April Parenting Thought of the Month: Do You Have a Strong-Willed Child Or a Hidden-Willed Child?

Google “strong-willed child” and you’ll find a plethora of articles and books about how to parent a stubborn, difficult, defiant and high-spirited child. Strong-willed children are defined as kids who defy, disobey and emphatically refuse—often with verbal or physical outbursts—to do what a parent wants them to do.

Lately, though, I’ve become convinced that labeling certain children as “strong-willed” isn’t in their best interest—nor is it entirely accurate because every child is strong-willed.

Let me repeat: Every child is strong-willed. How so? Because every child wants what he or she wants when she wants it. In other words, every single child is born selfish.

This is an important truth for all parents to grasp. Each one of your children is selfish in their core—they can’t help but look out for number one. Christian parents know this is because every child is born with a sinful nature.

Therefore, every child is strong-willed.

But every child exhibits that selfish nature in different ways. Some kids are loud, boisterous and in-your-face about their wanting what they want when they want it—the classic definition of a “strong-willed child,” if you please. However—and this is a big however—even kids who aren’t as vocal or physical about their selfish desires are still strong-willed. They have a hidden will that makes it difficult to see on the outside but inside, they are still exhibiting the same selfish tendencies.

Personally, I think parenting the classic strong-willed child is easier than the “hidden-willed” child because with an outwardly strong-willed child, you can see the struggle right in front of your eyes. You tell the outwardly strong-willed child to pick up his toys, and he throws a fit. You know exactly what’s going on in his heart, right? He’s refusing to put himself under your authority.

You tell the hidden-willed child to pick up her toys, and outwardly, she obeys. You’re happy, but what you might not notice or even have a glimpse of is what’s going on in her heart. She might be gritting her teeth on the inside, grumbling about the task, letting bitterness or envy or strife take root in her heart…and you won’t have a clue it’s there.

When I mention to parent groups how lucky they are to have strong-willed children, I often am met with disbelief. After all, strong-willed children give parents a workout in the toddler to preschool age with their almost constant questioning and testing of boundaries. Then I remind these parents that with a strong-willed child, you know exactly what’s going on in their hearts—it’s out there for all to see.

It can be just as difficult to parent a hidden-willed child because you can easily mistake outward compliance with inward compliance—and the two don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand. With a hidden-willed child, you have to look for other signs that the child’s heart isn’t growing cold with hidden defiance, such as surly attitudes, little unkindnesses and undercover disobedience.

Whether you have a strong-willed or hidden-willed child, parents should be willing to put in the time and effort to stick to boundaries, to pay attention to a child’s heart, and to realize that we’re raising adults, not children. With an eye to the future, you can help your strong-willed or hidden-willed child become an adult who’s kind, honest, hard-working, committed and resourceful.

An Anxious Third Grader, Follow Up

Q: You suggested that I stop the regimented schedule and give him 90 minutes of playtime. There is just over 90 minutes between when he arrives home from school (3:45) and when we eat dinner (5:30). After dinner, we have our family devotional time/Scripture memorization, and then the bedtime routine begins.

I love for him to play outside in our very small backyard but he’s out there alone a lot. Does that matter? I try to play with him for 20 or 30 minutes a day. He has an incredible imagination and can occupy himself very well but I am sure he gets lonely. My daughter often doesn’t want to play the same things that he plays. There aren’t any kids who live nearby and his few friends from school are all booked solid with after-school activities. 

We don’t currently have a regimented schedule for the morning. The kids know what they need to do to get out the door on time. If I give him the whole after-school time (4:00 – 5:30) to play, I feel I’ll need to either give him a checklist or some sort of schedule to help him manage his morning hour and evening hours. He would need to add his assigned chore to the morning routine. He would also have to do all his homework in one long chunk right before bed. Unfortunately, much of his assigned homework is on the computer. Doing that work right before bed makes him wired, then it’s difficult for him to fall asleep.

