Let me tell you a familiar tale. It would be a long day and my son would ask for an episode of television. I would turn on something like Paw Patrol or Animal Mechanicals and he would enjoy an episode, or two, or three… while I cooked dinner. The next night he would, again, ask to watch some television and I’d say “okay, but just one!” and the third night when he would ask for some television I would feel like he had watched a lot and would say “no, not tonight sweetie”. And then he would respond with the greatest temper tantrum of all time.
It was during one of these temper tantrums, I walked over to the fridge and smacked four cute little race car magnets on the fridge and I crouched down and told my son, “okay, buddy — you see these race cars? Each time you watch an episode of TV, I will take down a race car. On Monday, we will put all the race cars back up. As long as you have a race car on the fridge, you can watch TV.” He was excited, and he seemed to grasp the idea (for reference, he was 3.5 when we started implementing the race car system).
That first night though? He watched all four episodes. Yup. I mean, I didn’t really expect anything different. But, come Wednesday night when he asked me if he could watch television, I just got to ask him, “do you have any race cars on the fridge?” He looked, saw that there weren’t any and moved on with the evening. Just. Like. That. The second week? The race cars made it to Tuesday before he used them all up. Now it has been about six months, and he typically will have race cars on the fridge until Thursday or Friday. Which, I am OK with. On the weekends we are usually doing lots of other fun things, so I’m excited that television isn’t generally an issue on the weekend.
When my son and I are consistently having trouble with the same situation, I try to think about it from my son’s perspective. Why is this so frustrating to him? When it dawned on me that he was always so dang upset about television because there was no consistency, I knew it was time for an actual plan for television time. Some days I would have said yes to TV time, and some days I said no. He didn’t understand, and truthfully, how could he when I didn’t really have any rhyme or reason to the process myself?
The race car system has been a game changer for us. Television isn’t a battle anymore. It’s consistent and our son knows how much he can watch each week. It’s his choice, and it’s no longer a “me vs. him” situation.
Why did I choose four race cars? Well, to be honest — I had four cute little magnets on hand. But it works well for our family because it generally is about one episode a night during the week. I don’t think it really matters how many magnets there are, other families should pick a number that works for them. No judgment here. But there are two things that I do think that matter to this magnet system. 1.) The process should be visual so the child is able to see how many episodes remain, and they are visually able to see you remove a magnet from the fridge so they can clearly start to associate that see that each episode is a magnet. 2.) The child needs to be able to make their own decisions. It was hard to watch my son watch all four episodes that first night, knowing he was going to learn a painful lesson the rest of the week, but it’s an important lesson for budgeting in general, and they need to make the mistakes to learn the process.
What system does your family use at home for screen time? Would you be willing to put it more into the hands of your little one? I’d love to hear your thoughts or what works for you in the comments!