tendency to connect with others? it can! but it is always changing — and it changes the way we work, the way we think, the way we interact. don’t we have to adapt and learn to use it to our advantage, rather than avoid it out of fear and suspicion?

my 12yo asked for an ipod touch (or cash to put toward one) for Christmas; i pointed out that he had only bought his first ipod (with his own money) this year. him: “that’s the nature of technology — constant invention, constant obsolescence.” he is a voracious reader, but he is also very much a boy of 2010!

love the quotes about “real work” — i am always talking about helping connect a child with his work and sweeping away inessentials to help him do that. figuring out what is essential and what is not essential, then having more of the first and less of the latter — that is the key.

Comment by kerry on March 10, 2010 at 05:28 PM

I struggle with this. If there is a specific thing they want to watch, no matter if it's a documentary about dinosaurs or Shrek, I'm more inclined to let them watch, then if they just say they want to watch TV. I'm still trying to figure out if I should just let them watch, play and surf as much as they want or continue to regulate the frequency and time.

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