He has a tendency to get distracted and lost in a book when he is supposed to be doing his chore or homework. What’s the best way to keep a kid like him on track without stressing him out more? He often says he likes the schedule because it’s mindless. He knows that if he just follows the time allotments for everything and uses a timer for the different chunks of time, that he’ll get it all done.

What do you think is a reasonable amount of homework for a third grader? The teachers says it shouldn’t take more than 45 minutes but just the reading alone is 20 minutes. Additionally, he struggles with spelling, so I try and do mini-lessons with him to bring him up to grade level. He really excels in other subjects but does poorly in spelling and writing. I actually homeschooled him in 1st grade. They weren’t teaching phonics in school and since I am a former reading teacher, I decided to homeschool him. His reading improved dramatically, to say the least. Nevertheless, the things we both didn’t like about homeschooling far outweighed the things we did like. 

We don’t like all the homework that his 3rd grade teacher assigns, but the teacher and the school are now quite helpful/compliant with the allergy situation. Even though our school district is the most allergy-friendly district around, it has taken me four years to train the staff about food allergies and to make changes that allow my son safely participate in school activities. I hesitate to have him move schools and have to start from scratch. I will talk with the teacher and see what can be done about the excessive homework. Most people don’t see the value in chores or a sit-down family dinner time, and they expect us to eliminate those in order to allow more time for homework.

If he has a dedicated 90 minutes to play but dawdles in the morning or while doing his homework, should he miss out on some of that time? How do we get him to stay on task and not waste time that could be spent playing without a strict schedule?

Please let me know your thoughts. I am grateful for your help.

A: You’re so welcome! As for him playing outside most of the time by himself, that’s perfectly fine. I get why we’re so focused (parents, teachers, etc.) on making sure our kids have friends, but he’s been around others all day long that all he needs is fresh air and his imagination after school. Seriously, this isn’t a big deal at all. I think he’ll appreciate the down time to recharge without anyone bothering him.

As for checklists, have him come up with a list of things he has to do in the morning before school and in the evening before bed. Go over it with you to make sure he hasn’t left off anything, then let him manage the order and time. Perhaps he plays outside for half an hour, then does some homework, then back out for another half hour, etc. He can still use a timer, but let him come up with the schedule. And my kids often “lose” themselves in a book at the expense of chores and bedtime. Timers work well for that too, such as setting a timer to read for 20 minutes, then do chores.

I think reading for 20 minutes each night is all a third grader needs in the way of regular homework assignments. Seriously. And frankly, reading is the best way for him to improve his spelling too. 45 minutes of homework for a third grader is ridiculous in my opinion. I get that your finally comfortable with school and his allergies—that must be a huge weight off your and your son’s shoulders to know he has a safe environment.

I advocate having a friendly talk with his teacher and simply share that you feel your family’s priorities have gotten out of whack and that your son will be pulling back from nearly all homework except for reading nightly and studying for tests or special projects. Say you appreciate her working with you on this, but that you’ve noticed an uptick in your son’s stress level and anxiety, and have spoken with an expert (ha, that’s me:) about the need for more downtime for his well-being. Then stick with it.

You can break up the 90 minutes of play, but I wouldn’t take it away as a punishment–he needs it like he needs water and food and sleep. Use timers, give him ownership of his schedule, and relax about getting it all done every day. He’s 9, and needs to have time to be a kid.

All We Need Is Love?

Note: On the fourth Tuesdays, I’m starting a new blog series on the Fruit of the Spirit, taking us through the nine character traits and applying that to raising kids.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22-23 (ESV)

The world is in love with love, and not just around Valentine’s Day either. The idea that if we just had enough love, everything would be okay isn’t a new one. People have been thinking that for centuries.

We also tend to think of love as strictly a feeling. That means, if we don’t feel in love, we’re not in love. We enjoy the feeling of being in love, but that feeling isn’t the most reliable. It can lead us astray, can cause untold trouble, and can break up marriages and families.

