December 22, 2009

Television Rules and Concrete Thinking

concrete mixer A parent recently asked me for advice about TV.  She said that they had just moved, and in the past few weeks, it’s been blissful living out of boxes with the TV not yet unpacked or hooked up.  They aren’t fighting with their 6th-grader about limits on viewing time, and all the things that go with it.  Her 12-year-old keeps asking about the television, however, and her husband is going to try to set everything up over the weekend.  What should she do?

She’s not particularly afraid of the content of what her son watches.  He’s a smart, nice kid who does well in school.  She’s more concerned about the hours he can spend doing nothing else.  She is not looking forward to the inevitable fights about limits on screen time, limits on times that he can watch, limits on TV when his homework isn’t yet done, and so on.

One issue is his age.  At 12, kids do a lot of concrete thinking (see Visit to The Other Parent).  That means that vague rules about priorities (homework is more important than television) are not as effective as concrete rules (no television until math homework due the following day is done).  So the rules have to use this inflexible way of looking at the world.  And they can’t be made up as you go along.  To the child (and to me) that will see capricious, arbitrary, punitive.  So the best way to make rules might be collaboratively, with the child actively involved.  Have a family meeting on the night before you unpack the box.  At the meeting, ask him what he wants and what he thinks you want.  Then ask what he thinks you’ll settle for.  You might be surprised at how realistic he is.  So I don’t anticipate a big fight when the rules are put to paper.  The same concrete thinking reduces his capacity to project scenarios ahead in which he would very much be interested in nagging you for an exception to the rules.  So fights over TV tend to arise at the time of the child’s temptation (when they want to watch something or play a video game, but their homework isn’t done or there’s some other commitment).  These conflicts don’t usually occur in the drafting session, when the rules--though worded concretely and specifically--require abstract thinking to foresee their application.  From a business negotiation point of view, this gives you an advantage in the formulation of the rules.  If you don’t do this, and let it go until his TV show is on and his big project is due tomorrow, he will have the advantage in the negotiation.  Even though it might not end well for him, there could be a considerable amount of bad feelings all around.  Keep the language simple, keep it to one side of one page.  Frame it, under glass.
break glass to release button
  In Emergency, Break Glass.
Oh, one more tip for concrete-thinkers:  rules are made to be kept, not broken.  He’s having friends over?  It’s Christmas?  The math homework still has to get done.  You can use his concrete thinking for his advantage and yours, by collaborating on (not imposing) some specific rules.  But those same concrete interpretations of the rules will conclude from every exception that arises that the rules are flexible with your mood/your whim/your schedule.  In other words, there are no rules at all.  Consistency is credibility in concrete thinking.

A lot of parents find rules easy to make and hard to keep.  They figure they are grown-ups and get to do what they want.  Well, in most ways, that’s completely true.  Do what you want.  But now that you’re a grown-up, you should know that there are consequences for your choices, and you should be able to anticipate most of these.

So in the example I’ve been mentioning, he is not allowed to watch TV until the math homework due the following day is done.  OK, he did it.  (How do you know?  Are you aware of his assignments?  Have you asked the teacher if he’s behind on turning homework in?  Does he need help with math?)  So, according to the rules, he’s allowed to watch TV for, let’s say, an hour.  But he still hasn’t cleaned up his room, and you asked him to do that a week ago.  Do you tell him he can’t watch TV?

Assuming you come up with some TV rules that you both agree to, have him sign the paper.  It’s probably the first contract of his life.  Every contract has a term.  (We know how long a marriage contract, for example, is supposed to last.)  So put an end date on the rules, and agree to revise them at the end of the term or some other natural date.  You have to sign the paper too.  When you do, know that this is not a parenting idea.  It’s your credibility with your kid.  Sure the rules may appear to be about him and his TV privileges.  But they require you to comply also.  Your enforcement tool is your power to disconnect the television.  His enforcement tool is his power to distrust you forever and not speak to you for the last 50 years of your life, keep your chicken2grandchildren from you, and make you pay for college tuition—for your therapist’s kid.   Do you really want to play chicken?

It never ceases to amaze me that the most insightful parents lose sight of this basic truth.  I’ll ask them about the things their parents did that most bothered them (and might bother them still).  They—you—remember these actions vividly, even 20 or 40 years later.  So why is it such a mystery when your kid is bothered by you doing it?

So can he watch TV or not?  Stay tuned.

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Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?