Why We Stopped Using Screen Time as Currency (and What We Do Instead)

“If you don’t stop whining, you’re going to lose your screen time for today.”

“If you get out of bed again, you’re going to lose your screen time for tomorrow.”

“The timer went off a few minutes ago. If you don’t get off the iPad by the time I count to five, you’re going to lose your screen time for the rest of the week.”

This was me, up until recently. Losing screen time was my go-to consequence for misbehavior. But no more.

It’s not that using screen time as currency didn’t work. It worked like a charm. The threat of losing iPad or Minecraft or Wild Kratts shapes our kids right up 99% of the time. They dearly cherish their screen time.

The problem is, SO DO I.

When I took away screen time as a consequence, I was punishing myself as much as I was them. Our kids do a lot of creative things, which is awesome, but much of it is loud, messy, or requires my attention or intervention. As a work-from-home/homeschooling mom, I value that time when they’re totally engrossed in edutainment. I can get an amazing amount of work done in 30-60 minutes without any interruption. Screen time is a vital tool to help me stay sane in our modern life arrangement.

So I decided we needed a new currency. Then I remembered my friend Paula’s allowance system. Hmm . . . could using actual currency be the answer?

We decided to give it a shot. Here’s how it works for us:

Each kid has a cup with their monthly allowance amount in quarters, and Mom and Dad have a cup as well. The kids start off each month with their full allowance amount in the cup, but they won’t receive it until the end of the month when we add up what they have left.

The kids have daily things that need to be done by certain times. For example, they have a morning routine checklist that needs to be done before school. It’s not an unreasonable amount—just basic prep for the day and a couple of morning chores. If they get out of bed on time, there’s more than enough time to do it. Until now, more often than not, they would sleep too late, drag their feet, and I’d have to hound them. Now, if anything on the list doesn’t get done before school, we move a quarter from their cup into ours.

Voila! Suddenly they’re able to get it all done with plenty of time to spare most mornings. Go figure.

We do the same thing for basic maintenance habits, which—really, for the love of all that is good and holy—should be automatic by our kids’ ages. For example, clearing your dishes after you eat. Or throwing away your dirty Kleenexes after you blow your nose. By the time you’re ten, you shouldn’t have to be reminded of those things. If I have to go find you to ask you to do it, or if I have to clean up after you, that costs me time and energy. Therefore, you pay me a quarter to do it.

Getting into bed on time has been a big issue around here lately for our older girls. So now, if they’re up past their respective bedtimes without a reasonable excuse, they lose a quarter.

We’re also using the system for our youngest, who is five, for habits like whining or not doing what we’ve asked him to do. He’s old enough to understand the value of having spending money, so the idea of losing a quarter is enough incentive for him to work on impulse control.

We did practice for a week with giving reminders and letting them know that once we started the system, they’d be losing a quarter for certain things. And so far, it’s working well. The kids have lost some quarters, but they understand why. What I really appreciate about this system is that they’ll feel the accumulation of their choices at the end of the month, when we count up what they’ll actually receive for their allowance. It’s a good opportunity to reflect on what they can do differently and start fresh with a full cup the next month.

We also give them opportunities to earn back some quarters, by doing above-and-beyond kinds of chores, or by catching them being extra responsible. For example, our youngest got himself completely ready for bed the other night without being asked. Since we don’t expect that of him, we awarded him a bonus quarter for taking the initiative.

I realize that this system is based on negative reinforcement and behavior modification, and that some parents aren’t jiggy with that. I didn’t used to be, either. I read Alfie Kohn’s “Unconditional Parenting” when our eldest child was four, and it made lot of sense to me then. With two more kids and ten more years of parenting under my belt, I have a very different perspective. We use plenty of positive reinforcement with our kids, too, and ideally want them to be internally motivated. We talk a lot about the virtues of responsibility, orderliness, obedience, cooperation, etc. But in my experience, at least in our household, those things aren’t always enough.

Is it tacky to tie behavior and habits to money? It depends on how you look at it. We don’t pay our kids for basic chores, because those things are expected as members of our household. But we do want them to have an allowance so they can learn to manage money. Losing money for not keeping up with their responsibilities seems like a pretty reasonable life lesson. So tying their responsibilities to their allowance in the opposite way (losing allowance by not doing what they’re expected to do as opposed to getting paid to do things they’re expected to do) feels okay to me.

And the truth is, losing money is a big motivator, even when internal motivation should be enough. I realized this the other day when we got our water bill, which was a lot higher than we expected. We really do believe in conserving water for the environment, but it appears we haven’t been particularly vigilant about it. Getting hit in the pocketbook made us more aware of how much water we’re using, so we’re more likely to take shorter showers, try to cut down on unnecessary laundry, etc.

Sometimes external motivators—even negative ones—can help us develop better habits. That’s the theory behind our new currency. And the best part is it doesn’t cost us anything—in fact, the more the kids misbehave, the more we earn. (Yikes, that could get ugly. Don’t worry, we don’t abuse it.)

And at the end of the day, if it turns out we’re totally screwing up our kids with this system, at least they’ll be technologically savvy and good at counting change. 🙂

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Annie writes about life, motherhood, world issues, beautiful places, and anything else that tickles her brain. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and homeschooling her children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

Comments 1

  1. I’ve been up late reading through your archives, and I am thrilled that I stumbled across your blog via Listen To Your Mother. I’m a mother of two little ones (4 / 1) and a writer as well, and I must stay that I appreciate your wisdom and your writing style tremendously. I find your posts witty, practical, sincere, and compassionate. Very refreshing and encouraging for someone in the midst of the exhaustion and chaos of the baby and preschool years.

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