Setting Limits: Video Games as Rewards

“If you’re good while we’re out shopping this morning, you can use the computer when we get home.”

If you’re a parent of a child who plays video games, no doubt you are familiar with this kind of bargaining. Many parents use video games as a reward for good behavior or compliance and effort at school. It is common to encounter kids who only get to enjoy video game or other tech play after they have fulfilled certain requirements, the way dessert is reserved for after veggies have been eaten. While this approach may encourage faster completion of homework or chores, it often conveys the message that video game and technology play are merely tolerated, not viewed as opportunities for learning. In turn, homework, chores, and other obligations are cast in the same light — they are things to rush through, not activities that can bring about any real fulfillment.

While access to game play can be a powerful and useful reinforcer, I propose that parents who employ this strategy take a few things into consideration. It is important to recognize that digital play is an important facet of play for 21st century kids. In general, kids should have some opportunities for digital play regardless of behavior and homework completion, like freer access on weekends and vacations. It is also necessary to remember that content of play matters. There are some incredibly powerful games and apps for academic learning, social opportunities, and the development of thinking and social/emotional skills. Modest access to these is only beneficial to a child’s growth and development.

All of this considered, restriction from games can be a powerful consequence for kids who love technology. Starting from a schedule where children have regular access that can be revoked if homework or chores are not completed gives parents more control. Strong and clear schedules also reduces the likelihood that children will beg and whine to get their “reward.”

If you find that using video game play as a reward for good behavior is one of your most effective tools for parenting, I suggest a few alterations that can make it an excellent tool for learning and problem solving as well.

These include:

Free access (limited by the amount of time) to curated content that has clear learning potential. For example, games and apps such as Minecraft and BrainPop are good for math skills.

Make rewards cumulative so that you and your child can both keep track of her efforts for completing tasks. This can reward her with extended weekend or holiday video game time that she wouldn’t be allowed during the week.

Only count what you can control. Rewards should be based upon what happens in your house. Kids are often able to play video games at their friends’, use a smartphone for mobile games (when they are not home), or even play games at school. The video game time you allow should not take these instances into consideration.

Earn extra time. Let kids have a small amount of regular video game play so it is not seen as such a treat. Let them earn extra video game time for spending time completing chores, doing homework, or engaged in other activities of their parent’s choice.

See Limiting Children’s Screen Time Through Curation to read more about curating content. For more about game schedules as a way to limit screen time, see our setting limits post, Limiting Screen Time by Scheduling. If you want to find out how to help your child get the most out of the games she already loves to play, see our Playbooks. To read about why we advocate digital play as part of a child’s recreation time, read about Play Diets and the science behind LearningWorks for Kids.

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