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Is It OK to Use My Smartphone As a Reward?

10/29/2013 11:15 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

I use the iPhone with games and music as a reward for my 5-year-old daughter. It is often the only way I can get her to brush her teeth or stop bothering her little brother. I only let her play educational games, but lately, I have to negotiate with her a lot of the time to get her do what I ask in exchange for time on my phone. Is it OK to use my smartphone as a reward?

I understand that digital devices, with their endless bells and whistles, do a great job at motivating and managing a child's behavior. But relying on your iPhone to control your child is not a reliable parenting strategy. Here are my thoughts:

• Don't be afraid of your daughter's frustration. Your little girl needs to know that you can handle her upsets without reaching in your purse for a "sedative" in the form of your iPhone. In my work, I urge parents to address problematic behavior at its root, preventing it rather than controlling it. I refer to this as being the "Captain of the Ship" in a child's life, capable of sailing through calm and stormy seas. It is important that you develop a game plan built upon genuine authority rather than a quick fix. (Please click here for an illustration of this idea.)

• Use incentives rather than rewards. It's fine to build incentives into your daily routine to address a child's natural reluctance to move through mundane tasks. ("If you're able to get your teeth brushed and jammies on before this song is finished, we'll have time for three stories instead of two!") But dangling the phone as a tempting prize for every small act of cooperation is not a good long-term parenting approach.

• Steer clear of storms. Rather than counting on your smartphone to be your backup plan if things fall apart, prevent predictable problems by having a plan in place. If your daughter regularly bothers her brother when you're making dinner, set out puzzles or crayons to give them something to do. If she routinely fusses when you have to wait in line at the bank or post office, have silly putty or stickers in your purse. Be prepared to address your daughter's needs for something to do, rather than frantically handing her the phone if she threatens to launch into a meltdown when you're out and about and desperate to avoid a scene.

• Engage her imagination. For thousands of years, five year olds have used their creativity to entertain themselves. I appreciate that within your tiny iPhone there are thousands of potential diversions, but if you want your daughter to grow an active imagination, she will have to use it. Young children need to play with toys they can touch and manipulate. While I would not dispute the fact that there are many things a child can learn on a digital device, I still believe that young kids should not be plugged into a screen for play time.

• Expect complaints. If you stop handing over your iPhone when your daughter demands it, she will probably complain that nothing you offer is as fun as your digital device. Kids who have become accustomed to the flashiness of an online game will be bored by the slow pace of ordinary play. But if you can ride out her frustration, she will adjust to a more natural level of stimulation, rediscovering the joy of simple, 3D play.

Wean your daughter -- and yourself-- from leaning so heavily on your phone. I know this is easier said than done. I know there are endless "educational games" that justify its use. I know how tempting it is to have a grown-up conversation without hearing, "When will you be done, Mommy?" But relying on your digital device as a bribe, threat or diversion is not a reliable, long-term parenting strategy. While there may be rare times when you bring out your smartphone -- perhaps a long airline ride -- I urge you to limit its use with your 5-year-old.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

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