O Xbox, Xbox, Wherefore Art Thou, Xbox?

“How much gaming screen time should be allowed?” is an oft-asked question by parents, my kids and my friends. “But I am a good kid, I make good grades, I play two sports, and rarely get in trouble,” is the reply I often hear as the debate unfolds in my house, at the office, and likely your house.

Regardless of a child or teen’s stated qualifications, TV time, gaming time, or general screen time for more than two hours a day, every day, without a decompression period outside and time for ordinary family interaction is detrimental.

Make no mistake this is a minefield that ought to be carefully navigated because your child may be seeking recognition for their effort as well as arguing for a dopamine hit.  

Inevitably you will be hit with, “But why?”  This is a great question and one your teen should ask. Remember your child is looking for acceptance, mastery and independence. Saying ‘no’ to your child is a poor man’s way of saying, “I love you and need you to learn other skills too. This is also unhealthy.”

Here is reasoning to support more eloquent ‘No’s’:

1. Sitting in front of a screen down-regulates the number of dopamine receptors in the brain’s reward processing area. As a result, the ability to feel pleasure is decreased so more and more stimulation is sought.

2. Heavy use of screen time results in an imbalance of activities of daily living, such as sleep, learning how to empathically communicate, and take on new hobbies.

3. Malcolm Gladwell famously surmised that it takes 10,000 hours to be world class in any field.  That would take 13.69 years spending 2-3 hours a day to become world class. Now that could be spent on social media, games, or in that same time, you could learn how to play guitar, improve grades, train to be a better athlete, serve your community, become an artist, learn to cook, and gain emotional resilience. 2-3 hours a day can solve almost any problem.

4. Even the most cleverly designed games are limited in creativity and offer only the illusion of choice.  Would your child rather work towards someone else’s goals bound by their limitations and rules or create their own goals and lay down their own rules? Your child’s brain has unlimited possibilities when playing without restrictions.

5.  Some games are rich in narrative and layered with Shakespeare-worthy metaphors.  In rare instances, games can be seen through the lens of artistic expression, but those that are worthy of being labeled art are few and far between.  Most games are designed with addictive behaviors in mind and are singularly focused on turning a profit.  For example,
loot boxes are a controversial monetization scheme employed by gaming companies which is no more than a thinly veiled gambling system effectively marketed to children.  

At the end of the day, we are not trying to take anything away from our children and we need to be certain that message comes across.  We are giving them our attention, our love, and encouragement to pursue their interests.  One of the most successful strategies to reach someone is to go to them in their interests and needs.   Commit some time in their space doing their interests with them first.  Turn the game or media into a talking point and a teachable moment, but keep it a two-way conversation.

If all else fails you may need to put your foot down, remove the screens, set boundaries, and suffer some lashing out.  Remember that social media and games hit all the same pathways as substance abuse and there will be some withdrawal.  Have sympathy and sit with them in their pain as you remind yourself in silence that you are their parent and not their friend. 

Good luck. Teaching your children is the best game played.

When to Plant, Pull, and Prune in the Family garden

Welcome to the world of companion gardening, a concept that mirrors our place in the family and community.

Each plant in your garden needs it’s own space and particular nutrients of pH, soil makeup, water, and light. If any plant is not getting what it specifically needs then the result is poor growth, fewer fruits, an unhealthy change to the leaves and/or a vulnerability to fungus and mites. If this is the case you would investigate the problem and address the issue. The plant would be moved to another area of the garden to change the light spectrum, you would add fertilizer or you water less often. None of you would decide the plant needs to be taught a lesson and place the plant in the garden shed until it decides to grow better.

Similarly, our family members need the same attention. Notice behavior but act on needs. If someone is not working towards the good of themselves and those around them, then investigate the source of the problem, make the appropriate changes and nurture the person back to optimal health. Do they need more attention, security, love, companionship or autonomy? You would not punish the plant so why punish the person.

Those of you in my pediatric practice have heard me say, “You are raising a family, not a child.” Each member of your house has needs, such as shelter, love, autonomy, security, etc. The household is happiest when each member has their needs met, and this usually includes a good night sleep on a regular basis, daily exercise and healthy foods (even if your child has to stay in the daycare at the gym.) Each person then has an improved resilience to stress and is in a better position to assist in making life wonderful for everyone around him or her. Yes, please, sign me up for good sleep and well-behaved children.

However, if one person starts to make too many demands on the others, especially under normal circumstances, then explore why this is happening instead of resorting to the default cultural norm to punish our child with a timeout if they do not comply with our needs. All they may need is a little sunshine, fresh air, food and attention. You wouldn’t take the plant that isn’t growing well and put it in the closed garden shed to teach it a lesson so investigate what essential element of life is missing and take corrective action for your family.

