I wake up on a Saturday to the sound of a vacuum whirring. What’s that? Are my kids cleaning?! Yes. And it’s not even Mother’s Day. Why?

“Because we want to play video games,” replies my cutie pie.

And that is the power of video games. Ever since I learned late in parenting that I could use the lure of video games to get my kids to behave, I no longer  view it as an enemy. It’s simple. If they want to play, they have to do or not do something to earn it. I no longer resent the hours of play because it represents good behavior.

Video games are the bane of parents because it keeps kids inert onscreen instead of active, productive, and creative. Like TV in the past, it’s the evil to be curbed because it’s passive, unregulated, and addictive. But kids don’t watch TV anymore. They go to YouTube and play video games. Screens are perfect babysitters—they’re cheap, always available, and keep kids quietly occupied so you can work, or do nothing. It’s hard to keep kids away from their screens, especially under quarantine.

How can we not be concerned? Physically, prolonged sitting increases health risks and weight gain. Children need to run, jump, stretch, and play outside to develop and strengthen their bodies. Screens steal sleep and study time so kids are tired and unprepared in school, which lowers their performance.

Mentally, the brain cannot distinguish between real and invented images so the child can be subjected to continuous inappropriate and idiotic content. Violent games can warp their values, inure them to killing, and make it seem that vengeance is OK. We don’t know how this affects their emotions and compassion. Even if they know it’s pretend, they still react to stress.

Sure there are arguments that video games help kids learn, quicken their reflexes, train them to solve problems, and cooperate, but life activities teach these as well. More likely, video games are so addictive that it teaches kids to sneak and lie to get more play time, like my kid did.

“But my kids are smart,” you might say. “They’re good kids and will do what’s right.” Hah! Children are still developing their prefrontal cortex, which regulates thought and controls behavior. So they still can’t control their impulses nor make good decisions. They are not equipped to regulate themselves to voluntarily limit their playtime. They need supervision.

It’s also hard to say No to my kids. I want them to be happy. Video games make them happy, so I give them what they want. But if I just let them play unconditionally, they resent it when I tell them to stop, even after two hours. They keep asking for an extension and I give in, but when it’s time to stop, they STILL resent it. So here’s how to manage your kids’ screen use that will leave you both satisfied (mostly).

Mine the craft

At first I did a simple barter. They read for an hour before they can play for an hour. Then, they had to do 30 minutes of active play to balance their inactivity. That’s also how I get them to practice music, write, and do chores daily.

I also use demerits. No practice, no play. No writing, no play. You don’t want to do chores? No problem, no play. If they misbehave, they lose play time. If they are rude or unkind, they lose 30 minutes of play. If they seriously violate a safety rule, no video games for a week. It’s automatic.

It’s based on basic behavior modification. You use video games as a reward to encourage good behavior or discourage bad behavior. It’s a common strategy for weight loss. We exercise so we can later treat ourself to french fries and ice cream. We are motivated to do the unpleasant so we can indulge.

But I can’t remove video games permanently because I’ll lose a bargaining chip. So I allow my kids the chance to reform. If they do something good, they can play before the ban is implemented. For first infractions, they can say sorry and promise not to misbehave again. For a repeat offense, they can do a make up, like doing a chore aside from their daily load. For week-long bans, they can shorten it if they do extraordinary work—like vacuuming the house. I anticipate make ups and have a ready list of chores I want done (vacuum the car, clean the AC filter, sort the garage). Isn’t it great?

It also works for simple annoyances. If they argue over who’s turn it is to wash the dishes? I ask “Do you want to play?” If they’re surly, “Are video games making you act out?” If they fight, “I think video games are making you violent.” If they act roughly, “Maybe you need to take a break from video games.” If they ignore me, “It looks like video games are shortening your attention span.” It’s Pavlovian to virtue.

You might think it sounds like manipulation. You’re right! Parents need to handle and control their kids with skill, the definition of manipulation. And we need all the tools we can get.

Parenting books merely tell us to avoid or limit screen time. True. We always need to consume in moderation. But if you’re going to allow kids to play video games, then let them earn it. That’s how it works in life anyway. Adults must work to afford leisure—money to buy video equipment, pay for internet, and afford a house that’s safe for play. You need to earn enough to afford free time, if not for you, at least for your kids.

UNICEF recognizes that children have “the right to rest, relax, play” but that depends on many factors like culture, upbringing, socio-economic standing, and family life. For many, playing is a privilege. Kids need to know that not all kids can play, even less can play video games. If children work for their play, they value it more.

Before I used video games as a discipline tool, my kids whined when I don’t let them play longer—no matter how long they’ve played. To avoid daily aggravation, I dole out 1-2 hours a day max. If they don’t stop at the appointed hour, they don’t play the next day. If they want an extension, they have less playtime the next day. Now, if I let them play a bit longer than an hour, they are SO grateful after. My kids now appreciate their screen time and we’re all glad they could play video games.

So this Saturday, since they vacuumed the house, I did not require music or writing before play. I let them play for three hours. They were so thrilled and thankful. Isn’t that what we want to hear from our kids?

If this doesn’t work. Don’t worry, they still have their phones.

                                                          —- Ivy Lopez @IvyDigest FB & IG