Jesus taught us the true meaning of love in his reply to the question of which was the greatest commandment: “Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:28-31 (ESV)

That kind of love is more than a feeling—it’s an active, living and breathing love. How can we teach our children the true meaning of love like that? Here are a few thoughts.

Show them love. Kids need to see an active love, so while telling them we love them is important, so is showing them we love them. That means fixing their favorite meals, listening with our full attention, going to see them play or perform, allowing them to invite friends over, spending one-on-one time with them on a regular basis, and giving them hugs frequently.

Correct them when they do wrong. An active love also isn’t afraid to correct the loved one. Some parents have a hard time with discipline because they think if they punish a child for misbehavior, the child will interpret that as the parents not loving them. But proper, effective discipline can’t exist without love.

Love your spouse. We can’t get so immersed in the daily tasks of raising kids to forget to love our spouse in an active, vibrant way. Our kids should see us get mushy with our husbands or wives. Our kids should know without a doubt how much mom and dad love each other. Seeing that married love played out in technicolor in their living room and around the dinner table will go a long way to showing kids what real love looks like.

Talk about what loves means. True love isn’t easy. It isn’t here today and gone tomorrow. It’s persevering through the tough times. It’s overcoming heartache and misery. It’s forgiving and letting go. It’s mercy and grace. Helping kids to understand the many facets of love will help them learn to identify the real thing from the many imitations they will encounter.

All we do need is love—true, active love.

Anxiety and Anger: A Deadly Combination

Q: My nine-year-old son is experiencing anxiety and anger. My husband and I follow a traditional style of parenting—we are firm, have high standards for behavior, and are very loving. I believe our son ‘s anxiety is primarily due to two factors: health (his severe peanut allergy and allergies to dogs/cats that exclude or limit his freedom) and time management (the stress of lot of homework and regular daily chores). He is frustrated because even after working really hard all day before school, at school, and after school, he has only about 30 minutes of free time each day. He does not participate in any after-school activities but comes straight home, empties his backpack, eats a snack, and gets started on homework.

I’ve made him an after-school/evening schedule to help him stay on track without me hovering over him. When he dawdles, he gets very overwhelmed and angry with himself. We have purchased a punching bag for him to hit when he gets this way.

He is a very perceptive boy with a tremendous desire to learn. He loves to read the Bible and is developing a close relationship with the Lord. Several weeks ago, he was extra upset and told me something that stopped me in my tracks. He said that Satan is telling him to do really bad things to himself, like kill himself. I was very alarmed but I did my best to not show it. I want him to feel that he can tell me what is on his mind. The very next day we started to have nightly family devotional time. We also began memorizing Scripture as a family in an effort to fill his mind with God’s Word.

At this point, we are not sure what to do. I don ‘t want to overreact to my son’s comment about Satan but I don’t want to ignore a cry for help either. I am becoming hesitant to discipline him out of fear that he’ll get mad at himself, then hurt himself badly. He has allergy testing each year and knows that even eating 1/200th of a peanut (so small you can hardly see it) could cause life-threatening anaphylaxis. That is a lot of stress for a third-grader. I am concerned that he might get so angry one day and do something horrible….like eat part of a peanut (they are all over the place at school lunchtime). He is very responsible with his allergy and knows not to eat anything that I don’t provide for him but he is still a nine-year-old boy and could easily have flawed judgment.

I would sincerely appreciate your thoughts.

A: Thank you for sharing your heart with us. I can tell from your letter that you love him very much. He’s blessed to have such a caring mother, one who wants the best for her son. I think it’s wonderful that his comment spurred you to start having regular family devotions. That’s such an important part of his growing faith—and yours, too. Memorizing Scripture can be key to keeping negative thoughts at bay as well, so keep pressing on with that as well.

You have a couple of issues going on here, so let’s tackle the one that spooked you the most: his comment about Satan telling him to do bad things. He’s 9, he’s a third grader, and he’s super-stressed—those are your words. He’s probably saying Satan “told him” because he doesn’t fully understand how thoughts work. He didn’t want to think those things—they probably just popped into his head, like they do you and I at odd times. But he’s young and stressed, so he’s not able to realize that random thoughts happen to everyone.

