Teaching Impulse Control, Ten Hours at a Time

Of all the parental constraints to which we subject our cherished offspring, their video game timer is the one they most detest.

“The timer” was an idea I had during one of mine and Lea’s biweekly meetings at which we gleefully and sadistically hatch new and inventive ways to make the boys miserable.

(They are convinced we have such meetings. We think of disgusting things for them to eat, too, but I suppose that’s another post.)

Each of them gets ten hours per week of video game time. Whether on a tablet, a console, or a handheld, if a child of mine is playing video games, then his timer is to be running.

The timer operates on the honor system. If I check it when it should be running and it’s not, then there are penalties. A first offense during the week is an immediate two-hour dock. For a second offense, it goes to zero until the weekly reset on Friday. The top display is my older son’s timer; the bottom, my younger son’s. “Hey Dad, we’ve discussed it, and we think the middle one should be yours.”

Ha! Nice try, kid.

video game timer


Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Sometimes they forget to shut it off when they’re done. So they’re reading, or playing Legos, or whatever, and the alarm sounds. Seems pretty heartless for me to say “tough” at that point, so I do generally put some time back on for them. But I never put what they oh-so-generously “estimate” for themselves. Moreover, if what I hear is wildly out-of-whack with what I suspect should be on there (remembering an earlier reading, for example), then that takes a bite out of the time restored as well.

Frequently when I share this system with other parents, they’re surprised at its perceived liberality. “Ten hours per week? Wow, that’s almost an hour and a half a day! That’s a lot!”  No, it’s really not. Perhaps I’m delusional and our kids play a lot more than average, but I don’t think so. I think parents who think that’s a lot are underestimating what their own children do. I would guess this reduces by a third to half what our kids would do unchecked.

It’s a good idea to know how much your child is playing. It’s a good idea to set limits.

And oh, my goodness, does the older boy rail. “None of my friends have a timer like this, Dad. This is so unfair. You should trust me with the responsibility to manage my own time.”

(Did I mention that he wants to be an attorney when he grows up?)


Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

“Son, do you know what you do?  You merrily gobble up eight or nine hours of your time before the weekend’s out, and then trickle out the last little bit in ridiculously small bites over the course of the week. That you do so poorly with the timer exactly reinforces why you need the timer.”

He slinks off muttering about the injustice of it all.

My younger son, on the other hand, has markedly different habits with it. More often than not, he has time remaining at the end of the week. He still complains about it to some degree, but I think it’s an expression of solidarity with his brother more than anything else, as he rarely feels any firsthand enforcement from the system.

There is, perhaps, some valuable information to be gleaned here about how they might handle money, or study time, or anything else that must be effectively budgeted. We shall watch with interest as they progress through adolescence.

video games

Pretty much, video game development has run exactly concurrently with my existence. I am right down the middle of Generation X, which makes me one of the oldest people for whom it has been possible to play video games my whole life.

So I’ve seen it all—from Pong to Halo 4—and can attest that video games are amazingly engaging today. The immersion, the interaction, and the depth of narrative have, in many ways, surpassed film. The best games really are good enough to genuinely compete for your leisure time against any other form of entertainment or pastime.


Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Couple that development with the fact that most children have all of the impulse control of a dachshund guarding the sausage table at Oktoberfest. The modern video game is a potentially insidious channel indeed for such a tendency. It’s a good idea to know how much your child is playing. It’s a good idea to set limits.

Use a timer. Use days of the week and hours of the day. Use credits earned with chores. Use whatever works at your house, with your parenting style and your kids.

But do use something.

How do you ration screen time at your house? Leave me a comment and let me know – we need all the help we can get!