Ready for five questions that can make or break your holiday?
Okay, here’s the first one, and it’s a big one: How is your family going to handle technology during the holidays? (Insert Jaws theme music here. Or perhaps that screeching sound from the infamous Psycho scene . . . )
The minute kids get done with school, they kick into chill-out mode. They want to turn off their brains, turn on the TV, and play games. And hey, a mental break is great, and probably something most busy kids need, but it’s up to us to parent them into a healthy mental break. If we don’t want our kids and teens to disappear into a TV/video game/smart phone fog for the duration of the holidays, then now is the time to think this through. Let’s not wait until our kids succumb to a Game-Induced Zombie Coma. Let’s not wait until the teenagers begin texting us from across the room because they’ve forgotten how to use their lips. Let’s not wait until we’ve turned into the “Turn-Off-that-Stupid-Game” Police. Here are four more simple questions to ponder about your family’s holiday technology use, questions that will help your family stay connected—connected to each other—this Christmas:
What are your holiday technology guidelines going to be? Will they be different from your normal routine?
How much TV is okay to watch? (And what KIND?)
How much game time is allowed, and when?
When do the cell phones get put away so the family can look each other in the eye and just BE together? (And this includes the parents’ phones, too!)
If we agree on a strategy ahead of time, and if we talk it through with our spouse and kids, our holidays will go much better. Let’s not allow our precious family time to go to waste—let’s think. Let’s be proactive. Let’s parent on purpose. And let’s enjoy making meaningful memories—the kind involving eye contact and real conversation!—with the people we love.
When Plants Vs. Zombies started eating our son’s brain, we had to help him overcome a gaming obsession and make crucial decisions about the kind of person he wants to be. I am so proud of the changes he’s made and the boy he’s become.
He’s doing great, but even so, we are experimenting with a new plan—a strategy that is not only keeping his technology usage balanced, but is also… (but wait, there’s more!)… inspiring him to love reading.
Yes, you read that right.
A game-loving boy who also loves to read!
A strategy that helps him maintain a healthy, balanced relationship with technology and develop lifelong reading habits!
I know, it sounds too good to be true. And I sound like an infomercial. Sorry. I’m just really that excited. We are so thrilled with the new plan that I had to share it.
Even though technology isn’t a problem right now for our son, his interest in reading recently hit a low point. Last year, he got hooked on the Harry Potter series. He spent months devouring all seven books, and I must confess… during those months, watching him laugh and cry and gasp over my favorite books, I was the World’s Happiest Book-Loving Writer-Mama. But ever since he finished all 8 million pages of the Harry Potter series, it’s been tough to get him excited about another book. But Minecraft… yeah, he’s still excited about Minecraft.
So here’s the new reading-meets-gaming plan:
Every week, he gets to “earn” his iPad time for the following week by reading. He can earn up to two-and-a-half hours of iPad time per week, depending on how much he reads. (That works out to about 20 minutes of reading/gaming per day.) If he reads 2.5 hours this week, then he gets to play 2.5 hours on the iPad next week; if he only reads an hour this week, he only gets an hour of iPad time next week.
So far, the new plan is working beautifully. Our son remembers how fun it was to be excited about books, and so he has embraced the new plan. Because he is a diligent kid, a goal-oriented person who thrives on systems and schedules, he loves the idea of planning ahead and having some control over his own choices and free time.
But best of all, after just a few days of reading, he has already rediscovered the joy of books. He keeps coming to tell me what’s happening in his novel, wanting me to laugh with him at all the crazy parts. Here’s hoping that this new plan helps to inspire a lifelong love for reading and habit of reading, while also allowing him to enjoy a healthy system of reward with the games he loves!
What a balanced relationship with technology looks like
In case you’re still suffering in the My Kids Are Obsessed with Games and I’m Losing My Mind Stage (a thousand sympathies, friend), I thought I’d back up for a minute to paint a picture of what a healthy relationship with technology looks like. After some painful mistakes, many heart-to-heart talks, and a lot of family soul-searching, here’s where our son is now:
He still loves to play, but the games are no longer the highlight of his life or the center of his thoughts. He has developed a conscience about what is healthy and pleasing to God, and what is not. He has learned to monitor his own time and mindset, to evaluate whether or not he’s becoming obsessive and selfish, and to take breaks when he needs to free up brain space. And even though he’s doing well, my husband and I continually reevaluate how things are going. Every few weeks, my husband checks in with him to discuss basic questions like,
“How are you feeling about iPad games?”
“Are they taking over too much of your thoughts?
“Do you need to spend more time with people, or more time playing outside?”