So here’s what I suggest. Have a series of short conversations (don’t want to overwhelm the kid with a long-drawn out one that won’t make as much of an impact as several short ones will) in which you talk about random thoughts, how they pop into your mind and what to do about them. Then remind him, using Scripture, that Satan can’t reside in the same body as someone who loves Jesus. That’s not possible. Finally, wrap up with encouraging him to quote Bible verses and pray whenever thoughts that like come into his mind again. He can tell you and you can pray together.

Now as to his schedule. He has a lot on his plate, and frankly, I’m a little alarmed that a third grader has so much homework every night, that he can only have half an hour of free time. No wonder he’s stressed to the max. Last year, my third grader had NO homework most nights, and my fourth grader (same kid, a year older), rarely has homework either.

Your son has a very important job at this age—and that’s to play. Play is essential to keeping his stress very low, and it builds his immunity, gives him an outlet for his anxiety and also helps him solve problems through role playing and social interactions. He needs less schoolwork and more play time. Seriously, I’d stop with the regimented homework routine and implement free form play time every single day for at least 90 minutes, outside for much of that if possible. Have a conversation with his teacher about his not doing homework for the rest of the year. And if this is par for the course at this school, I’d move him or homeschool if possible for the rest of the year. He’s in third grade and it appears he has more homework than my ninth grader (who has more than half an hour of free time each night, even taking into account a later bedtime).

If you implement more free time and less structure, I think you can safely discipline him without worrying about self-harm, as long as you see no other signs (such as depression, not being himself, etc.).

Set Dating Ground Rules Early

By Mary L. Hamilton

The first week of sixth grade, a girl invited my son to see a movie with her and another couple. “It’s not a date,” my son argued. I countered that while he may not think of it as that, any girl bold enough to ask him to a movie is definitely thinking of it as a date. And no, he could not accept this invitation.

I well remember my own desire to date in junior high school. I’d struck up a friendship with an older boy who rode my bus. I was 14 when he asked me out, and felt deeply flattered that a boy three years older than me found me attractive and mature enough to date.

With my best friend beside me for moral support, I worked up the courage to ask my parents if I could go out with him. In spite of my begging, pleading and crying, their answer was a firm no. I was not allowed to date anyone until I turned 16. My parents made a couple exceptions for special occasions like the homecoming dance, but otherwise, they held firm to their convictions.

I am so thankful they did! Once I entered high school, I saw more of the boy who had asked me out. I noticed how others perceived him, and how his character played out in everyday life at school. It didn’t take me long to realize he wasn’t exactly the type of boy I wanted to date. Along with the difference in our ages, we had little in common. It’s amazing how a couple years can change one’s understanding and perspective, especially in the teen years.

With that in mind, my husband and I established these rules for dating that worked well to ease our three children into the realm of dating.

  1. We acknowledged that special feelings for the opposite sex are normal and to be expected, but we emphasized that our emotions are not dependable as they tend to change often. At this stage, it’s best to work on being friends without the pressure of being boyfriend/girlfriend. Find activities to do in large groups where you can observe how the person behaves and interacts with others. Learn what interests you have in common. Focus on being friends by learning how to talk and be kind to each other.
  2. No one of the opposite sex is allowed inside the house while parents are not home. And when we were home, there was no hanging out in the bedroom, even with the door open. I explained that I trusted them now, but if they made a habit of entertaining a boyfriend or girlfriend in their bedroom, some day, some time, the temptation would become too great. I wanted to help them avoid those unintended, and sometimes wanted, consequences.
  3. Our school’s end-of-year 8th grade dance served as a marker. From that point on, the kids were allowed to group date, meaning there had to be at least five people in the group.
  4. At the age of 15, our children were allowed to double date, which meant they could go out with another couple.
  5. At 16, we permitted single dates. However, unless they were at a school-sponsored function or we knew the parents of the home where they were staying, they had to be home by midnight. The old saying, “Nothing good happens after midnight” is still true.

