Intermittent rewards – the one thing we all do as parents but the one thing that derails us!

For years I have wondered why my kids always asked for screen time – all day, every day, anytime they were not on a screen they were asking to go back on one!

I didn’t understand it – they were happy kids, interested in loads of other things and able to occupy themselves (mostly) although not without some sibling fighting.

Did I give them too much TV or too little and why did other people’s kids not seem to do it? Should I just leave the TV on all day in the hope they got bored of it – but I didn’t dare do that as I genuinely thought that they would watch 14 hours of TV a day. The only time they did not ask for screen time was before school as I had made a rule that there were to be no screens before school on the first day they started. A rule that still stands.

It was only very recently that I figured out the problem – I had inadvertently set up an intermittent reward system years ago! The challenge of having twins, followed by another child had left me in a position where I could say ‘no’ all day. Yet crucially on the 350th time of the kids asking, one of them would have poo’d, been sick, or hurt themselves and the other 2 kids finally got a ‘yes’ just to allow me to deal with the crisis in front of me.

This is the same reason we adults play the lottery, slot machines or gamble on the horses – we know that most times it will be a ‘no’ but just once, maybe, it will be a ‘yes’. Maybe just £10 but its still enough to keep us at it. No different to my kids and their hopeful continual questioning about screens!

This intermittent reward system can keep our youngsters waking at night and getting up to find us. We can be consistent all night putting them back to bed but maybe at 5am we’ve had enough and toddler comes into bed with us.  We know we are getting up in an hour and behind the curtains it’s already light– but to the youngster it’s finally the reward they were hoping for. They have no concept that it is now 5am and not 2am when they started asking to sleep with us.

Possibly it is only on a weekend that our babies get a breastfeed or a bottle with a lovely cuddle in bed at 5am – in the hope that we may snatch another 2 hours sleep. This is enough to keep them asking though – every night of the week.

Have my kids finally stopped asking for screens now I have grasped this important concept? No of course they haven’t – they are eternal optimists like all kids! But they no longer ask more than once as I have stopped wavering in my reply – if I’m ok with them having screens then it’s a big fat ‘yes’ and if there is something better to do then its ‘no’.  No more gambling in this home!