A recent article in the New York Times cites a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation that found that a typical middle- or upper-class American child spends around 10 hours a day on video games, social networking, television, and other forms of electronic entertainment, an increase of nearly 54 percent in little more than a decade. The numbers from poor households are even worse: 11.5 hours of electronics a day, representing an increase of more than 70 percent during the same time period.
Summer is definitely a time for kicking back, but you probably don't want your kid to spend all three months glued to a screen. To ensure that he or she doesn't, try treating his desire to overindulge in electronics as a kind of procrastination. That's what we call it, after all, when adults put off doing their important activities; and a kid who's obsessively playing video games (or watching television, etc.) can likewise be said to be putting off more meaningful and enriching activities such as sports, art, music, reading, volunteerism, a job, or in-person socializing.
Many people think procrastination is caused by laziness, lack of willpower, lack of discipline, or other “lacks,” but these are actually symptoms of a deeper problem: disempowerment, meaning that you are separated from, or constrained from using, your strengths, skills, talents, etc.
In my book, The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block, I discuss the seven major categories of disempowering forces: perfectionism, lack of resources, unmanaged time, ineffective work processes, ambivalence, unhealed traumatic rejections, and an exploitative work situation. Perfectionism is the most serious because of its pervasiveness and because it creates a terror of failure that is the main cause of the disempowerment. (When you're terrified, you do lose many of your capacities, since you typically can't do much else other than react to the terror.)
Contrary to what many people think, perfectionism is not “having high standards,” but (a) setting unreasonable or unattainable standards, and (b) punishing yourself harshly when you fail to meet them. “If my kids aren't getting A's all the time, and aren't perfectly well behaved all the time, and my house isn't showplace-perfect all the time, then I'm a bad parent.” (“Bad parent” being the harsh self-punishment.) Or, from your kid's standpoint, “If I don't get into an Ivy League school, I'm a total loser.” (While an Ivy League education is certainly attainable for many kids, the sheer number of qualified applicants relative to available spaces means that many even highly qualified kids won't be admitted.)
Perfectionism comprises many other symptoms, including:
>Dichotomization (black-and-white thinking, such as that you're either a total success or total failure, with nothing in between);
>Grandiosity (you expect things that are difficult for other people to be easy for you);
>Overidentification with your work (so you live or die, ego-wise, based on how well you perform; this is a major source of the terror); and
>Labeling (“lazy,” “loser,” etc.).
Most of us know only one way to cope with the terror perfectionism engenders: to flee from it via procrastination. So, instead of doing our important and meaningful projects we do busy work, or overgive to others, or compulsively clean house, or...get sucked into video games, social media, and other electronic distractions.
Here are some tips for helping your kid “unplug” and have fun in the real world this summer (and beyond!):
1) Obviously, never call him (or anyone else including yourself, for that matter), “lazy,” or accuse him of being undisciplined, etc. Not only do these labels misdiagnose the problem (which, you recall, is not laziness but terror-fueled disempowerment), they are undermining. Many of the underproductive adults I teach and coach painfully recall having been negatively labeled as children. This step alone should make a big difference not just in your being able to influence your kid, but in the general peacefulness and happiness of your home.
2) If your kid is receptive, have a nonjudgmental conversation about what procrastination is, and the reasons people do it, and why he specifically might be doing it. You can talk about how it's okay to spend some time on mindless or otherwise unproductive activities, but why it's dangerous to overdo it. You can also talk about:
>The unique “addictiveness” of a lot of our electronic gadgets, including the music, visuals, and intermittent rewards (like slot machines!);
>The social pressures to overuse;
>The consequences of overuse, including lassitude and loneliness; and, finally,
>You can discuss your own procrastination challenges and how they've affected you, and what you're doing to handle them. Of course, kids are very aware of our own shortcomings and apparent hypocrisies, so if you haven't mastered your own electronic addiction you're going to have a hard time convincing him to tackle his. On the other hand, this is a fantastic project for you both to work on together while providing each other with mutual support and encouragement.
If you're lucky, your kid may acknowledge some of these points, or even add some new ones; if not, you can still state your opinions and concerns in a nonjudgmental way.
3) At the same time, don't be afraid to set, and enforce, limits on electronics use. “Limits are love,” as the parenting books tell us; and limits, often in the form of “deadlines” and “plans,” are also a classic productivity tool.
4) Don't just make suggestions for new activities: help your kid come up with a plan—and be prepared to invest some time and money (for classes, equipment, transportation, etc.) in that plan, if necessary. Whether it's art, science, music, sports, a job, or another endeavor, you want to make your kid's transition to it as easy and enticing as possible.
If your kid refuses to work with you on this, don't go back on your limits but also don't make a big fuss, which would only be likely to cause him to dig in his heels. Instead, buy some enticing books, art supplies, or gear and leave them where he can find them. (But not in his room, or he'll feel pressured.) Kids are naturally curious and adventurous and if you can wait out his “detox” period, he'll hopefully try out the new stuff on his own.
5) Once you've helped your kid plan and organize his new activity, back WAY off. Don't judge his choices, or the results he's achieving. Keep questions to a minimum. Recall that procrastination is mainly an escape from harsh perfectionist judgments, so judging your kid even mildly is likely to send him fleeing back to the safety of his video game. (It's okay to offer support or advice when requested, though.)
6) Give your kid as much time and space as possible to enjoy the new activity. Note that this goal may conflict with any (perfectionist?) need you might have to control your kid's time and space. Many creative and successful adults were given plenty of time and space to explore their youthful passions, two famous examples being Bill Gates, whose parents let him spend untold hours at a local computer lab as a young teen, and the late Randy Pausch, author of The Last Lecture, whose parents let him paint his bedroom walls. (Pausch's advice to parents: “If your kids want to paint their bedroom, as a favor to me let them do it. It’ll be OK.” Here's a picture of the bedroom.)
7) Acknowledge the steps your kid is taking toward spending his time productively, and also his struggle. Don't overdo it—give him space. But once in a while let him know how proud you are that he is succeeding at a challenge that even many adults find daunting. Also, reward him whenever you think appropriate—but not with extra electronics time! And, when he's having a tough time, remind him that struggles are normal and to be expected, but don't last forever. (Don't forget to congratulate him on his commitment and tenacity!)
And don't forget to acknowledge and reward and support yourself, too! Helping your kid escape the shackles of an escapist habit is one of the hardest things a parent can do, but it's also one of the most impactful.
Your kid will thank you his whole (happier and more productive) life.
Hillary Rettig is an internationally acclaimed author, workshop leader, and coach who specializes in helping people achieve joyful and abundant productivity. Her most recent book is The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: the Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block (Infinite Art, 2011), and she is also the author of the acclaimed book on sustainable progressive activism, The Lifelong Activist: How to Change the World Without Losing Your Way (Lantern Books, 2006). Hillary is also a former foster mom of four Sudanese refugees (“Lost Boys”), now all adult and living independently, as well as a kidney donor and vegan. Learn more about Hillary and her work at www.hillaryrettig.com, and Hillary welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org.