With social media and the sexualization of younger and younger children, the pressure to date is happening earlier all the time. Set your guidelines and rules ahead of time, and stick with them. Kids don’t know how vulnerable they are to situations they may not be mature enough to handle. Stand firm as their protector. In the end, you’ll both be glad you did.

About Mary L. Hamilton
Mary L. Hamilton is the author of The Rustic Knoll Bible Camp series for middle grade and YA readers. Her newest release, Pendant, is a cozy mystery that appeals particularly to women. She and her husband are enjoying the empty nest now that their three kids are grown. Their favorite date is heading to a nearby lake to watch the sunset.

The Defiant

Q: We have an 11-yr-old son who is disobedient and defiant. He simply won’t do what he is told. He is chronically late getting ready for school, often telling us he isn’t going (6th grade private school), as well as many other things. He has had all privileges taken away (extracurricular activities, computer, time with friends). Do you have any suggestions regarding his getting ready for school? My husband has to take him and his sister to school before going to work. It often puts him in a position of being late for work.

A: The wonderful, wacky world of tweens. One minute, they’re little kids, the other, they’re acting like teenagers. It can be infuriating to have a kid who can’t get moving in the morning, can’t it? And tweens start wanting to sleep in more, which can make waking them up harder.

You don’t say how much sleep he gets, but I would move his bedtime to no later than 8:45 p.m. He might want to stay up later, but he still needs at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night.

For the morning, have him make a list of everything he has to do to get ready for school. Examples include: get dressed, eat breakfast, brush teeth, get shoes/coat on, get backpack ready, and any morning chores (feed an animal, make a bed, wash dishes, make lunch, etc.). Now look at that list and see what he can do the night before. If he has trouble getting dressed, perhaps he lays out his clothes before bed. If he gets bogged down making breakfast, he can get the bowl, spoon, glass and cereal out on the counter before bed. That sort of thing.

Then use a kitchen timer set at 10 minute increments to prod him along. Give him the list so he can check off his morning duties, and tell him he has 10 minutes for each or something like that. Then instead of telling him what to do, simply set the timer. When it goes off, he needs to be on to the next task.

This will take some training and patience on your part, but you need to shift the responsibility onto your son’s shoulders. If he makes your husband late to work, then he should have a consequence, like directly to bed after supper that day.

One final thing: instead of saying to your son, “It’s time to do X,” simply tell him that he needs to do the next thing on his list. That helps you to step back from micromanaging and helps him learn to manage his own tasks.

Teen Chaos

Q: I have a 17 year old, a 15 year old and a 13 year old all whom believe life completely and utterly revolves around them. The oldest (boy) refuses to look for work and has let his learners license expire, so he could not finish his driver’s education class nor ask us to allow him to drive. We even offered and he refused. Has to be reminded to do his laundry and his chores on a daily basis. He gets angry over anything especially when he is corrected.

The 15 year old does not want to come out of her room unless she is made to, only puts partial effort into doing her chores or does very little. The 13 year old is starting to show disrespect as well as only half an effort in the chores.

We are not the parents that run our kids to all kind of extracurricular activities, so they are not involved in any. I don’t let friends come over very often (I have 3 teenagers I don’t like at times—why would I want to add someone else’s teenager??).

For restrictions, I’ve kicked them out of the garden (for an explanation of how this works, visit the discipline methods section of my website). However, short of clothes, none of these kids have anything to take away. We have even gave them a limited personal supply of towel (2) and wash cloth (3) with the kids having their own color so I know who has left the mess in the bathroom. I’m not sure what to do from here. These kids don’t have cell phones, tablets, video games etc. I threw the last video game in the trash a year ago. And no electronics. Any advice is welcome!

A: Ah, teenagers! They can be vexing creatures, can’t they? I see a couple of things to address in your question.