Those simple conversations have gone a long way toward helping our son develop his own convictions about having healthy priorities, godly thoughts, and an unselfish focus in his life.
If you try this reading-meets-gaming strategy with your kids, please let me know how it goes!
I’d love to hear about your experience. And if you have any other creative strategies for helping kids take a healthy approach to technology, please share them in the comments section below, or email me—I’m always looking for new ideas.
If you scroll to the bottom of this post, I’ve included a fantastic graphic on Children’s Media Usage from California Cryobank. It gives a fair, balanced perspective on the pros and cons of children’s media usage, with helpful suggestions for parents. I hope you find it as helpful as I have!
Looking to share this post? Thank you! Scroll down to the bottom of the page, underneath the graphic, and you’ll find the share buttons there.
This is the story of a boy whose brains got eaten by digital zombies, and how his parents fought the zombies and reclaimed their son.
When our son was two, he discovered the joy of puzzles. He could hardly talk, but every morning he woke up bouncing with excitement in his crib, lisping, “Pizzoo, pizzoo!” That was our first hint that this was one focused, single-minded little boy.
When he turned three, he began to collect every Thomas the Train engine and Transformer toy he could find. At four, he moved on to Legos. He wrote to Santa and asked for his first-ever Lego set. The wait for Christmas morning almost killed him. A few days before Christmas, he turned to me, clutching his tattered-and-taped-together Lego catalogue in hand. In anguish, he gritted his teeth and moaned, “I can’t stop thinking about Legos!” Poor sweet boy. His intensity can be a wonderful strength—he’s passionate and focused, diligent and hard-working—but of course, it can also be a weakness, especially where games are concerned.
So last year when my husband got an iPad, and casually introduced our kids to the game Plants Vs. Zombies, maybe we should have anticipated that our son could become obsessed, but we didn’t. It’s not like the iPad even belonged to our son—he didn’t have unlimited access to it. But even so, in a matter of weeks, we had a problem. He became consumed. Time limits didn’t help: If we gave him half an hour a day to play, he spent the other 23 hours and 30 minutes thinking about the games, strategizing how to win them, and planning when he wanted to use his next half-hour of play time. His behavior and attitude changed. He turned inward, and got lost in his own mind and in a digital world.
Something had to change.
We decided a total break from gaming was in order for all of the kids. (For us, that meant a break from games on Kevin’s iPad. We didn’t own any game systems.) The kids were not in trouble; they hadn’t done anything wrong; this was not a punishment. Our hope was that this break would allow our son to disconnect his mind from the electronic world, to reclaim some of his other interests and find some new ones, and to engage in a more meaningful way with the rest of the family.
The key to this whole experiment was the indefinite time period. It wasn’t enough to take a break for a week or a month—because all that would have done was get our son counting days until he’d get his beloved games back. He needed to be completely set free. Once the games were no longer an option, he would have to let them go altogether. He would be set free to move on, mentally and emotionally.
The Talk (no, not that one!)
We called a family meeting, and had The Talk about taking a break from iPad games. Even though there were a few tears shed, they turned into the good kind.
We started by talking about King David, and how he spent his boyhood years outside and in training, learning to kill lions and save sheep and pray and sing and just be close to God. We talked about how you can’t learn those things by playing computer games. You have to be outside, using your imagination and your heart and your voice and your creativity. We explained that God made each one of our kids special and gifted, and that he has big dreams for who they become and how he can use them. What fun we had talking about each child’s unique, wonderful gifts! And then we explained that they won’t become the people God intended them to be by spending all their time watching cartoons, or trying to defeat zombies on the iPad. (Meanwhile, the children were wiggling and laughing and being ridiculous, but somehow listening, too.)
When we got to the crux of the issue—the indefinite break from iPad games—our daughters immediately leapt to their feet and began exercising (?!), and our son began to cry. But we spent a lot of time talking to him and encouraging him, explaining how talented God made him, but that his gifts will be squandered if he spends his best mental energy learning to defeat digital zombies. We made this so positive, and in a few minutes, we watched a light turn on inside our son.
It was amazing, one of those epic parental moments you remember forever. He heard what we were saying—how God has great plans for him, and how even though he’s a boy, he can already start preparing himself to fulfill those plans. He can do that by having fun playing and learning and growing; by learning to play sports and have friends and build things. (Meanwhile, there was even more wiggling and exercising and general ridiculousness, but somehow there was a lot of listening, too.)
