This week I am responding to a member question:

My son spends lots of time playing video games, which tends to get in the way of his studying time. How can I motivate him to study more and manage his time better?

This is a question I get often. It is even more common now in this pandemic when kids cannot socialize. One of the attractions of gaming is that it is competitive. Kids compete against each other or against a standard. Kids love competing. They want to say that they are the best at something. They have an innate need to gain mastery, progression, achievement and growth according to Drs. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan. Gaming provides that need.

Kids also want freedom and control. Unfortunately, school provides just the opposite. Kids are trapped in controlled Zoom classrooms or in teacher-directed classrooms all day. Kids cannot speak out when they want. The teacher controls their microphone. Gaming gives them freedom and control. Studying does not; it is responding to the control of the teacher. Kids need to know why they are studying, instead of blindly following rules.

Parents are worried that it is dangerous for their kids' brains to play video games. A study done at Oxford University by Dr. Andrew Przybylski showed that playing games one hour per day made kids feel happier and enhanced their psychological well being. Gaming in moderation is okay. Moderation is important in life, not just in gaming. An hour per day is good but over two hours is too much. Signs of excessive gaming and addiction include:

  • Thinking about gaming during other activities
  • Gaming to escape from real-life problems, anxiety, or depression
  • Lying to friends and family to conceal gaming
  • Feeling irritable when trying to cut down on gaming

Most kids are not addicted, but parents worry if kids game for even an hour. How can we help kids to understand the need for moderation?

#1 Set a schedule together

Collaboratively come up with the amount of time that your child can video game. The key word here is collaborative. Work with them. Don’t be a dictator, but a collaborator. Kids tend to follow the rules when they help create them. So do adults.

#2 Provide a reward for practicing moderation

Try providing a reward for following their schedule. For little kids it can be something like a gummy bear. For older kids, it should be something more substantial like an object they want, a visit to a friend they want to see, or a small amount of money. They need some kind of reward so they see a correlation between their behavior and reaching their goal. In the beginning you are offering external rewards, just to get them started, but as time goes on just believing in them is the reward itself.

Once you establish this self control pattern of behavior, kids will learn to do it themselves. This is a gift for the 21st century where there are so many temptations, so many things to do. What you are trying to do is to establish behavior patterns so your child will be inner directed, not outer directed.

The foundation of self control is trust, as I detail in my book How to Raise Successful People. Parents who are responsive to a child’s needs foster trust. When your infant cries and you respond by picking them up, they learn to trust their ability to get your attention by crying. They trust that you will respond and they trust themselves to be able to get your attention.

Parents who do not respond build a sense of fear into their kids and since they have no other way to get your attention, they cry even more intensely. Infants whose needs are not met tend to grow into kids who feel out of control, stressed and anxious.

How does this apply to gaming?

When you trust your child to self monitor their gaming, they feel a sense of self control and respect. Subconsciously they are saying to themselves, “My mommy/daddy trusts me and s/he believes I can do it.”  When someone believes in you, you tend to believe in yourself. It is simple and powerful. If they fail the first few times, do not give up. It is a learning process and can take time. One of the most important attributes of a good teacher or parent is patience.

Parents who don’t get overly upset when something goes wrong, who know how to calm themselves, who show patience, will provide an important model for their children. One of the most important things you can do to help your kids learn good self monitoring skills is by modeling them yourself. As I say in my book, kids don’t do as you say, they do as you do.