First, why on earth would you not want to have your teen’s friends over? To me, this is a golden opportunity to gauge just who your teen is hanging out with and also to see how your teen interacts with his or her friends. Is she a leader? A follower? Is he trying too hard to be liked? these interactions viewed from afar can provide a parent with important clues as to your teen’s emotional and mental health. Yes, I know that’s more teens in your house, but you have them such a short time as teens that I think you’ll miss them when they’ve flown the coop. So I implore you to reconsider your stance and start encouraging your teens to have friends over.

Second, by your description, I see that you’ve basically stripped down their lives to the bare minimum…and it sounds like this has been going on for a while. Since you haven’t seen a corresponding lift in attitude, I’m going to surmise that your teens have given up on pleasing you. My gut reaction is that you’re expecting too much from them and they can’t deliver, so they’ve stopped trying.

We never want our kids to feel like they have no hope, no way to get better. If we nitpick on their attitude all the time, then we can create an atmosphere of hopelessness that leads to despair and not caring. That’s the most likely reason for them not “improving” despite your restrictions.

While I applaud your not giving them electronics/screen time, I think things have gone too far in the other direction. I also sense from your tone that you’ve lost a connection with your teens, that you’re so focused on correcting their attitude/behavior, you’ve let slide your relationship with them as their mom.

We have to love our kids, show that love in tangible ways that speak to their particular love language. When we skip that and focus only on the correction, our kids start to not care about straightening up. So here’s what I think you should do.

Return all their stuff. Have a family meeting. Tell them you’ve been too focused on outward compliance and you want to hit the restart button. Ask them to come up with a chore chart for the family, for example. Then start showing them love. Cook their favorite meals. listen more than you talk to them. Show up with a smile at their events or games or concerts. Ask about their friends. Rebuild that connection.

And if they’re doing their chores, let their attitude slide for now. You have some repair work to do, but I think you’ll find it worth it.

March Parenting Thought of the Month: Should kids have credit cards?

A new survey found that the number of children between the ages of 8 and 14 with a credit card has quadrupled over the past year. A recent survey found that the number of 13 and 14 year olds carrying credit cards has jumped twofold in the past year.

“While it might be shocking to hear that so many preteens and young teenagers have credit cards, since they can’t open them on their own, in most cases parents are opening cards with them,” Kimberly Palmer, a credit card expert for NerdWallet.com, told Newsday. “If parents use that opportunity to talk about how credit cards work, how to avoid debt and how to budget, then it’s a great learning opportunity and will help them graduate to using credit cards responsibly after they leave home.”

But handing a kid a credit card isn’t the best way to teach impressionable minds about money management. For many kids, holding coins and bills in their hands, then spending those same dollars and coins for something tangible is what helps them to figure out what money means.

We need that basic connection to money—the feel and heft of it in our hands, the “pain” of handing it over to someone else for something you want, and the saving up to buy something special. With credit cards, you bypass all of that in an instant.

Want to teach your kids how to avoid debt and how to budget? Then give them an allowance and don’t let them have carte blanche access to your credit cards. We give each of our four children a weekly allowance with only one string attached: they must give at least a five cents each week in the church offering. Here’s some common scenarios and how we’ve handled them.

Scenario one: Child wants something at the store but forgot their cash at home. We grill them on how much the item costs and will occasionally buy it for them, but demand immediate payment when arriving at home.

Scenario two: Teen wants something online. We either make them pay us in cash before hitting the “buy” button or they can purchase an Amazon or iTunes gift card at a store with cash to use for online purchases. Either way, they must ask permission before hitting send—we’ve stressed that we have the right to confiscate any item ordered to return if permission wasn’t granted ahead of ordering it.

Scenario three: Child wants something but doesn’t have enough saved to buy it. We make them wait until they have cash in hand. For one of our daughters, that meant more than a year of saving.

What do these three scenarios teach your child about money? That it comes with a cost. That saving takes discipline and commitment—and you really have to want something to save for months before buying it. And that ordering online with a credit card is exactly the same thing as paying in cash.

However you teach your kids about money, using cold, hard cash is always better than plastic.