I encourage parents not to fear to go against the grain with parenting.  You may consider the very real movement known as positive discipline represented in an anecdotal tale of a tribal community that encircles an individual that is misbehaving.  The tribe takes turns telling him or her all the wonderful things they do.  The tribal member realigns themselves with the needs of the group and feels centered again.  In this manner, we can borrow from positive discipline to create a culture of companion gardening to help everyone in our tribe flourish.  

I hope you will start to think of companion gardening when you are with your family. Minding what makes each of us grow while remembering the gardener is vital to the health of the whole garden and comes before everything else in the house. Take care of yourself each day so you can show your partner, children and extended family healthy boundaries that you need to keep you well. They will love your authenticity and respond in kind. The example for your children will be life altering and can create a new dynamic culture for generations to come.

You are so full of it your eyes are brown

I believe behaviors are strategies to get a need met and this drastically changes how I parent.

My daughter has an incredible sense of self so her needs are usually clearly stated while her behaviors are sometimes outrageous. She recently went on a pro-Chloe marketing campaign around the house. Everyone started to find “I love Chloe?” printed on the house, gutters, plants, driveway, etc in black sharpie ink. I am not certain why she included the question mark. Was this a punctuation of humility? Naivety? Or simply a red herring so that her sisters would be blamed for the graffiti? No one will ever know her self-promotion need, as she is not talking. I accept it though as a creative outlet – I may not have been so accommodating a few years back, though.

The mind of one of my children works differently than most peoples’ minds. It was no surprise that she easily qualified for the gifted program at school. I was surprised when she repeatedly decided not to turn in homework on time and subsequently lost her place in the gifted program.

Acceptance of a child’s actions is sometimes hard. I was disappointed as a parent at this wonderful lost opportunity. I was accepting as a parent who loves his child and sees each of their actions as a reflection of a need.

She needed more structure and more self-expression. Not turning in assignments was a behavior to get a need met. I focused on the need and discussed the behavior. Once she knew I understood her need, she willingly listened and we worked on a solution together. This created the empathetic space for us to have a dialogue rather than creating a power dynamic where she felt coerced and unheard.

She is always ready with a logical excuse to vindicate her action, even when she is clearly in the wrong! What’s worse is that it usually makes sense and is disarming in its humor. I happily listen to these entertaining forays.

A good case in point: At the store, Chloe told grandpa that she needed a chocolate bar. He said, “You’ve eaten so much chocolate that your eyes are brown (she has brown eyes,) and if you eat one more bar it will come out of your ears!” Her instant reply, “It doesn’t work that way Grandpa, the chocolate comes out of the bottom, so you can put more chocolate on top!”

Intelligence is a double-edged sword. As a parent, you can overthink yourself and end up in trouble with your children as they grow. You mistakenly focus on your needs and your perceived needs for the child rather than listen to their explanations and needs as well.

The child will internalize respect, clear communication and belief in their own abilities if you give them the space to grow while learning to state their needs with you listening and visa versa. An amazing consciousness will develop in both of you.

Our intelligence and wisdom are gifts allowing us to see with clarity and understanding, enabling the ability to solve problems quickly. Use these gifts to make life wonderful for your children while allowing the child to learn, as they need to.

Anyway, I forgot to ask if grandpa ended up buying her a chocolate bar that day as I was so amused by her wit.

Parenting Your Child to Self-Esteem

It is important that we discipline in a way that teaches responsibility by motivating our children internally, to build their self-esteem and make them feel loved. If our children are disciplined in this respect, they will not have a need to turn to gangs, drugs, or sex to feel powerful or belong.

The following ten keys will help parents use methods that have been proven to provide children with a sense of well-being and security.

1 – Use Genuine Encounter Moments (GEMS)

Your child’s self-esteem is greatly influenced by the quality of time you spend with him-not the amount of time that you spend. With our busy lives, we are often thinking about the next thing that we have to do, instead of putting 100% focused attention on what our child is saying to us. We often pretend to listen or ignore our child’s attempts to communicate with us. If we don’t give our child GEMS throughout the day, he will often start to misbehave. Negative attention in a child’s mind is better than being ignored.

It is also important to recognize that feelings are neither right nor wrong. They just are. So when your child says to you, “Mommy, you never spend time with me” (even though you just played with her) she is expressing what she feels. It is best at these times just to validate her feelings by saying, “Yeah, I bet it does feel like a long time since we spent time together.”

