06/12/2013 04:17 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Geek Dad Finds Peace at Home with Screen-Time Tokens

This post was contributed by Jonathan Liu as part of a Father's Day series at Common Sense Media. All week awesome dads are sharing stories, tips, and tribulations from their own homes and families.

Despite the fact that I spend much of my time in front of a computer screen -- or maybe because of it -- I closely regulate my three kids' screen time. But that can be difficult; often, my decision to let them spend time playing on the iPad or watching a show depends more on my own mood than on some deliberate choice I'm making about their mental, physical or ocular health. Let's face it: Sometimes, I say no just because I'm having a bad day -- or else, I let them binge because I'm tired of hearing them argue, which basically rewards them for bad behavior.

Inspired by a friend of ours, we established a system of screen time tokens. Each kid gets a set number of tokens every weekend, worth 20 minutes each. As long as chores are done, they can decide how and when to use them -- whether to spend them all at once or meter them out over the weekend.

It's a very simple solution, but it's been working well so far. What I like is that it teaches my kids to budget, and it puts them in (partial) control of how they get their digital entertainment. Since we've started using the tokens, I haven't had to referee any arguments about who gets more time on the iPad. And as a bonus, I now have a currency that actually has value to my kids; giving them more tokens as a reward or taking away tokens as a penalty for bad behavior actually influences their behavior in a way that other incentives and punishments don't.

Right now, my kids aren't old enough to have their own smartphones or laptops, and the day will come when they'll need a computer to do homework, not just to watch YouTube videos or play games. But I hope by establishing this balance now, it'll make it easier for them to maintain it in the future.

If only I were able to strike a good balance myself. Maybe I'll work on that right after I watch Season 4 of Arrested Development.

Jonathan H. Liu is a stay-at-home dad of three (9, 6, and 6 weeks!), a voracious reader, and a board game addict, and he writes about all of that at You can follow him on Twitter at @jonathanhliu.

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