 

Figuring Out Screen Time Limits

Q: My husband and I disagree on how much video time the children can have. I don’t think it’s appropriate on school nights, even if they get their chores/homework done. My husband thinks it has been a good motivator, but I worry that will wear off eventually. How can I present my case to my husband?

A: This is a question that comes up quite frequently. Often, too, like your own household, the husband and wife disagree about how much screen time a child should have. Even when the parents are on the same page, finding a way to enforce set screen time rules can drive them crazy.

Let’s first talk about why screen time should be limited at all. You don’t mention the ages of your kids, so I’m guessing they’re in elementary school since you didn’t mention having smartphones. I think this quote from The Big Disconnect says it best: “For every minute or hour your child spends on screens or other digital diversions, he or she is not engaged in healthful, unstructured, creative play. When they’re engaged on screens, as social as it may be in one sense, they are not outside with other kids, taking in the day, relaxing and chatting, inventing games, and interacting directly—or arguing face-to-face, debating fairness directly, not via a game or headset. They are not running around, shooting hoops, and skateboarding, developing coordination and physical strength. Yes, they may be learning some computer skills and online etiquette (such as it is), but the issue is what they are not learning, the loss of which undermines healthy development. They are not learning how to deal with the frustration of real forts crumbling and block towers falling, of having to rethink and start over again. They are not alone with themselves, learning to be comfortable with solitude, with their own thoughts, with no alternative but to let their mind wander and drift, explore, discover, feel.”

Screen time in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad, but screen time does limit your child’s ability to think, be bored (which often spurs creativity) and to entertain themselves. (Note: looking at a screen is not the same thing as entertaining oneself!) These are essential to any child’s well-being, but especially in the elementary years where playing helps kids learn social cues, interactions and how the world works. Video games don’t do any of that.

Now we’ll tackle why screen time (or any “reward”) is a good motivator for behavior. You hit on this yourself with your worry that it will eventually stop working. That’s just it—rewards can appear to work because the child excitedly does his homework and is rewarded with 20 minutes of video game time as a result. But what happens when the child gets tired of playing for only 20 minutes? He’ll want more game time. Or you get tired of checking if his homework is done. Or you don’t have a good system for monitoring how long he’s been playing. Or he might decide he’d rather skip the video gaming because he doesn’t want to do his homework.

Rewards tied specifically to a certain behavior or chore work in the short term, but the parent is always upping the ante (giving bigger rewards to achieve the same result) or the child perceives he has a choice to NOT do the chore or behave because he doesn’t want the reward. That’s an external motivator that has little impact on the child’s internal motivator (conscience).

So what to do about video games in your household? I’d recommend an easier approach, one that allows for some game time but eliminates a rewards system. This is one that we practice in our own home to good results. Talk with your husband about how many minutes of screen time per week he things your kids should be allowed—no conditions, just a number of minutes.

But don’t simply tell the kids, “You have 90 minutes of screen time a week” and let them pick which days. That just sets you up to be the time police. Believe me, you don’t want to go there! Here’s what we do instead. We have a sign displayed right next to the computers that lists each child’s name and the screen time allotment. I’ve posted it below to give you an idea as to what I mean. For our two teenagers, we’ve simply noted the times the computer will be available to them, which has made life much simpler.

S age 9/M age 11

  • 20 minutes a week when school’s in session
  • 20 minutes twice a week during vacation or school breaks
  • Must ask Mom or Dad to use the time and must use a timer to mark the time.

L age 13/8th grade

  • After school until 5 p.m.
    • 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
    • Friday evening: 7:00 p.m. to 9 p.m.
  • Weekends/School Break Days/Summer
    • 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
    • 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.

N age 15/9th grade

  • After school until 5 p.m.
    • 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
    • Friday evening: 7:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
  • Weekends/School Break Days/Summer
    • 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.
    • 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

One final thought—it’s much easier to add more time than it is to subtract time, so start out with about half of what you think they should have each week.