In Family Support

Stanford psychology expert: This is the No. 1 skill parents need to teach their kids—but most don’t

Tuesday, September 10


As parents, we all want to raise kids who are smart and focused, especially in a world where digital distraction seems to be inescapable. (Even tech titans like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have strategies for limiting their children’s screen time.)

Why? Because in the future, there will be two kinds of people in the world: Those who let their attention and lives be controlled and coerced by others and those who proudly call themselves “indistractable.”

Becoming indistractable is the most important skill for the 21st century — and it’s one that many parents fail to teach their kids. After years of studying the intersection of psychology, technology and how we engage with it, one of the biggest mistakes I see parents making is not empowering their kids with the autonomy to control their own time.

Allowing them to do so is a tremendous gift; even if they fail from time to time, failure is part of the learning process. Parents need to understand that it’s okay to put their kids in charge, because it’s only when they learn to practice monitoring their own behavior that they learn how to manage their own time and attention.

Teach them at a young age

When my daughter was five and already insisting on “iPad time” with unrelenting protests, my wife and I knew we had to act.

After we all calmed down, we did our best to respect her needs in the way Richard Ryan, one of the most cited researchers in the world on the drivers of human behavior, recommends: We explained, as simply as we could, that too much screen time comes at the expense of other things.

As a kindergartner, she was learning to tell time, so we could explain that there was only so much of it for things she enjoyed. Spending too much time with apps and videos meant less time to play with friends at the park, swim at the community pool, or be with Mom and Dad.

Consumer skepticism is healthy

We also explained that the apps and videos on the iPad were made by some very smart people and were intentionally designed to keep her hooked and habitually watching.

Understanding that companies are motivated to keep kids spending time watching or playing is an important part of teaching media literacy.

It’s important that our kids understand the motives of the gaming companies and social networks: While these products sell us fun and connection, they also profit from our time and attention.

This might seem like a lot to teach a five-year-old, but we felt a strong need to equip her with the ability to make decisions about her screen usage and enforce her own rules.

Kids need sufficient amounts of autonomy

We then asked her how much screen time per day she thought was good for her. We took a risk by giving her the autonomy to make the decision for herself, but it was worth a shot.

Truthfully, I expected her to say, “All day!” But she didn’t. Instead, armed with the logic behind why limiting screen time was important and with the freedom to decide in her hands, she sheepishly asked for “two shows.” Two episodes of a kid-appropriate program on Netflix is about 45 minutes, I explained.

“Does 45 minutes seem like the right amount of screen time per day for you?” I sincerely asked. She nodded in agreement, and I could tell by the hint of a smile that she felt she had gotten the better end of the deal. As far as I was concerned, 45 minutes was fine with me, as it left plenty of time for other activities.

Becoming indistractable is the most important skill for the 21st century — and it’s one that many parents fail to teach their kids.

“How do you plan to make sure you don’t watch for more than 45 minutes per day?” I asked. Not wanting to lose the negotiation that she clearly felt she was winning, she proposed using a kitchen timer she could set herself.

“Sounds good,” I agreed. “But if Mommy and Daddy notice you’re not able to keep the promise you made to yourself and to us, we’ll have to revisit this discussion,” I said, and she agreed.

Prevent distraction with ‘effort pacts’

Today, as a spirited 10-year-old, my daughter is still in charge of her screen time. She’s made some adjustments to her self-imposed guidelines as she’s grown, such as trading daily episodes for a weekend movie night. She’s also replaced the kitchen timer with other tools; she now calls out to Amazon’s Alexa to set a timer to let her know when she’s reached her limit.

The important thing is that these are her rules, not ours, and that she’s in charge of enforcing them. Best of all, when her time is up, it’s not her dad who has to be the bad guy; it’s her device telling her she’s had enough.

Without realizing it, she entered into an “effort pact,” a kind of pre-commitment that involves increasing the amount of effort required to perform an undesirable action.

Don’t underestimate your child’s ability to follow through.

This type of pre-commitment can help us become indistractable. Many parents want to know if there is a correct amount of time kids should be allowed to spend on their screens, but no such absolute number exists. There are too many factors at play, including the child’s specific needs, what the child is doing online and the activities that screen time is replacing.

Discussions and respectful disagreements are healthy

The most important thing is to involve the child in the conversation and help them set their own rules. When parents impose limits without their kids’ input, they are setting them up to be resentful and incentivizing them to cheat the system.

These strategies are no guarantee of parent-child domestic harmony. In fact, we should expect to have heated discussions about the role technology plays in our homes and in our kids’ lives, just as many families have fiery debates over giving the car keys to their teens on a Saturday night. Discussions and, at times, respectful disagreements are a sign of a healthy family.

It’s only when kids can monitor their own behavior that they learn the skills they need to be indistractable — even when their parents aren’t around.

If there’s one lesson to take away from this, it’s that distraction is a problem like any other. Whether in a large corporation or in a small family, when we discuss our problems openly and in an environment where we feel safe and supported, we can resolve them together.

One thing is for certain: Technology is becoming more pervasive and persuasive. While it’s important our kids are aware that products are designed to be highly engaging, we also need to reinforce their belief in their own power to overcome distraction. It’s their responsibility — as well as their right — to use their time wisely.

Nir Eyal is a graduate and instructor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. He writes, consults and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology and business. Nir’s writing has been featured in Harvard Business Review, Time and Psychology Today. His latest book, “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life” (published by BenBella Books) is out now.

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment

Start typing and press Enter to search