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Using technology to motivate children

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About six months ago I was sitting across from my eight-year-old son, his face buried in an iPad playing Minecraft. I’d called his name about four or five times with no response, and finally I tapped his arm and said, “Are you ignoring me? Or just deaf?”

“What?” he said. “I was just playing my game.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Have you finished your homework?”

“Just let me get back to my house,” he said.

If he doesn’t get his avatar back to his house before dark zombies (or something) will attack it. But at the time, I didn’t really care about his avatar. I’d been trying to get him to do his homework for some time now. It was getting late. It was a school night. His bedtime was in 20 minutes, and he had at least that much homework to finish. So I reached out and took the iPad.

Tristan fell tummy down on the floor, arms spread wide, and cried, “Just let me get back to my house!!!”

He said it like I had actually left him, the real him, in the woods for the night. It is in moments like these that realize if I could go back in time and stop anything, it would be the creation of Minecraft. But I suppose that wouldn’t do me a whole lot of good, because he’d just want to play something else (Angry Birds, Plants Vs. Zombies…). With the influence of his friends, video games are unavoidable at this age.

Once I got him calm, and working on his homework, he stopped every couple minutes to ask if he could get his screen back before bed. And as I looked at him thinking, “If you’d just focus on your homework and not getting your screen back, you’d be done by now.”

He didn’t seem to like what I had to say. He never does.

And it was that night my wife, Mel, presented me with a new idea. We’d tried a few different methods to keep Tristan’s screen addiction under control, everything from completely taking screens away, to giving him unlimited screens once he finished a list of chores and homework. Nothing stopped his lack of will to do anything outside of playing screens that has become so common in our home.

Mel handed me a role of raffle tickets and a bulleted list of chores with times listed next to them:

  • Clean room-20 min
  • Homework-30 min
  • Vacuum- 10 min

The list went on, but you get the idea.

“The only way Tristan can get screen time is by doing something on this list, “she said. “When he does, give him a ticket with his name and time earned on it.”

When she showed it to me I thought, “This will never work.”

Mostly because nothing had ever worked before. I will admit, when we described the system to him, his legs went weak. He fell on his knees and buried his face in his hands as if we’d just delivered a death sentence.

“Why can’t I just play screens without having to do all this stupid stuff?” he asked.

“Because if we didn’t put rules on you playing screens you’d never shower or leave the house. You’d just play games.”

Tristan rolled his eyes. Then he said, “I don’t see why that’s a big deal.”

It is in moments like this that I feel like a failure as a parent. I want so badly for Tristan to grow up and be a hard working, productive adult. But it honestly feels like screens are between him and that goal. But the sad fact is I am not hard enough of a father to completely take his screens away. However, we needed someway to better control his addiction, and in the next few weeks we realized that turning his screen time into a reward that could be worked for really motivated him.

For awhile I would catch him trying to sneak in screen time here and there, but once he realized that wasn’t acceptable, he started asking this question: What can I do to earn some screens? And together we’d look at the list and find something he could work on. Sometimes we discovered things that weren’t on the list (like helping to get his little sister to bed), and then we’d negotiate an amount of minutes that seemed appropriate. After a week or two, he started saving his screen time. Banking it up as though it were a valuable thing, and I suppose to him, it was.

I’d never seen him more productive until we made this change. This is not to say that I didn’t have to monitor his time closely when he cashed in one of his screen time tickets. And he did begin to negotiate with every little thing to get more screen time. But what I will say is that if screen time were the motivator, things got done. And I suppose the really wonderful part of all this is that screen time was free to me. I wasn’t giving him money or anything. I didn’t feel bad about bribing him with extra screen time to watch his sister, or do some job I didn’t want to do.

The moment I realized that this really was making a change was when I asked Tristan to do something he and I absolutely hate doing.

“Tristan,” I said. “I will give you 20 minutes of screen time if you pick up the dog poop in the yard.”

Tristan thought about it for a moment. Then he said, “30 minutes.”

“Deal!” I said.

And as I watched my son hunched over in the front yard, a shovel in hand, I thought to myself, “The system works.”

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