Teaching our kids (and ourselves) about trade-offs, habits and screen time

How do you get kids to spend less time on screens?

Nag them? Set time limits? Declare screen free time zones? We’ve tried all sorts of tactics, with limited success.

Our latest experiment has been quite surprising though – and has uncovered some interesting lessons when it comes to changing habits, delegating and the importance of recognising trade-offs.

Inspired by an idea in Greg McKeown’s brilliant book Essentialism, we’ve started a token system:

1. Each week, each child gets 10 tokens.

2. They can exchange each token for 30 minutes of screen time, or 20p at the end of the week.

3. They can also earn extra tokens with brain-friendly activities, for example 30 minutes of reading, writing, homework, maths, spelling or music practice – even tidying, which if I’m honest is more for my brain than theirs.

The choice then is theirs, how much effort they put into earning vs spending, into saving vs spending and whether they blow it all on a 5 hour Minecraft marathon, spread it throughout the week or save it all for cash.

Here’s what happened:

We stopped nagging! Instead of telling and policing, we set the parameters and gave them the responsibility to make their own choices. We effectively delegated the decision. We still have to remind them to set the timer, make sure they weren’t trying to sneak in extra time, and manage the tokens. But we no longer have to micromanage how they spent their time.

It became about trade-offs, not chores, rules, do’s and don’ts, should or shouldn’ts. So often, spread ourselves thin and never get round to doing what we really want to do, because we avoid making the trade offs. We try and say yes to everything, and inevitably things fall off the list. When we are clear about the trade-offs, it stops being about what you can’t do or what you don’t have time for, it becomes a question of what you choose to do above (and instead of) something else.

They started thinking carefully about how they wanted to spend their hard-earned tokens – in fact they starting thinking more about everything. Whether to spend, save or earn, and what they really, really wanted (turns out my daughter’s ultimate goal was simply to have more tokens than her brother!)

It challenged their habits. Instead of defaulting to the screen without even thinking, they had to consciously choose to spend a token. As Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will rule your life and you will call it fate.” Sometimes, simply making our defaults more deliberate, remind ourselves that not choosing is a choice too.

They totally bought into it. The thought of being able to double or even triple their pocket money had them hooked. The reward made sense. It was something they wanted to do, rather than something we were imposing on them.

In fact, the first full week we implemented this, the TV hardly went on. They accumulated £5 and £6.60 each in pocket money! We realised this was going to cost us, to put our money where our mouth was, but that trade off was worth it for us too.

Homework became a way of earning more tokens – again, no more nagging! (We still had to gently remind the eldest to record his independent reading in his learning log for his teacher though…) Online homework became screen time that didn’t cost a token but actually earned you one – bonus!

They also learned that there was life outside of tokens. What do you do when you don’t want to read/write, etc but you didn’t want to spend a token? Go outside and play, jump on the trampoline, play hide and seek! My son has even started saying “I’m going to do another half an hour of reading in a minute, but I’m going to have a break on the trampoline first.”

They asked a million questions. Does this count? Does that? What happens if we play on the Wii together – does that count as one token or two? What about when we watch Bake Off as a family? They started negotiating, testing boundaries, and thinking creatively to see how they could get the most out of the system. They even managed to get ‘colouring in’ as a brain friendly activity – which is to an extent a practice in mindfulness, but we later limited that particular one to one token per day!

Which goes to show, that if you delegate a decision, rather than just the task, you get so much more engagement, creativity and brain power than when you call all the shots and require compliance. Yes, sometimes the other brains will surprise you but heck it’s SO much more fun than nagging!

Everybody wins. We haven’t recorded all the in’s and out’s, just grand totals at the end of each week. After the initial week where they got a bit obsessive, it seems to have settled at a rate where they have roughly doubled their pocket money, quartered their weekly screen time (and are still enjoying it, just not as addicted to it!), tripled the amount of reading they do and dramatically reduced the need for nagging. (Let’s be clear – we do nag about other things!)

It’s still early days, and yes it may lose its novelty after a while, and we may need to reinvent and re-experiment, but most of all, our kids are learning to make choices for themselves. Which is the biggest win of all.

Over to you: how do you deal with screen time when it comes to your kids – or even yourself? What trade-offs are you unconsciously making? Leave me a comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Catherine Poole

    What an excellent idea! I’ve been struggling a bit with this (although to be fair, they’re pretty good about only being on screens for a wee while, although it’s always longer if I have work to do), so I might steal your idea!

    • Go for it Catherine! As the kids get older, I’ve found it’s less and less about telling them what to do and more about teaching them to make decisions. Let me know how you get on!

  • What a brilliant system, Grace. I’m definitely going to think how I can make it work for us, and it’s given me an idea to use in my client work too.

    • Glad it’s inspired you Joanna – it’s certainly been a fun experiment for us!

  • Zoe Gregory

    What a superb idea. I’ve printed this off to show Mr G. We currently limit tablet time to half an hour a day, which is still earnt after home work is done. But I realise the screen time doesn’t include TV. Definitely something to discuss here!

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