by Jeanne Williams


“As you turn off the TV, turn on the interaction. Social connection bolsters the skills that minimize ADD’s impact. So have family meals often, read aloud together, play board games, go outside and shoot hoops or throw a Frisbee — play, play, play.”
Ned Hallowell, MD - Author, Driven to Distraction


TV’s, video games, computers – what did our kids do before those were around? And more to the point, what did parents do without those great babysitting devices?
When a child is playing make believe (remember cops and robbers?), climbing a tree, or drawing a picture, their brain is having to figure things out, plan ahead, and solve problems. When the same child is watching TV, very little problem solving is going on, other than should I get up for more chips at this commercial, or can I wait until the show’s over. The activities of childhood (games, make-believe, physical activity, and more) all contribute to a large and healthy growth of brain cells that in turn contribute to important adult skills and abilities, like problem solving, planning for the future, empathizing with others, and much more. But we seem to be raising a whole generation of children whose brains are not developing to their fullest potential, all because of the lure of the screen.

It is hard to limit screen time, though, when “all the other kids” are spending so much of their free time in front of one screen or another. The simplest thing to do is just to set a time limit. Half an hour on weekdays, and two hours a day on weekends (for example – you come up with your own numbers). A lot of kids honestly don’t know what to do with the leftover time, however. One creative way to limit your child’s screen time, and encourage healthy activities when they are “off-screen,” is to have them earn their screen time. This is how it worked with my own boys (two sons and a foster son).

First, a few definitions: I explained to my boys that certain activities have the same affect on your brain as healthy food has on your body – these activities will help your brain grow strong and healthy. These would include sports or other physical activity, playing outside, drawing, reading, playing a musical instrument, making a craft ... anything that is creative. On the other hand, screen time is more like "dessert" - it really doesn't help your brain, and could be bad for it if it's all you do. So just like we do have dessert, but only after we've had plenty of healthy food first, they can also have screen time, but only after they have had enough healthy activities.

Now for the deal: The boys can earn their screen time by doing certain approved activities. I made it a 2 for 1 exchange (1 hour of an approved activity gets you 1/2 hr. of screen time, etc.) You could make whatever exchange you want - 1-1 may be less overwhelming, more acceptable, and easier for some kids to understand. And I made a list of approved activities (even though the possibilities are really endless), so it was easy to choose from. With our foster son especially, I found that the choice was helpful - instead of my imposing one particular thing, the fact that he had to freedom to choose from the list gave him a sense of control, and more buy-in to the idea. He still complained loudly and bitterly, and often chose to do absolutely nothing rather than earn any screen time - but we left that choice to him. And over time, we found that he would get involved in his "healthy" activity and discover that some of these things were actually fun. I think eventually he developed to where he felt like he was getting away with something - by having fun (riding his bike, or playing ball hockey outside, or playing a board game) he could also be earning screen time. But we could never have told him that - he had to discover it for himself.

There are several ways to keep track of the time - you can just keep track of it yourself - or you can use something like pennies or bingo chips and 2 jars per child - put all the chips in one jar, and each one represents 1 unit of healthy activity (let’s say an hour). When the child completes an hour of healthy activity, you or the child moves it to the other jar, and that way you both know how much time is saved up. (in the second jar, the same chip would represent 1/2 hour of screen time, if you are using the 2-1 ratio). When the child watches a half hour of TV, the chip goes back into the first jar. Nothing that the kids do in school counts, by the way, and neither does homework. You can decide whether time earned is transferable to another day, or has to be re-earned each day. You want to find a balance between helping your child to discover the joys of off-screen activities, and allowing them to actually enjoy a little “dessert” for the brain.
If you have other creative ideas for helping children to enjoy time “off screen,” send them to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., and I just might post them here!


© 2008 by Jeanne Williams

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