Open Thinkering


3 rules for our five year-old (that work!)

Baby Taz

Last week I was cooped up indoors with my son.

Ben is an energetic five year-old on Easter school holidays whilst I was ill and off work. It rained most of the week meaning that there were fewer opportunities for him to get out of the house with my wife and Grace (our one year-old daughter). The temptation to let him just watch films and play on the iPad was quite high, to say the least.

Thankfully, we’ve already laid down some ground rules for him that help manage his behaviour.

1. Food

Young children can be inordinately grumpy if they’ve got low blood sugar. Actually, I’m inordinately grumpy if I have low blood sugar.

The first job for my son every morning is to eat some fruit. This is usually a banana. Given that he usually rises at around 6am, it stops him being super-grumpy before his breakfast at 7.30am.

I don’t care what anyone says about children and sugar: too much is bad for both their teeth and their mood. Ben gets that wild look in his eyes when he’s had too much. Fruit, however, contains fructose which seems to be a useful compromise.

2. Screen time

I have to admit, the notion of limiting children to a certain amount of ‘screen time’ seemed slightly ridiculous before we had Ben. But, oh my, you have no idea how more than 15-20 minutes on the iPad (or watching TV) has on his behaviour.

The rule in our house is that he’s not allowed on the iPad until after lunch. This means that at weekends and during school holidays he usually wants lunch at 9:30am!

Whilst Ben has got some games that are purely for entertainment (like Smash Cops which he got as a birthday present, or Gravity Guy and Sonic Racing), most of what he plays has a puzzle element.

His favourites?

He has periods where he’ll just focus on one game to the exclusion of the rest. And that’s fine (for 15 minutes at a time…)

3. Entertainment

Partly from necessity, partly from principle, we ask Ben to go away and play by himself every day.

We live in an age of mass entertainment when it would be easy to find him something for him to passively consume. When I was young I read books and played with cars because there was nothing more exciting to do. Now there’s a million TV channels, apps and digital distractions fighting for our attention.

Clay Shirky puts the problem well:

I remember, as a child, being bored. I grew up in a particularly boring place and so I was bored pretty frequently. But when the Internet came along it was like, “That’s it for being bored! Thank God! You’re awake at four in the morning? So are thousands of other people!”

It was only later that I realized the value of being bored was actually pretty high. Being bored is a kind of diagnostic for the gap between what you might be interested in and your current environment. But now it is an act of significant discipline to say, “I’m going to stare out the window. I’m going to schedule some time to stare out the window.” The endless gratification offered up by our devices means that the experience of reading in particular now becomes something we have to choose to do.

In a way, therefore, by insisting on analogue play (including reading and writing) we’re teaching mindfulness. It also reinforces the role of my wife and I as parents as opposed to mere babysitters/entertainers.

Are you a parent? What rules do you have in YOUR house? Do they work?

PS You’ll love Leo Babauta’s The Way of the Peaceful Parent

12 thoughts on “3 rules for our five year-old (that work!)

  1. Hi Doug,

    We have an almost three and an almost five year old.  Their universes recently crashed together as Luca (almost three) found his voice and assertiveness.  They love each other, but it is not pretty at times.  We have navigated through rules and philosophies, looking for what works and what feels good (for the whole family).  Lately we have been reading and using Alfie Kohn’s ideas about unconditional love and intrinsic motivation (Unconditional Parenting).  Being teachers, Kohn’s writing also informs our teaching practices a lot.  It has been very liberating to not be continually erecting extrinsic motivation scenarios (“if you XXX then you can YYY”).  They do not work, and are not an honest way of parenting (or teaching), I feel.

    The fruit tacticis a keystone in our house.  At the first signs of grumpyness we break out the  fruit, and then if they continue, we move on to different tactics.

    The iPad rules are similar as well, although I can’t imagine Sofia playing Ben’s list of games!  Gender, perhaps?  She read interactive books and plays memory or alphabet games.  I will give her Cat Physics this week-end and see how she fares.  I’ll get back to you.

    Playing alone is a really important time in our house.  Luckily (I think), our work schedules mean that while Luca is asleep Sofia has a good couple of hours when she entertains herself (or plays with our nanny).  Luca is showing signs of enjoying it as well, but finding him that time is not as easy. I really liked the piece on boredom as a positive force.

    We schedule outings (lunch, beach etc) quite often with one parent one child combinations.  I’ll take Sofia out to lunch, and my wife will stay with Luca.  That really helps to take our relationships out of the “family life” sphere and into a more calm and serene setting where we can connect in a different way.  This is really valuable time for us.

    That’s all for now.  Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment, Marcello and the glimpse into your family’s routines!

      Something I didn’t mention, but is tangential to this, is Carol Dweck’s work on ‘mindsets’. Rewarding Ben for his effort rather than achievement pays dividends. 🙂

      1. Have you read ‘Bounce’ by Matthew Syed, (drawing a lot on Mindset)?  It is a great read, all about the myth of talent, seen from a sporting perspective.  Syed was an Olympic table tennis player, now writes for the Times.

  2. From the time our oldest was born, we’ve only ever had 2 rules in our house for our 3 children:

    1. Be nice
    2. Be safe

    When applied with love and respect, you’d be amazed how well these cover pretty much everything…

    1. Hi Scott, thanks for the comment.

      I’d really like us to have one rule: ‘love one another’. The trouble is that it’s difficult for this to translate into real-world pre-emptive action. By that I mean the self-awareness to realise that you need to eat regularly to keep your blood sugar up so as not to get grumpy. The knowledge that lots of screen time without breaks can change the way you relate to others, and so on. 🙂

  3. Basically from a young age I talked to my sons about what a green, yellow and red website was after that I have let them investigate for themselves only checking up on them from time to time. The rules are the same for the iPad, smart phone and Xbox but over the years my boys to my surprise have been quite responsible and they never spent to long on one thing e.g. play online for a few hours, use smart phone or iPad to chat with friends using different platforms , watch YouTube, play Xbox, read comics online and share new info. with me which they have found out. The last one I love as this usually gives me a new tool to use in my classroom or I get an insight into their world. 

    Guy Claxton says as parents we are often over protective of our children and often jump in too quickly when the child is struggling and meta-cognition is going on. We should give them the boundaries from the start and then let them experiment for themselves and step back. 

    Guy Claxton 10 tips for parents 

  4. Love the post, Doug, and the Shirky quote on boredom.

    We’ve been conscious about building downtime into our family schedules, and are very deliberate about what activities we enroll our kids in outside of their school time to allow for moments of nothingness.

    It’s interesting to see how they decide to fill them with both physical and imaginative play (my daughter tends to lean towards tactile art projects, while my son is much more likely to go outside in the back yard and do something physical or sports related).

    What I find very tough (and this is more with my son) is how to respond to his constant requests to play with him. It’s often the first thing he asks when I come in the door at the end of an exhausting day. I do make time to play with both kids, but there are times I find myself saying no, and then feeling guilty about it. I mean, Dad’s shouldn’t tell their kids no when they ask them to play with them, right? That is what I struggle with because, if I don’t say no sometimes and take a bit of time for myself, I can find myself getting resentful and not really engaging in a playful, joyous way. It becomes a half-hearted chore. So, still trying to figure that balance out, because I know I need some downtime for myself to be a good Dad, but I also know that the day will come when he won’t want me to play with him….

    1. Thanks Clint. It’s tough, isn’t it? I can remember how busy my father was when I was young and just want to be there as much as possible.
      However, as you say, you have to build in time for yourself! It’s always going to be a balancing act with no ‘correct’ answer. :-/

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