Curbing Computer Time: Using Choices Within Boundaries

It started quite simply really.  Showing my son a few educational videos I found online.  Then some educational games.  Now my oldest son has become rather adept at using the computer to find his favorite games and sites, and  would gladly play all day long if he were allowed.  I’m sure there are some benefits to his new-found love: he learns some educational concepts and has some technology proficiency I suppose.  He may even have more computer know-how than his grandmother.  But I just don’t like letting him have too much computer time.  (Ironic I know, given the fact that I probably spend more time on the computer than anyone else in the house.)

Regulating the playing time was becoming a power struggle, and so I decided to go with a system that would allow my children to make their own choices within boundaries I could live with. 

We had already set some boundaries.  In our home, computer games are out on Sunday.  On the rest of the days certain responsibilities have to be taken care of first.  And obviously, we had also set some ground rules on what makes a site or game appropriate for our home and for them as children as well.  The boundary we were struggling with was the amount of time.  It seemed to fluctuate from day to day, and the inconsistency was creating a constant state of negotiations.

I finally sat down and decided how much time I could feel comfortable with my son playing on the computer each day.  (I know this doesn’t sound new yet, but hang on.)  Then, I multiplied that times six to give me a total amount of time for the week.  I broke that time down into 10 minute increments, wrote “10” on a craft stick for each increment, and then labeled two empty juice cans with “Time Spent” and “Time Saved”.  I placed a small timer by the computer and told my son that we would set the timer each time he played computer.  For every ten minutes that he played, we would move one stick from the “saved” can to the “spent” can.  He could choose how much to use each day, but once they were gone, they were gone until the first of the next week (“payday”).

This may have sounded like a risky move.  Free access to a whole week’s worth of time?  I’m sure you’re wondering, and yes, he has had a few times where he burned right through every one of his sticks in one day.  WAY too much time on the computer, right?  But the thing is, he spent the rest of the week without any time.   I had set my limits.  There would be a finite number of minutes each week and once they were gone, they were gone.  How he used them was up to him.  I would still be involved to monitor content and make sure the timer had been set and the sticks moved, but the control — and therefore the responsibility — had been moved to my son.

This system has worked better than my daily timer because I was no longer arbitrarily arguing that he had spent “too much” time the day before and mentally adjusting his alloted time for the next day.  He was now bound by his own choices.  It wasn’t about me choosing for him each day, he was the one who had that power, within the boundaries I had set.

It hasn’t taken long for my son to begin to plan out his computer time.  He often counts up his remaining sticks and the number of days left in the week and plans out how to use them.  Not bad for a little guy!

I prefer this week-long allotment over the daily timer because it has allowed him more choice and (as usually happens when you offer choices within boundariesit has taught him about so much more than just obedience.  With this system there are the monetary principles being taught like spending, saving,  the opportunity cost principle, and budgeting.  It creates a future orientation and the delay of instant gratification.  It also teaches very clearly about choice and consequence.  Who knew you could get so much return on a few craft sticks and some empty juice cans?

It may not be the best system for everyone, but for us, it has been the perfect balance of boundaries and choices.

Top photo by Jakub Krechowicz.




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