Negotiating Downtime with Your Child

By the Duke University Talent Identification Program

When our 12-year-old daughter, Lauren, began to respond to our simplest requests with anger and resentment, my husband, Bill, and I pressed her to explain why she felt so offended. Her exasperated response, “I never get a moment’s peace,” confounded us. She spent huge amounts of time in seclusion. Because she was so accomplished in academic and extracurricular activities, we wondered how she could see anything healthy—much less productive—in playing video games, reading fantasy novels, or watching cartoons for hours. Moreover, she suddenly couldn’t remember to do the basic household tasks she’d been expected to do for years. The realization that everyone was frustrated led Bill and me to reexamine our parenting skills and the house rules.

We wondered how she could see anything healthy—much less productive—in playing video games, reading fantasy novels, or watching cartoons for hours.

Our greatest obstacle was Lauren’s unwillingness to communicate with us. She is sensitive, deep-thinking, and firm in her convictions, but she shuts down verbally when confronted. We dealt with this by having many small, neutral discussions over several weeks, until we identified a few key issues. From our perspective, Lauren had no realistic idea of how much free time she really had. From her perspective, we randomly interrupted her to do small chores or answer our inquiries, making her feel that she was on call and preventing her from getting deeply involved in anything. The most important information we gleaned was that having considerable downtime was crucial to her ability to meet the demands placed on her by herself and others. We had unintentionally conveyed to her that her public achievements were not enough, that she needed to be just as accomplished, disciplined, and industrious in private. She needed our home to be a refuge. We needed a less belligerent, more cooperative daughter.

Since Lauren didn’t want to be nagged, and since we didn’t want to have to ask her more than once to do something, or to stop doing something, we mounted a small dry-erase board on the refrigerator and established a few basic rules:

  • We list routine chores and appointments on the board so that Lauren can anticipate and plan around them.
  • Every third book she reads must be a classic or come from our “preferred” list, and reading time comes after she has completed her responsibilities.
  • Lauren is limited to two hours per day of combined screen time, and she must list start and finish times for video games, computer games, and television shows. If possible, we refrain from disrupting her.
  • Because homework, chores, and posted activities come first, she may not have much free time on busy days, but some screen and reading time can usually be carried over to the weekend.
  • Forgetting to do her chores or to log screen time results in the loss of screen and reading time for the day. Insolence carries harsher penalties.

Our plan has been generally successful. Most remarkably, all of our attitudes were immediately transformed. There has been less avoidance, conflict, and sarcasm and more connection, teamwork, and optimism. Over time, we have learned some valuable lessons:

  • Allow extra time in exchange for extra chores if appropriate. Lauren felt that she should be given extra screen time during the summer, when there were no school and extracurricular demands on her. We felt that she should use that time to maintain her skills and help more around the house. Together, we decided that she could earn extra time by washing the car, babysitting her sister, or completing an algebra worksheet.
  • Be flexible. Consistency has proved important when we deal with our savvy negotiator, but we also try to be sensitive to her stress indicators. These include “attitude,” reduced interest in physical activities, changes in eating habits, and even the amount of time she seeks to spend reading and gaming.
  • Keep things in perspective. We try to enforce consequences without fanfare, and we refuse to engage in debate, but occasionally she still reacts with eye-rolling, foot-stomping outbursts. On one such occasion, her father sent her to her room to write a page expressing her anger and frustration. She didn’t have to share it with us—only show that she had written something. She returned with a full page written in Sindarin Elvish (from The Lord of the Rings) and welcomed us to try our hand at translating it, warning us that we might not appreciate her words. Smug, but attitude successfully adjusted! Oh yes, we were also reminded that she had learned to read and write Elvish during what we thought was “mindless downtime.”

Tamara Anderson

In addition to mothering two wonderful girls, Tamara Anderson of Houston, Texas, works as an attorney. She serves on the Board of Trustees of the Galloway School and is an active volunteer in the Clear Creek independent school district’s magnet middle school for gifted and talented students.

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