This was a Big Night for our family. A night when we decided to live intentionally—not just individually, but as a group. A night when Kevin and I more fully grasped what God intends for our children, and what our role is in helping them get there. A night when we recognized God’s purposes for us. A night when our entire family committed to growing and loving and living life to the full—not wasting our lives on stupid things, but being present, and being ready for God to use us as he sees fit. We decided to live our lives on purpose. We decided to grow, and to work together to become the individuals—and the family—God intends for us to be. (Wiggling and laughing and being ridiculous all along the way.)
Within hours of our family devotional, we felt like we had our son back. A fog had lifted, and he’d awoken from a coma whose power we hadn’t fully understood. When he came home from school the next day, for the first time in weeks, he talked my ear off about school. He happily played outside with his sisters, built things with Legos, and laughed and laughed and laughed. We were flabbergasted—we hadn’t expected such dramatic change so quickly. For our girls, we didn’t notice much difference; the iPad had never really been a problem for them. But we were taking this break, united as a family, for our son—and it turned out to be the best family decision we could have made. Overall, our kids spent a lot of time playing outside, playing creatively, and even playing the piano. Our family became an even louder and more active—and yet more peaceful—place to be.
Want more from Lizzy Life? Click here to sign up for the quarterly Lizzy Life newsletter! You’ll receive a gift of seven two-minute devotions to do with kids (including one about teaching kids to set their thoughts on God). You’ll also receive a free download of the first chapter of my new book, When God Says “Wait”!
Our total break from gaming lasted about three months. Honestly, at first I resisted the idea of ever letting the kids play games again. (I know, I can be a little dramatic.) But the more Kevin and I talked, the more he helped me to be realistic. Our children are growing up in a technology-rich world. One of the best gifts we parents can give our children is the wisdom and self-control they will need to handle technology wisely for the rest of their lives. Children need opportunities to practice using technology in its various forms while they are still at home with us, under our supervision. We need to provide God-centered training in how to handle devices of all kind in positive ways. We need to teach them to use technology is ways that promote relationships rather than hinder them. And at our kids’ ages, games can provide a manageable introduction into that lesson. (I’m still not convinced that a game system would improve our family life, and so we have no plans to get one. For now, we’re letting the kids “practice” using technology by playing some iPad and computer games.)
We followed up with another family devotional, centered around the verse, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” We talked (again) about how we don’t want our minds to be so full of iPad or computer games (or email or Facebook or texting for the grown-ups!) that there’s no room for God or for people. We told the kids we were willing to give the iPad games another try, within certain clear parameters.
Here’s the thing about our “plan” for technology: It’s an experiment, not a lifetime commitment. It’s working for now, but we will continue to tweak it as our children mature and their needs change.
When we laid out the plan, we explained that each kid would have their own time limit that is appropriate for them as an individual. (Sometimes we cater too much to kids’ over-developed sense of fairness, and so we actually end up being unfair to everyone. Different kids have different needs, and that’s okay!)
Our 8- and 9-year-olds get 2 hours of total game time per week, and our 6-year-old gets 1 hour per week. (In the summertime, when school is out, we let the older kids have 3 hours/week, and the 6-year-old gets 2 hours.)
Here’s my favorite part about the plan: The kids manage their own time. (They do have to ask us first: Is this an okay time to play? Can I play for x minutes?) This freedom of choice is teaching them to manage their time, and is helping them to develop self-control and their own conscience about games.
We set a timer for the amount of time they request, record it on the family calendar, and they stop when the timer goes off. And when their weekly time is up, it’s up!
The most important part of this plan is that Kevin and I have follow-up talks with each kid. We keep an eye on our children, but we also ask how they think they are doing with games. This is a regular, ongoing conversation, especially with our son. We recently took another total break from games, and we periodically take breaks like that when we need a change.
Video games aren’t a problem for every kid, but for some children, who tend toward obsessiveness or laziness, they are a big problem. We have to watch our children as individuals, and know them well enough to recognize when they are not handling technology well.
A complete break from games can be a helpful way to reset your family dynamic and give parents some time to reevaluate how you want to handle games and devices. (I love this article about the benefits of periodic technology fasts, and the parenting opportunities we miss when our kids are too plugged in.)
Parents must be engaged and intentional in how we introduce technology to our children, and stay engaged in monitoring it. We can’t just let technology happen to us accidentally.
Devices and social media will play a part in our children’s lives. They will all have to learn self-control and appropriate behavior with games and devices and social media. The more that we do as parents to equip our kids to handle technology now, the better their life will go in the future.
The long-term goal is to equip our kids to handle technology wisely on their own, without our constant supervision—but every child needs an age-appropriate level of vigilance and guidance.
