by Deborah Godfrey
The average teenager watches 7.5 hours of television, video games, computer every day. This is a horrifying number, in my opinion. While TV can be educational, most of what the children watch when left to their judgment is certainly not educational.
Most of you that have taken my class know that I haven't had television for over 9 years. That is, I have no cable with stations and such. I do have a TV with a VCR and we have a library of videos and rent movies all the time. We also play many board games. Three years ago, we bought a PlayStation. In addition, we have a wide variety of games that play on the computer, some educational, some not. I have many of the same fights over these forms of media that families with cable have over programs that the kids are watching. Over the years I have come up with some strategies for handling the fighting and excessive use of these toys. Setting limits on video games became a struggle that I took seriously and had many successes and challenges.
One of the problems is that kids ignore parents when they are watching TV. They forget to eat, clean up after themselves, do their chores and play. Parents nag, kids ignore, the battle rages everyday in this manner.
The key to taking back control of the media in your home is to make agreements ahead of time - before the TV/computer ever goes on. There should be a clear agreement that spells out the limits and rules about the use of the game. When a new "Spiro" game comes out on PlayStation, my kids will fight for days (if no agreements are made) over who gets to play. The rule we have is that they must make a schedule before they turn it on. They have to agree who plays, for how long and even write down exactly what time each will play. They all have to sign it, as if it's a contract. Here's what it might look like:
Who gets to be on Play Station:
The first agreement is that they must do this before they turn on the game. The second agreement is that they make a detailed schedule of who plays and when. It must be hung up on the refrigerator. That way, if I think one kid is over the limit, or if there is a fight over whose turn it is, I can simply refer to the schedule. If they do not adhere to their agreement, than the game is off for the day. I have found this routine to be a great way to keep myself out of the battles and for the kids to work out their issues with each other.
With television, you can set limits in a similar manner. Sit down with the family on Sunday when the TV Guide arrives. Make a chart with the programs that each will watch, make sure to have the TV off at all other times. One mom I know also includes a "NO TV" night every week.
It is also helpful to make an agreement about what needs to happen before turning on the TV or video game. For example, my son likes to get up early and play. The agreement is that he has to be fully ready for school before he turns on the computer. It is spelled out in the agreement that he needs to get dressed, eat breakfast, brush his teeth and make his lunch. After just a few weeks of following through with the consequences, he learned to get everything finished before turning on the games.
The most important factor for the agreement to work is consistent follow through. Make sure that you stay involved with the kids, both in the agreement-making phase and while they are playing. Make sure that they adhere to the schedule. Follow through with the consequences with a kind and firm attitude. "It's a bummer that the PlayStation is off for the rest of the day". Don't give in to their pleading or promises.
The giving in is what undermines our authority. The children come to believe that if they make promises to behave better, then we will give in. They typically forget in a rather short period of time and we become exhausted and angry that they are not keeping their end of the bargain. However, if we have agreed that the TV will go off if the agreement is not kept, and then we give in to a "bargain" we are showing our children that bargains do not necessarily have to be kept. This is why the battle goes on and on.
During the training period of implementing a new agreement (usually 2-4 weeks) it is very important to maintain complete consistency and follow-through. Being flexible should not be an option during the training phase of the agreement. Flexibility is crucial in parenting, and there is a time and place for it. The time for flexibility is not while helping children learn a new routine. Once a new routine is established, then you can become more flexible if you think that is appropriate. My experience has led me to believe that too much flexibility with routines leads to misbehaving kids. It's better to maintain consistency with agreements and be flexible with issues that come up "in the moment". That is just my experience.
With some work and effort initially, making agreements with the kids and creating a plan for follow-through, you can avoid so many of the headaches you face on a daily basis, fighting over the excessive TV watching or fights over the TV. Start today, making a family routine that brings order and sanity to your home!
(*note...I wrote this article in 2001, so while the media our kids are using has changed, my ideas for setting limits has not! Please read and substitute whatever form of electronic entertainment you kids over-use for TV, and try the ideas accordingly...)