One of the biggest challenges being home with the kids during “the Great Lockdown” is keeping them out of trouble and keeping them busy. It would be super easy to let them watch TV for eight hours a day, but I’m determined not to rely on that. Missus and I have very different outlooks on this, and it’s one of the ongoing sources of frustration in our marriage, along with what type of food we eat. “We both watched and ate garbage all the time,” she likes to remind me, “and we turned out fine.” While I’ll not argue about our shortcomings in that regard, I think the environment in which we grew up is much different from the one which our children are growing up in, and I think it calls for different rules.
At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, we grew up in the days when cable TV was just becoming prevalent, and video games were fairly primitive. There was no internet, no smartphones, and the battle for attention hadn’t reached the level of warfare that we have today, with cognitive neuroscientists being employed by tech firms to make apps more addictive. And we’ve learned a lot more about how the brains of children form, and how screen time can stunt emotional and cognitive growth. So I try to set limits.
Of course, enforcing those limits is another set of challenges. With the whining, complaining and temper tantrums that accompany them. Trying to maintain consistency, while making allowances for the carrot or the stick type of motivation, is a hard balance to pull off. It’s even harder when my spouse is often all to willing to just let them have it when she needs a break. We’re still working out the kinks.
We’re obviously very privileged to both be working from home. Since her job provides health insurance and provides her less freedom than mine, I’m primarily responsible for the kids meals and schedules during the day, while she’s locked in the office. I try to let the kids play on their own as long as they’re behaving, and try to make sure they get outside time, snacks, and some learning time in. Elder has daily school conferences and some homework, so I try to spend half an hour with Younger, doing alphabet flash cards or Khans Academy Kids before I let her watch PBS for an hour.
The kids are usually pretty good about getting themselves ready in the morning, getting dressed, brushing their teeth and eating breakfast. I don’t want them watching TV as soon as they wake up, so I’m making them wait till 8:30 and have an hour of free screen time. They can have a second hour in the late afternoon, to watch whatever show or play games on the computer.
One of my main peeves is the importance that screens seem to play in their lives. I get especially triggered when they throw tantrums when I ask them to stop a show, or when every day turns into a negotiation around how much they’re going to watch. It turns me into a tyrant.
Today I’m starting something different. I’ve been using the free version of the Rooster Money app for several months to track the kids’ allowances. They get a dollar times their age each week, split between save, spend and give buckets. Spend is (mostly) unrestricted, give is for spending on gifts for others, (we’re not charitable givers,) and save is reserved for treating themselves on their birthday or budgeting big-ticket items. This latter one we’re still figuring out. In addition to dollar allowances, Rooster also allows children to earn “points”, which it also considers a currency, so profiles can’t be mixed between both. Kids can earn automatically as a weekly allowance, or a parent can boost their accounts.
One thing I decided early on was that I was not going to tie chores to their allowance, or use it as a punishment. The whole goal around giving them an allowance was to teach them financial skills. Teaching them work ethic and how to contribute to the household is another thing entirely. Motivating them to do so has been hard. Everything has turned into a transaction for Elder. She keeps trying to demand some sort of reward or tit for tat when I ask her to do something. “I’ll do x if you let me do y,” she’ll say when I ask her to do something. I won’t have it. We fight all the time.
Missus has been having some luck getting them to do work with a “MomPoints” system. She wrote a few tasks up on the fridge’s dry erase, with MomPoint rewards and TV time. It worked great for a while, but it seems like the kids lost focus after a few weeks, and the dry erase has been overwritten. So, this morning, after weeks of delay, I finally implemented a DadPoints system. I upgraded our RoosterMoney account ($20 annually,) created a DadPoints account, and loaded up a bunch of chores. One DadPoint is redeemable for a minute of screen time, and I’m trying to maintain a four to one balance between the amount of time it takes to do the work and the reward. Things shouldn’t be that easy, should they?
It’s going to take a while to tune the tasks and the reward, and figure out the best way to implement this system. Rooster is a bit limited; tasks can be either daily, weekly, or monthly, and I don’t want to have to maintain individual lists for each kid. Getting them excited about helping with the kitchen, doing chores, or special projects that need to be done will prove priceless, and will help remove any ambiguity around what they should expect out of me.
We will see what kind of change this has. Hopefully it will be for the better.