From a big-picture parenting perspective, games and technology can also provide a great teaching tool for our kids’ character. They provide a way to talk to children about such biblical concepts as self-control, selflessness, discipline, gluttony, training, integrity, godly thoughts, and (eventually) purity.
To summarize: ENGAGE. THINK. PRAY. DISCUSS. MONITOR. REEVALUATE.
REPEAT. REPEAT AGAIN AND AGAIN AND AGAIN.
After all that we went through last spring, we got our son back. His brain resurrected after his incursion into the land of the Walking Dead. We hope our family’s battle against the zombies can give other families some ideas and strategies for successfully navigating the tricky terrain of technology.
Every other day, my kids come home from school talking about the Next New Thing in technology:
“His dad got a smartphone, and it has this cool app!“
“Their mom got a tablet, and she lets them play on this awesome website!“
“This game system does this . . . thatvideo game does that!“
The ever-changing technological landscape is one of the greatest challenges modern parents face. The number of decisions we have to make about our kids’ access to devices and social media is staggering, and it changes so fast it sets our heads spinning. Just when we think we have a handle on our kids’ relationship to technology, some new device comes along. Every time something new comes up, we have to reevaluate what works and doesn’t work for our family, and for each of our kids as individuals.
Here are 26 questions every parent should consider about technology use in your family, including smartphones and cell phones, mp3 players, handheld games, video game systems, tablets, laptops, and computers. (If you’re married, you’ll want to discuss these questions with your spouse to make sure both spouses are on the same page.) The first 13 are questions to ask about the devices and technology your family already uses. The second 13 are questions to ask before you introduce a new device to your family.
13 questions to ask about devices and technologies you have already introduced:
1. Has this technology brought our family closer together, or pushed us apart?
2. Do we have clear guidelines in place?
3. How does this game/phone/computer/tablet benefit our family?
4. Has the way we use this device changed or harmed our family in some way?
5. Can our child disengage easily from using this device?
6. Has this device changed our child’s behavior, personality, or mood in any way?
7. Has our child lost interest in other activities or relationships since we introduced it?
8. Can our child entertain himself/herself without this technology . . . in their free time? at a restaurant? in a waiting room? while riding in a car?
9. Have we set up age-appropriate parental controls and blocks on this device?
10. Does our child understand and respect the parents’ obligation to monitor the device, and respect our right to take it away if need be?
11. Does our child view usage of this device as a privilege, or a right?
12. How does our child respond if we tell them to put the device away, or if we limit their time?
13. How would our family change if we took away this device altogether?
13 questions to ask yourself before you introduce a new device:
Before you introduce a new device to your family, or—and this is the one we forget to think about—before you buy yourself a new device that your children will have regular access to, ask yourself these questions:
1. Why are we introducing this device? What is its purpose?
2. Is it age-appropriate for our children? Is it age-appropriate for some of our children, and not others? How will we handle that discrepancy?
3. Can our kids handle this device/game mentally and emotionally?
4. Do we have a child who tends to be obsessive about games? If so, are we prepared to monitor their behavior and mood and usage to the extent they will need? Are we willing to do this long-term? Are we willing to reevaluate how our child is handling this game/device/technology at different points, and adjust our parameters and guidelines as needed?
5. What guidelines do we need to put in place before we introduce this technology?
6. What conversations does our family need to have before we introduce this technology? What does our child need to understand about himself/herself before we put this device in their hands? What do they need to agree to before we put this device in their hands?
7. How will we know if things are not going well? What will we do if this device is not having a positive effect on our child or on our family?
8. Does one parent have misgivings or strong feelings against introducing this technology? Have both perspectives been fully heard?
9. What days and times is it okay and not okay to use this device? What places is it okay and not okay to use this device? Is it okay to use this device when friends or family come over to visit?
10. How much time are kids allowed to spend on this device each day/each week?
11. How will we track our child’s time on this device?
12. How will we monitor our child’s behavior on this device (websites they have visited, pictures they have taken and posted, messages they have sent to friends, new friends they have added to social networks)?
13. Are we willing to get rid of this device if it harms our child or our family in some way? Does our child accept our right and responsibility to make this decision?
As you make decisions about your family’s relationship to technology, remember these five principles:
Be an example. (Parents’ habits with phones, computers, and devices will influence our children more than anything we say.)
Be intentional. (Think. Engage. Discuss. Plan. Monitor. Adjust. Don’t let your family’s relationship with technology “just happen.”)
Be proactive. (Anticipate issues. Have discussions and set expectations ahead of time.)
Be flexible. (Adjust as the technology changes, and as kids change.)