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We have a moderately strict rule about electronics time at the house -- as long as their homework, chores, or other responsibilities are finished, each kid gets to play a computer or video game for an hour plus watch TV/movies for an hour. We also have an "electronic-free" day every week, where nobody (not even parents) uses the TV or computer. This has so far worked quite well for the nine-year-old. However, we're running into trouble with the five-year-old.

When he's told his time is up and the game needs to turn off, or the TV show is over and it's time to do something else, he gets angry and throws a tantrum. Generally this includes denying that the right amount of time has passed (even though we use a timer), claiming that he wasn't paying attention, insisting that he didn't have a good time and so he should get to start over -- the excuses are often fairly creative, come to think of it. He's not picky about games -- whether it's the computer, my phone, even a random stranger's iPad, he will ask to play with it and get angry if he can't.

He can play happily with blocks, cars, legos, dirt and sticks, and other things, but when he's focused on getting back to a computer game, he insists there's nothing enjoyable besides the computer game. He doesn't perceive it as fun unless there's a battery or power cord. Should I worry about this, and/or try to channel his enthusiasm in a different direction?

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We addressed the "addiction" part of your question previously, but I wanted to talk about the behavior part. First, you shouldn't expect it to be as easy for your five year-old as it is for your nine year-old. Nine year-olds live a lot less "in the moment" compared to five year-olds, have developed more interests, and have learned more coping strategies for not getting what they want. Different kids also have different interest levels in any given activity. Giving them the same limits isn't necessarily fair.

As for the behavior, I would start by setting the timer for 5 or 10 minutes early, to give him some warning and time to prepare, instead of an abrupt end when he's "in the zone."

It also gives you an opportunity to tie his behavior to his desired reward. If he reacts badly to the warning, he doesn't get the last 10 minutes. If he reacts properly, you can reward him with more time in an hour, provided he doesn't mope around during that hour. That gives him a clear path to get what he wants, which is more game time, and if he doesn't, it's his fault instead of yours.

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Great idea to set the timer for a reminder instead of for the hard deadline! And you even built in a meaningful reward system. Brilliant. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 3 '13 at 7:56
    
+1 for the reminder. Having that built-in prep makes things so much easier for a 5-year-old. You can even take that 5-10 minutes and say, "Can I help you get to a stopping place?" –  Meg Coates Apr 4 '13 at 14:28
    
I like the approach -- hopefully he will, too! :) Thanks! –  Erica Apr 5 '13 at 17:39
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Generally this includes denying that the right amount of time has passed (even though we use a timer), claiming that he wasn't paying attention, insisting that he didn't have a good time and so he should get to start over --

Have you tried to get a timer which "speaks"? I mean, for example, the total time is 60 minutes, so the clock should shout after EVERY 10 minutes, "X amount of time is left, be quick"!

I think it is possible that the child gets too immersed in the games that he actually forgets to look at the timer. Often when we are doing our favorite activities the time flies fast.

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I love this idea, I will be looking for an app that can give him reminders! :) –  Erica Apr 5 '13 at 17:39
    
@Erica: Please don't use an app. That isn't good enough. You need to be the one giving them the reminder. –  Chris Lively Jun 9 at 16:10
    
@ChrisLively Do you have a Back it Up for that? From my reading and experience, having an inanimate object that they can't argue with, but which has been given the backing of adult authority, is way better than making yourself the direct target of resistance to time warnings. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 10 at 20:20
    
@SevenSidedDie: More interaction with children is never a bad thing. I would really like to read something that says having an electronic device parent your children is way better than doing it yourself. Would you happen to have a link to that? –  Chris Lively Jun 10 at 21:06
    
@ChrisLively Please don't make an excluded middle argument, it's not helpful, and sets an impossible standard of "proof" for me to link to. Nowhere in "you can use a timer to clearly communicate time" does the assertion "the timer should parent the child" enter. As for more interaction is always better: hitting? shouting? Obviously not. If a timer results in a more peaceful interaction over a 5-minute period than otherwise, that's an unmitigated improvement in relationship. –  SevenSidedDie Jun 10 at 21:10
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We've found that giving the kids a 5 and 2 minute warning whenever the activity is changing helps make the transition much smoother. Doesn't matter if we are talking about swimming, playing outside, games or any number of other activities they just seem to be able to let go much easier when they know the change is imminent. For TV, we either allow them to watch a single episode or a single movie depending on what's going on and how much time we have.

