I’m definitely a huge fan of using screen time and treats to motivate my kids to do things that are good for them. But sometimes I lose control and just end up permissively letting them watch way too much TV and eat way too many sugary treats. And I bet I’m not the only parent who does this. Parenting is hard, and getting the crying and screaming to stop is as easy as throwing fruit snacks at them or turning on their favorite show on Netflix.
But some research on this makes me think that I might want to be more careful about this. Specifically, researchers found that when parents rewarded kids with screen time, their screen time use increased.
Brain chemistry and addiction
A bit of background in brain chemistry shows why this might be. When our kids come across a rewarding stimulus (screen time, for instance), their brains release dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. This makes them more likely to repeat the action. The more the action is repeated, the more stimulation of dopamine is needed to feel the same amount of pleasure.
Over time, the brain gets used to this level of stimulation and not receiving it can feel painful. This can make the brain want more and more of that activity to not just feel the same amount of pleasure, but avoid pain. Over time, this can lead to an addiction.
Certain activities will be more stimulating and thus more addicting than others. Drugs are extremely addicting because they stimulate much more dopamine than normal activities. Similarly, when a child watches a show with bright colors and loud noises, it is much more stimulating than playing with their toys. This is also true for the foods kids eat; sugary treats will be more rewarding than healthy snacks.
Basically, the more we give kids highly stimulating rewards, the more amped up their needs for them become. Playing with blocks will be boring compared to playing a flashy video game. Eating carrot sticks will pale in comparison to fruit snacks. This is really pretty obvious.
However, the interesting thing to note about this is that the activities our kids do actually rewire their brains. Certain pathways in the reward system are reinforced or diminished by what they do. These pathways largely determine how much self-control children develop–an important skill to have in life. The more their brains are dependent on a high level of stimulation, the more they will feel imprisoned by their dependencies.
Knowing these facts can help you choose the right rewards for your kids
So at this point you may be thinking, “Wow, I’m never letting my child have any screen time or sugary treats ever again.” But I definitely know that for me, that’s not going to happen. Sometimes the best thing I can do for my family is turn on a show for my kids after a long and stressful day.
Rather, I think that just knowing the facts about your kids’ brains can help you to make thoughtful choices about the rewards you give them. So as you go forth into the arena of parenting, here are some facts to keep in mind as you decide how you will reward your child:
- Our kids’ brains are designed to repeat the activities that are the most stimulating.
- The brain gets used to the amount of stimulation a reward gives and begins to need more and more of it in order to avoid pain.
- The more stimulating a reward, the more addictive it is.
Knowing these facts about the reward system can be very valuable in helping you to decide how much and what type of rewards you want to offer your child. For instance, I’ve decided that in our home, we are just not going to have any super sugary treats on hand. Instead fruit snacks will be our new candy. And as far as screen time goes, I’ll limit it to 30 minutes a day and to only educational content.
You might decide something similar for your family, but maybe not. Every family is different. But as long as you know how your kids’ brains work, you will have the ability to make thoughtful decisions and hopefully avoid getting them addicted to sugar and screen time.
Broadening your child’s horizons
As a parent, I definitely am not going to say that it is realistic for any parent to completely stop using screen time or treats to motivate kids. But I do think that kids might get the message that screen time and sugar are the best things in life if that is all they know. In reality, there is so much more to life than that. There are so many meaningful and substance-filled things to do that bring natural highs.
It’s tricky to come up with a neat little formula for how to get your kids to value the more substantial parts of life. It’s not something that you can just do and check off of your list. Really, the only way to teach this is through your example. Kids will learn to value what you yourself value.
If you have meaningful life goals that bring you purpose, kids will see this. And they will learn that there is a lot of beauty to be found in living life. If you hate what you do all day and escape into your TV and donuts in the evening, your kids will see this. And they will learn that this is all there is to life. Helping kids experience the natural highs in life begins with us. It’s about broadening our own horizon, and then as a natural result, broadening our kids’ horizons as well.
So what does this look like?
The first thing this looks like is that you begin to pursue meaningful life goals and experience the real rewards of life, and your kids internalize this by watching you. But then you can also help them to experience more natural highs just by getting out of the way. Parents often think they need to hover around their children and give them all of their time and attention and one-on-one play. But this isn’t true.
We as a culture mistakenly believe that the reason people have problems is because they aren’t nurtured enough. But decades of research show that the real issue is actually too much nurturing. Parents anxiously hovering around their children in the name of love and doing everything for them leads to some of the worst problems. It leads to children not developing a self of their own.
In this suffocating atmosphere, kids have no space to grow, no space to discover who they are, what they like, or even solve their own problems. A lot of the time, this happens because parents don’t have things in their lives that bring them purpose and they turn their children into extensions of themselves, as projects. On the surface, all of a parents’ “help” can look like a good, very involved parent, and will likely look like a kid who is very successful and has it all together.
The child with the overly-involved parent can appear to be very goal-directed. But the goals they pursue are about getting their parents’ and others’ approval, not what they really care about. To discover their own interests and passions, they need to be given some breathing room, some space to be their own person, even some space to solve their own problems and feel discomfort once in a while. The painful life experiences that kids are often shielded from are the very things that can help them challenge their weaknesses, grow up a little, and find out who they are.
It might seem like kids won’t move on their own, but actually, as humans, we are incredibly motivated to become our own people and pursue an autonomous, productive life-course. Kids are curious and excited about life. We can either teach them that they need us to direct their lives by believing this and living like it is true, or we can just let them naturally follow their own life course by believing that they will and living like it is true.
For instance, I used to think that if I didn’t hover around my kids all the time, helping them to feel good and happy, then they would be unhappy. But then I started to notice that this wasn’t necessarily true. I could be off doing my own thing, and initially they might protest and want me to hover again (because it was what they were used to), but eventually they would just go play happily. My son would play creative little games and come up with activities he wanted to do. All I would have to do was provide him with the materials he asked for. Truly, when I stepped aside, my son really began to discover his interests and pursue them. Having some space gave him the opportunity to truly do this.
Let your child pursue natural highs
In conclusion, it’s important to be thoughtful about the rewards we give our kids as their brains are wired to get them the most pleasurable experiences possible. That’s why it’s important to not just tone down the sugar and highly stimulating games, but to help them to find the natural highs in life. And the only real way to do this is to do it for yourself, and give your child space to do the same. Once you do, you will both see that really living is the best reward that life has to offer.