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

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Dear Thelma,

I need your guidance on how to improve my relationship with my son, for him to understand the importance of education.

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

The only time he puts down the phone is when we read storybooks at night.

He depends on me 100% to teach him how to do his homework. He depends on me to read those hard vocabularies and he doesn't want to write them himself. Sometimes I get overwhelmed as it seems I am the one to think of his studies. I enrolled him in a course but he doesn't focus.

He thinks having followers on gaming is everything. Whenever the Internet connection is slow or when I'm uploading his homework, he uses the time to play mobile games although I tell him to put the phone down.

I am helpless on how to gain his attention and respect. At the same time, I seek your guidance and expert input.

Thank you so much.

Helpless single working mother

Dear Helpless Single Working Mother,

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

First, little kids like your son need to be nurtured and guided into good habits. That takes a lot of attention and carefully structured parenting. Second, gaming is designed to be addictive.

Let's start with the second point first. Gaming is deliberately designed to be addictive. The pings, loud sounds, and positive sounding messages, "You won!" are very carefully made to trick the brain's excitement and reward systems.

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

This does not mean that gaming and the Internet is evil or should be banned. Lots of things that we do works on a similar system, including exercise and laughing with friends. It's just how we're made.

This brings us to the other point: little kids need to be guided into healthy behaviour. This can be very tricky because gaming is easy and fun, and reading books takes effort. School is even worse, because it's tonnes of effort for a reward that you don't see for years and years.

This is where the parenting comes in. From your letter, when your son says "Oh, it's too difficult", you rush in and do it for him. Essentially, you are teaching him to be lazy.

Please don't blame yourself! Children are ace at pushing their parents about, and you are not the first mummy to be tricked into over-parenting.

What will help is a rethink about your parenting style, and a new regime. Your son needs to learn that he is a child, and that he has to listen to mummy, even when it's not fun.

Set up a strict routine with clear goals. Like, "gaming is only for Saturday afternoons from 2pm to 4pm" and all other recreation during the week is healthy stuff like finger painting, reading books, and playing with toys. No Internet. No flashing, zipping, tech stuff at all.

Also, you need to develop a new style when it comes to schoolwork. At the moment school is hell because the teacher is miles away and little kids simply can't cope well with online learning.

Know you're not the only one who is struggling. Also, the world will not collapse if he fails a few times.

Make a list of things that have to be done by you, for example, the uploading of the homework may be too hard for him. And make a list of things that are his job, like struggling with the big words and puzzling over his arithmetic.

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

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

To use the brain's reward system, praise and reward the behaviour you want. That means telling him, "You worked hard on that. I'm proud of you." In addition, every now and again, give him a treat like an ice cream or special time with you.

I say every now and again, because you don't want to teach him that every effort gets him special rewards. Also, don't reinforce with video gaming or YouTube time! You don't want to encourage that part of his life.

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

As a sensible, strong, nurturing mummy, be firm but avoid punishment. Studies show that punishment (humiliation, yelling, and physical abuse such as beating) can scar people for life. So resist it, even when you're frustrated and tired.

From your signature, "helpless single mother" I suspect you feel overwhelmed and lonely. I think it would help you to get a support group together. Look to family and friends. Rope in other mums and work together. Also, look online for support groups with tags like "gentle parenting".

In addition, if you can, I suggest a few sessions with a mental health professional may help you plan effectively and provide a bit of support as you make effective change. Look for a Master Degree holder who is happy to help you work the behaviourism angle of parenting.

Finally, thank you so much for writing. There are millions of parents who struggle with this, and with the pandemic we're all feeling a bit low and isolated. You're very sensible to reach out and I think a lot of readers will be very comforted to know they're not alone. I will be thinking of you.

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