Ultimately I think this is about building respect.

I respect them enough to let them know ahead of time when a change is coming and to allow them enough time to have a sense of completion for the activity. After all, I wouldn't want to be in the middle of something and have my wife rush in and say "stop doing that now, you must do this instead!" That just wouldn't fly.

Obviously you can't always do this. Sometimes you simply have to drop everything and go now. We've found that when we normally warn them, then making a fast transition goes much easier when it's necessary.

When picking the amount of time for an activity, pay attention to what they are doing. For example, if it normally takes 45 minutes to complete a level in a game, then perhaps that is a better amount of time to allow than an arbitrary 30 minutes.

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You shouldn't worry about what your child says about games or non-electronic toys: these statements are all attempts to see if anything works to get them more of what they want. Saying that nothing else is fun is no different than saying that they weren't paying attention—it's a test to see if it's an excuse that works. You say that he happily plays with non-electronics otherwise, so there is no reason to believe otherwise.

Children of that age are in a phase where they are exploring their own power. They have no idea what their power is, and they want more of what power they discover. Videogames offer, by design, a sense of power via independent agency, which is a form of power that very young children crave and have the least of. The fascination with the videogames is normal at that age, as is the persistent and dramatic attempts to be allowed to enjoy that agency for longer periods. Neither should be cause for concern, especially when you're not enabling habits to form that might cement the seeking behaviour beyond the normal development period of these internal motives for it.

Similarly, the testing behaviour is normal. The child is exploring their social environment to find out what is and isn't possible to get people to do, and at that age they have zero internal concern for any social consequences they cause to others through their exploration.

But! knowing all this is normal doesn't help when you're facing a tantruming child and you're approaching your last nerve. Knowing it's normal is only to help you not worry about it excessively, so that you can save the energy that might be spend on worrying and focus on spending your limited and fraying energy reserves on managing the inappropriate behaviour itself.

Different children respond differently to different structures (aka "discipline" in the overall control and self-control sense of the word, not the punishment sense only), so I can only offer what has worked with my child around videogames and what hasn't, so that you have some ideas to work with.

Things that have not worked to prevent tantrums over videogames:

  • Asking her to self-regulate time (and punishing lack of self-regulation):

    She played as long as she liked, ignoring (at the time) hypothetical consequences of not self-regulating. The actual consequences were too far removed in time from the "offense" to have a meaningful effect on behaviour, which probably felt like a nasty boom-bust cycle of fun and denial.

  • Having unregulated "fun days" (with the idea that it will "get out of her system" somewhat):

    These just resulted in worse behaviour when shifting back to the regular, regulated schedule. She looked for every social means (see "exploration" above) of making the unregulated time the norm.

  • Pre-emptive warnings that tantrums will result in withdrawal of videogame privileges:

    Pre-emptive warnings got ignored until the privilege-removal consequence was already earned, so the warnings had no preventative effect. At this age, their immediate desires are overwhelming compared to verbally-delivered hypotheticals or future events, let alone both.

Things that have worked to prevent tantrums over videogames:

  • Withdrawing videogame privileges for a day or more when "time up" is met with a tantrum:

    Note that this is different from the "didn't work" above, in that it is not pre-emptive warnings, is was simply the implementation of a known and naturally-connected consequence when tantrums happened, with an reminder of why the consequence was happening only given after the fact. Skipping the lecturing about consequences and just implementing them saved my energy and didn't allow her to assign responsibility for caring about consequences to me, which is what was happening when the consequences were primarily a verbal subject. Of course, the immediate tantrum just got worse, but it paid off in reducing and then completely eliminating them later.

  • The inevitable passage of time and the resulting increases in maturity:

    She simply got a bit older. The above point probably helped her internalise the knowledge that a poor response to "time up" resulted in withdrawal of videogame privileges, which not only reduced tantrums, but possibly gave her some practice with self-regulation. She's still only 6, yet notably better at accepting statements that the videogames aren't going anywhere and that there are other things to do. She also now actually self-regulates sometimes, turning it off before I even ask her to; that happened without me attempting to teach the idea of self-regulation verbally.

Again, children are all different. Mine is very "stubborn", in the sense that she is strongly motivated only when she has internalised the reason for doing something, or has independently discovered her own reasons for doing something. Showing rather than telling works very well for her, which can involve implementing consequences with what feels like "too little" warning, but is far more effective than giving her lots of verbal instructions that end up just being good targets for her to practice arguing techniques.

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