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

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Dear Thelma,

I need your advice on how 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 elementary school son is after work. Since he can no longer go to the classroom, he spends so much time playing online games and watching YouTube.

The only time he hangs up the phone is when we read storybooks at night.

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

He thinks having followers on games is everything. Whenever the internet is slow or I download his homework, he uses the time to play mobile games, even if I tell him to hang up.

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

Thank you so much.

Helpless single mother


Dear helpless single mother,

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

First of all, small children like your son need to be fed 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 won! Are very carefully designed to trick the brain’s arousal and reward systems.

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

This does not mean that gambling and the internet are bad or should be banned. A lot of the things we do work on a similar system, including exercising and laughing with friends. This is just 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 that you haven’t seen for years and years.

This is where parenting comes in. Right from your letter, when your son says “Oh, that’s too difficult”, you rush in and do it for him. Essentially, you teach him to be lazy.

Please don’t beat yourself up! Kids are good at pushing their parents around, and you’re not the first mom to be over-parented.

What will help you is rethinking your parenting style and a new diet. 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, “play is for Saturday afternoons from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.” and all other activities of the week are healthy activities like finger painting, reading books, and playing with toys. No internet. No flash, zipper, tech stuff at all.

Also, you need to develop a new style of schoolwork. School is hell right now because the teacher is miles away and little kids just can’t adjust to online learning well.

Know that you are not the only one struggling. In addition, the world will not fall apart if it fails multiple times.

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

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

This way, you will teach him to be responsible, but he will not link his academic success to his self-esteem. It is a vital life lesson that is very important for good mental health.

To use the brain’s reward system, praise and reward the behavior you want. It means telling him, “You’ve worked hard on this. I’m proud of you. Also, every now and then, treat her to a treat like ice cream or a special time with you.

I say every now and then, because you don’t want to teach him that every effort brings him special rewards. Also, don’t beef up with video games or YouTube time! You don’t want to encourage that part of his life.

It won’t be easy. For starters, he will resist this new approach with all his might. Expect tantrums, screaming fits, mean words and more. Again, it’s not bad; we are naturally inclined to an easy reward and far from difficulties.

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

From your signature, “Helpless Single Mother”, I suspect you are feeling overwhelmed and alone. I think it would help you form a support group. Look at your family and friends. Hire other moms and work together. Also look online for support groups with tags such as “gentle parenting”.

Also, if you can, I suggest that a few sessions with a mental health professional can help you plan effectively and give you a bit of support when making an effective change. 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 all feel a bit weak and isolated. You are very reasonable in reaching out and I think many readers will take great comfort in knowing that they are not alone. I will think of you.


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