This seems so logical. “Do your homework for 30 minutes then I will allow you to game for 30 minutes.” Seems like a good idea, right?
As a mom, you know that reward systems work, and when you find one that works so well for your son, you feel successful as a parent. It is a wonderful thing to find something that is so motivating for your son and that makes him so happy. It seems like a win-win. You tell him that he can’t play his game until his homework, chores, or piano practice is done. But beware, chances are your smart little boy (or big boy) will figure out how to rush through his homework, practice and chores in world record time so he can get to his game. Your clever reward system may encourage him to cut corners and do sloppy work. It may not happen right away, but if your son has a problem with gaming overuse, chances are that he will change his mindset around everything else he does and will put gaming first and most important in his mind and life. Kids who play video games excessively are generally very smart, are fast learners and are lured by the intricate challenges of the game. Gaming can cause some to struggle in school but many can still get by in school with minimum effort and do pretty well. Statistics show that kids who game typically have lower grades, meaning that they are not using their full potential for their school work if they are gaming too much.1 (Skoric) They may not be failing, but they are not reaching their full potential.
The second reason why using gaming for a reward is not smart is that it sends a strong message to your son that gaming is very valuable; after all, if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be the reward. You are actually reinforcing the very thing that you are trying to cut back on by making it the prize to be “won.” Perhaps a better reward would be one that involved spending time with the family or a parent. The reward for getting homework or chores done or for practicing piano for five days this week will be an outing with dad to get frozen yogurt this weekend. Or you can try a long term (two- to four-week) goal with the reward being a trip to the local sporting event or other family favorite outing. You spending more non-electronic time with your child is what he really wants and needs in the long run.
The third problem is that if he is truly more excited about gaming than other activities then he may want to quit other beneficial activities. If he is putting his prime time creative efforts into gaming, he may not develop the other areas to his best abilities and more potential will be lost. He may eventually want to drop out of sports and clubs to make more room in his schedule for the ultimate prize: the game. He may not want to pursue the extra credit or go for the “A,” run for a school office, or try out for a part in the school play. The distraction of the game will begin to replace these other opportunities. Remember, it is a trade: game time replaces other activities; we only have 24 hours in a day. Childhood is a time to discover many different interests. If you are not careful, your child may say that gaming is his first, second and third most favorite thing to do.
Fourth, when gaming is always in the background it can keep him from pouring himself into another activity. Just like it is rare for a child to be able to concentrate on homework if the TV is on in the room, it is also rare for a game lover to focus on harder hobbies when the thoughts of the game are dancing in his head. Everything gets compared to the game: running track is hard work and it hurts, playing in the chess club is slow and boring, playing on the baseball team is hard because it is embarrassing when he doesn’t hit the ball. Nothing is quite as thrilling as the digital game where he can be the star, the leader, and the king of his pretend world. When the game is the reward, he dreams about escaping the real world and getting one more level in the game world.
Finally, if you are having to use gaming as the reward, chances are that you are already out of balance. Your son should have at least three other hobbies or activities that he enjoys equally with gaming if the gaming is balanced. That is 25% for each activity. You should be able to say, “Get your homework done and you can go shoot hoops, or go outside or go play your guitar.” If your son is not getting his homework done because he is gaming instead, it may mean that the game distraction has reached an unhealthy level. It is hard to serve two masters well. One way to know if you are out of balance is to take the game completely away for two weeks or a month and see how he reacts. This means all digital games. If it is not out of balance, he will be fine with a sabbatical from the game. If he is crushed and acts like his world is falling apart then it is time to help him put his world back together with things that will build a strong foundation.
As a mom, it is not your job to completely control your child. But it is your job to be involved, educated, and aware of what your child is being exposed to. Set structure in your child’s life that will set him on a path for success. Because his frontal cortex is not fully developed till he is 25, he does not have the ability to regulate his choices perfectly. What you allow to be the “prize” in his life will naturally rise above other activities. So be careful the next time you use the game as a reward: there is a lot more to this reward system then you may think.
1. Marko M. Skoric, Linda Lay Ching Teo, and Rachel Lijie Neo. CyberPsychology & Behavior. October 2009, 12(5): 567-572. doi:10.1089/cpb.2009.0079.