2 – Use Action, Not Words

Statistics say that we give our children over 2000 compliance requests a day! No wonder our children become “parent deaf!” Instead of nagging or yelling, ask yourself, “What action could I take?” For example, if you have nagged your child about unrolling his socks when he takes them off, then only wash socks that are unrolled. Action speaks louder than words.

3 – Give Children Appropriate Ways to Feel Powerful

If you don’t, they will find inappropriate ways to feel their power. Ways to help them feel powerful and valuable are to ask their advice, give them choices, let them help you balance your check book, cook all our part of a meal, or help you shop. A two-year-old can wash plastic dishes, wash vegetables, or put silverware away. Often we do the job for them because we can do it with less hassle, but the result is they feel unimportant.

4 – Use Natural Consequences

Ask yourself what would happen if I didn’t interfere in this situation? If we interfere when we don’t need to, we rob children of the chance to learn from the consequences of their actions. By allowing consequences to do the talking, we avoid disturbing our relationships by nagging or reminding too much. For example, if your child forgets her lunch, you don’t bring it to her. Allow her to find a solution and learn the importance of remembering.

5 – Use Logical Consequences

Often the consequences are too far in the future to practically use a natural consequence. When that is the case, logical consequences are effective. A consequence for the child must be logically related to the behavior in order for it to work. For example, if your child forgets to return his video and you ground him for a week, that punishment will only create resentment within your child. However, if you return the video for him and either deduct the amount from his allowance or allow him to work off the money owed, then your child can see the logic to your discipline.

6 – Withdraw from Conflict

If your child is testing you through a temper tantrum, or being angry or speaking disrespectfully to you, it is best if you leave the room or tell the child you will be in the next room if he wants to “Try again.” Do not leave in anger or defeat.

7 – Separate the Deed from the Doer

Never tell a child that he is bad. That tears at his self-esteem. Help your child recognize that it isn’t that you don’t like him, but it is his behavior that you are unwilling to tolerate. In order for a child to have healthy self-esteem, he must know that he is loved unconditionally no matter what he does. Do not motivate your child by withdrawing your love from him. When in doubt, ask yourself, did my discipline build my child’s self-esteem?

8 – Be Kind and Firm at the Same Time

Suppose you have told your five-year-old child that if she isn’t dressed by the time the timer goes off, you will pick her up and take her to the car. She has been told she can either get dressed either in the car or at school. Make sure that you are loving when you pick her up, yet firm by picking her up as soon as the timer goes off without any more nagging. If in doubt, ask yourself, did I motivate through love or fear?

9 – Parent with the End in Mind

Most of us parent with the mindset to get the situation under control as soon as possible. We are looking for the expedient solution. This often results in children who feel overpowered. But if we parent in a way that keeps in mind how we want our child to be as an adult, we will be more thoughtful in the way we parent. For example, if we spank our child, he will learn to use acts of aggression to get what he wants when he grows up.

10 – Be Consistent, Follow Through

If you have made an agreement that your child cannot buy candy when she gets to the store, do not give in to her pleas, tears, demands or pouting. Your child will learn to respect you more if you mean what you say.

Fighting with your teen can be a good thing

A growing body of research suggests that this can actually be a good thing. How disagreements are handled at home shapes both adolescent mental health and the overall quality of the parent-teenager relationship. Not only that, the nature of family quarrels can also drive how adolescents manage their relationships with people beyond the home.

In looking at how teenagers approach disputes, experts have identified four distinct styles: attacking, withdrawing, complying and problem-solving.

Adolescents who favor either of the first two routes — escalating fights or stubbornly refusing to engage in them — are the ones most likely to be or become depressed, anxious or delinquent.

Those teenagers who take the third route and comply, simply yielding to their parents’ wishes, suffer from high rates of mood disorders. Further, teenagers who cannot resolve arguments at home often have similar troubles in their friendships and love lives.

In contrast, teenagers who use problem-solving to address disputes with their parents present a vastly different picture. They tend to enjoy the sturdiest psychological health and the happiest relationships everywhere they go.

So how do we raise teenagers who see disagreements as challenges to be resolved?

Compelling new research suggests that constructive conflict between parent and teenager hinges on the adolescent’s readiness to see beyond his or her own perspective.

We also have evidence that parents can make the most of their teenagers’ evolving neurobiology by being good role models for taking another person’s perspective. Adults who are willing to walk around in their teenagers’ mental shoes tend to raise teenagers who return the favor.

garden-variety disagreements offer the opportunity to help young people better understand themselves and others, building in them the lifelong skill of finding room for civility in the midst of discord.

No parent looks forward to fighting with his or her teenage child. But the friction that comes with raising adolescents might be easier to take when we see it as an opening, not an obstacle.