Is it all right to use screen time to motivate my child to do his homework? I have a 10-year-old boy and we limit his use of technology pretty strictly. But the other day I “paid” him 15 minutes of screen time for doing his homework, and it felt like a gift from God because he did his work quickly, thoroughly (I checked it), and without complaining. I can’t figure out if (1) getting “paid” for work is a legitimate, God-given exchange and that’s why it worked so well, or (2) I’m cultivating wrong desires in “paying” him for work he should be doing cheerfully and willingly without that. Help! 

When I (Justin) was 10 years old, my dad offered me $500 not to watch TV for a year. That was a life-changing amount of money for a kid my age! So I did it. And indeed, my life was changed—but not because of the money. (In fact, I was told it was invested on my behalf in Roses stock. Have you ever heard of a department store named Roses? Exactly.)

My life was changed because I never looked at TV the same way again. On the one hand, my addiction to five-hour afternoons of watching Nickelodeon was broken. But more importantly, it opened space to fall in love with new things—the pleasures of whole afternoons outside with my brothers, extended baseball games in the yard, or setting up complicated bike courses on a side street.

Just like your question, my story is partly about the merit of screens, but also about how discipline works. Let’s start there, and we (Justin and Lauren) will share some insights we’ve learned and how we manage discipline and screens with our four boys.

Disciplines Reorder Our Loves

When it comes to the word “discipline,” whether we’re talking about personal spiritual disciplines or training up our children, we often come across a common misunderstanding. It goes something like this: God cares about the heart, so if I’m not acting out of the right motivations, then it’s just empty legalism.

It’s true that God cares about our heart motivations (Matt. 15:8), but that’s not the rub here. This view misunderstands how grace changes our heart through our obedience, in spite of bad motivations.

Paul’s distillation of how grace works in Romans 6 uses the metaphor of a master: “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life” (Rom. 6:22).

He’s saying that we’re always bound to something, but grace frees us to choose the good master. Being a slave to obedience to God is actually the most freeing path of life! In it, the beauty of God’s love motivates us to repentance (Rom. 2:4), and in turn, the practice of obedience reorders our loves. There’s a healthy feedback loop of belief and action. We call it sanctification.

We see this paradigm in our daily lives. For example, the way to fall more in love with God and neighbor is not to wait around for the right motivation, but to discipline yourself to read the Scriptures, pray, worship, and serve your neighbors, trusting God will use that discipline to change how you feel about God and neighbor.

Our children also need this paradigm. A parent’s primary job is not to manage behavior and outcomes, but to train a child’s heart to love the right things—primarily, Jesus himself.

We’re always bound to something, but grace frees us to choose the good master. Being a slave to obedience to God is actually the most freeing path of life.

So how can you train children to glorify God through their homework? If we expect them to do it because they love it, we will not only be sorely disappointed when they inevitably don’t, we will also miss the opportunity to train their hearts to love rightly. Part of learning how to do homework unto the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31) is simply learning how to do homework in the first place. To that end, rewards can help train children in the habit of work that leads to virtue and forms a person who can work unto God’s glory. (Consider reading Thomas Aquinas on habit and virtue if you want more depth here. Or if you want a more practical-level take, Justin tries to offer that in his book on habit and spiritual formation, The Common Rule.)

Importantly, the rewards need to be appropriate (more on that below), consistently applied (otherwise we teach them that what matters is simply the whim of the person in charge), and gradually let go as a child matures and takes responsibility for his or her own character formation. But to wait for pure motivations would be to miss an important opportunity for spiritual formation.

But what about this idea of screen time as a reward?

Don’t Fear Screen Time—But Do Ruthlessly Curate it

There is a lot we don’t know yet about how modern technologies are changing us, but we do know one thing: if we don’t master screens, they will master us.

That does not mean we need to be afraid of screens—a sentiment we both often encounter in parents. It does mean that we should apply discipline to screens. When it comes to screen time, we should ruthlessly pursue the discipline of curation for both ourselves and also our kids.

The idea of curation is that we have a limited quantity of time (one gallery wall), so we pick carefully (only the best art will hang on it). Since our kids are formed more by the example we set than the rules we communicate, parents need to live out this discipline before they can teach it to their children.

Kids are formed more by the example we set than the rules we communicate.

We know screens are an incredibly powerful way of fixing our attention on certain things—most are bottomless pits of distraction, and some are downright dangerous. But many stories form our imaginations to long for beauty and redemption and other virtues. We should be picking those. Likewise, many games lead us into creativity or community instead of mindless distraction. We should be picking those.

Curating Shows and Movies:

We keep a list of family movies and shows that we think are worth our boys’ attention (if you’re interested, we’ll be releasing a version of that as a resource via www.thecommonrule.org in the coming months.) Usually, those are shows the whole family could watch together. For our family—four boys younger than 8 years old—the enduring Pixar films, the early Harry Potter movies, and the Wild Kratts television show have been great starting points. For the littlest ones who can’t yet follow a story, we try to emphasize things designed to form attention by engagement and characters (Sesame Street, vintage Blue’s Clues, or Daniel Tiger) as opposed to shows designed to keep attention by constant change (random YouTube clips on autoplay, for example).

Curating Video Games:

For our boys younger than 5, we like tablet games that engage them in developmentally appropriate play or train them in problem-solving skills—for instance, we’ve enjoyed games by the app developers Toca Boca or Originator. For our 7-year-old, we like Minecraft and other world-building games that help expand the imagination. Again, a great rule of thumb is to lean toward the communal. For example, every Sunday when our oldest boys get to play Super Nintendo games at their grandparents’ house, they can play multiplayer games with their cousins, but they can’t hole up alone with one-player games.

Practical Tips

In sum, before using screen time as an incentive, do your own homework as a parent:

  • Be intentional in limiting screens to an appropriate amount at predictable times. The number of hours is less important than simply having a limit.
  • Plan ahead for when you will allow screens, as opposed to throwing your kids an iPad because you’re overwhelmed by parenting. Grace abounds—this totally happens to us, too! Just don’t make it a routine. Note that in order to curate well, you might have to pay a couple bucks as opposed to just going to the free things (don’t worry, it’s usually cheaper than the cup of coffee you bought this morning).
  • Even when kids get the screen, it shouldn’t be a blank license for zoning out. Instead, give them a generous serving of great stories or engaged play. Take the time to curate that list of engaging, imagination-expanding games and shows ahead of time, so you aren’t scrambling at the last minute.

In the end, if a great show or game is the reward for doing homework well and without complaining, then we say, “Well done, good and faithful parent.” You are training a child in discipline and nourishing a heart with something good and beautiful.

Editors’ note: 

TGC’s “Thorns & Thistles” column seeks to apply wisdom with practical advice about faith, work, and economics. If you have a question on how to think about and practice your work in a way that honors God, let us know at [email protected].