Dear Thelma: My son only wants to play online games all day

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Dear Thelma,

I need your advice to improve my relationship with my son, so that he understands the importance of education.

I am a single working mother and the only time I have with my son in elementary school is after work. Since he can’t go to the tuition center, he spends so much time playing online games and watching YouTube.

The only time he puts the phone down is when we’re reading storybooks at night.

He’s counting on me 100% to teach him how to do his homework. He depends on me to read these difficult vocabularies and he does not want to write them himself. Sometimes I get overwhelmed because it seems like I’m the only one thinking about his studies. I signed him up for a class but he’s not concentrating.

He thinks having game followers is everything. Whenever the internet connection is slow or when I download his homework, he uses the time to play mobile games although I tell him to hang up the phone.

I am unable to gain his attention and respect. At the same time, I seek your expert advice and opinions.

Thank you so much.

Helpless single working mother

Dear Helpless Single Mother,

I’m sorry to hear you’re having a bad time. I think we should start by considering the basics.

First, small children like your son need to be nurtured and guided into good habits. It takes a lot of attention and carefully structured parenting. Second, the game is designed to be addictive.

Let’s start with the second point first. The game is deliberately designed to be addictive. The pings, the loud sounds and the positive messages, “You win!” are very carefully designed to trick the arousal and reward systems of the brain.

As you play, the game triggers the release of various brain chemicals, including dopamine which is linked to reinforcing behavior. YouTube uses the same tricks.

This does not mean that games and the Internet are bad or should be banned. Many things we do work on a similar system, including exercising and laughing with friends. That’s how we are made.

This brings us to the other point: small children need to be guided towards healthy behavior. This can be very tricky because the game is easy and fun, and reading books takes effort. School is even worse, because it’s tons of effort for a reward you haven’t seen in years and years.

That’s where parenting comes in. In your letter, when your son says, “Oh, that’s too hard,” you rush in and do it for him. Essentially, you are teaching him to be lazy.

Please don’t blame yourself! Kids are good at pushing their parents, and you’re not the first mom to be overly parented.

What will help is to rethink your parenting style and a new regimen. Your son needs to learn that he’s a kid and needs to listen to mom, even when it’s not fun.

Establish a strict routine with clear goals. For example, “games are only on Saturday afternoons from 2-4 p.m.” and all other recreational activities during the week are healthy activities like finger painting, reading books, and playing with toys. No internet. No flashing, zipping, technical stuff at all.

Also, you need to develop a new style when it comes to school work. At the moment school is hell because the teacher is miles away and little kids just can’t handle online learning well.

Know that you are not the only one struggling. Also, the world will not collapse if it fails multiple times.

Make a list of things you need to do, for example, uploading homework may be too difficult for him. And make a list of the things that are his job, like struggling with swear words and questioning his arithmetic.

The basic lesson you want to teach is that application is good. So if he works hard and gets a C, great. If he’s lazy and rolls an A, there’s nothing to shout about.

In this way, you will teach him to be responsible, but he will not link his academic success to his self-esteem. It’s a vital life lesson that’s super important for good mental health.

To use the brain’s reward system, praise and reward the behavior you want. It means saying, “You worked hard on this. I’m proud of you. Also, once in a while, give her a treat like ice cream or some special time with you.

I say once in a while, because you don’t want to teach him that every effort brings him special rewards. Also, don’t reinforce with video games or YouTube time! You don’t want to encourage that part of his life.

It won’t be easy. To begin with, he will resist this new approach with all his might. Expect tantrums, screaming fits, nasty words and more. Again, it’s not bad; we are naturally inclined to easy reward and away from hardship.

As a sensitive, strong and nurturing mom, be firm but avoid punishment. Studies show that punishment (humiliation, yelling, and physical violence like beating) can scar people for life. So resist it, even when you are frustrated and tired.

From your signature, “helpless single mom,” I suspect you’re feeling overwhelmed and lonely. I think it would help you create a support group. Look to family and friends. Rope in other moms and work together. Also search online for support groups with tags such as “gentle parents.”

Also, if you can, I suggest a few sessions with a mental health professional can help you plan effectively and give you some support as you make effective changes. Look for a master’s degree holder who will be happy to help you work on the behavioral angle of parenting.

Finally, thank you very much for writing. There are millions of parents struggling with this, and with the pandemic, we’re all feeling a bit depressed and isolated. You are very sensitive to reaching out and I think many readers will be very comforted to know that they are not alone. I will think of you.

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