What video games can teach us about effective parenting

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As a psychotherapist, I have heard versions of the following question many times: “Why can my son be so focused on his video games but not so focused on important things like homework and schoolwork?”

I am not a fan of video games, but there is a secret in the programming of these games that seems to take children to a level of greatness. Fortunately, that magic is completely transposable to our interactions with them. As you know, these kids don’t just play these games, they play like stars. Not only do they play to be the best in the world, but all they want to do is reach level after level of success, mastery, and achievement.

Motivating factors

So here’s what these games have in common that differs drastically from most of what kids encounter in interactions with us adults in real life:

  1. Clear incentives and rewards. In video games, incentives are crisp and precisely timed to always convey the energy of success. All of these games have delightfully energized “entry times” or, as I prefer to say now, game on / game on. These games never forget to confront the player with the juicy energy of that kid’s success. Score, score, score and he or she is rewarded with all the bells and whistles the game has to offer, and the game never misses a chance to ring. These successes are always connected to perceptible experiences that the child can link to events in a well-played game.
  2. immediate feedback. These games are always experienced in the moment… They are always supremely present and always deliver. The game never pretends to be too busy to notice the player’s success. Success is the default setting. Even if a rule is broken, the negative consequences are brief and then the child is back in the game. The game always restarts to see and express the energy of success. He never holds a grudge for a rule that was broken in the past or for an anticipated rule that will be broken in the future.
  3. Clear rules and consequences. The rules and consequences of these games are super clear and super simple. When a child breaks a rule, even a little, the game’s programming never gives a warning, only a consequence. The game never looks the other way or leaves out the child who is just learning to play or having a great game (unintentionally breaking the momentum). These consequences may seem drastic and punitive: heads rolling, blood spurting, bombs exploding, but look who’s back in the game in a second or two, even if the game is over! This process is so different from real life, where wait times are only considered “counted” when they last one minute for each year of a child’s age. (Whose idea was that?) The kid comes out of these ridiculously short wait times more and more determined to never break that rule again and more and more inspired to go further in mastering and performing the game.
real world secrets

The secret to generating this level of motivation in a young person is that the game in/game is so powerfully energized that the game out/game out feels like an eternity, even if it’s just a second or two. In the jargon of the Nourished Heart Approach, we call this type of time out a Restart. Even tough teens thrive on short reboots as needed. The advantage is that because the reboot ends so quickly, the adult can come back to the truth of the moments that follow and express gratitude that the same rule now applies. No being broken

Game-in/game-on simply translates to being radically grateful when the rules are followed and grateful for every kind of successful choice and value that can be invoked in the context of the truth of the next few moments. Consider a boy listening to his stereo while his brother struggles with homework in the next room. When the noise dies down, you, the parent, focus on the winning play:

“Sarah, it was very thoughtful how you turned the music down. That shows I how considerate you are. That kindness is helping your brother focus on his homework. I appreciate how collaborative you are being. That is a great quality that I see in you.”

The other secret is that by always offering a consequence when a line is crossed, even slightly, video games avoid the trap of energizing negativity. Instead, they stop. In parenting, this principle translates into a momentary disconnect: a little bit of arguing, a little bit of disrespect, a little bit of non-compliance all equals a broken rule, and therefore results in time. standby completely without power. The child will feel even our extremely brief reboot as a consequence. Even a few seconds deprived of our positive attention, like in the video game, will feel like an eternity if our game is powerful and inspiring enough.

You do not believe me? Consider this: What if the normal, conventional approaches to parenting and discipline that most people have at their disposal were doomed from the start? Intense children crave intense relationships, and if we pay attention to them mainly for the wrong things (their bad behavior), we end up being, in effect, a backwards video game.

No one would purposely give a child a hundred dollar bill for doing the wrong thing, but we inadvertently do this all the time by giving most of our energy and connection to negativity. Meanwhile, we have pretty few ways to show our appreciation when problems don’t occur.

Here’s an example: I don’t know anyone who says he’s opposed to respect. It is a highly valued trait that seems to cross all cultures, traditions and roles in the world. We tell children all the time that we want them to be respectful and we tell them that respect will get them far in life. That said, when do we most commonly mention the word respect? It’s not when respect is happening. It is when things have gone wrong.

We say we are busy, and we are, even though we are apparently never too busy to react to a problem. When disrespect occurs, we don’t just show up, we give it our all. Our best sermons, our best rebukes, and our best relationship. It’s the video game in reverse on steroids. In comparison, we have such miserable ways of showing ourselves when there is respect. However, when even a little disrespect happens, we give our children the great gift of U.S.

Take a “stand”, see the change

The nurtured heart approach turns all that on its head. It was designed precisely for the intense and challenging child (often those with an “ADHD” diagnosis) and requires parents to take three simple but essential supports that make all the difference in the world. These supports have been shown* to shift the intensity and channel it into greatness: children give us their best selves. To continue our analogy, what I will describe next brings the parenting “game” back into full alignment, motivation, and inspiration.

  • support one it is refusing to give the energies of relationship to a child when things go wrong. The burden of proof is on us to show that this is the new truth. Yes, there will be accountability, but not in the middle of the problem. We will simply refuse to participate.
  • stand two is demonstrating that abundant relationship and energy are present when problems are No happening… when the rules are No being broken… and when respect and responsibility and all the other desired character traits are developing to some extent. This is a forgettable refusal to go much further than superficial appreciation (“Good job, son”) to explain why are you grateful “This is what I meant by ‘good job’…” This is the equivalent of leveling up or hearing bells and whistles for a well-earned score in a video game.
  • post three it is to be in the truth of the moment. If you have clear rules like “no yelling” and “no swearing”, then if a line is crossed even slightly, simply declare the line crossing by saying something that will issue the consequence, like “Reset” or “It’s time of a reset” while doing a powerful combination of Stands One and Two. That is, offer no energy or relationship to negativity, essentially disconnecting the gift from you, while remaining appreciatively present to the truth of the next moment when the rule is no longer there. is breaking

Staying with the truth of the moment emulates the logic of these games. The power of very short waiting time is that we now have the ability to appreciate that new truth and build an ever-increasing Inner Wealth in our children. By Inner Wealth, I mean a child’s sense of their own worth, or self-worth.

This is what being in the truth of the moment might look like:

“Billy, your reboot is over. Thanks for doing that even though you weren’t happy about it. I really appreciate that you don’t yell or swear anymore. I see that he may still be upset, but the good thing is that he is handling his strong feelings wonderfully. That is your wisdom, your choice, your demonstration of kindness.”

As you can see, by transposing the same logic of video games into our own lives, we can prevent so many “difficult” children from having lives burdened with a psychiatric diagnosis and the ill effects of medication. The nurtured heart approach supports the idea that the intensity we see in our children’s emotions and behaviors (intensity that drives people crazy and raises concerns that something is wrong with the child) is the same energy that drives the greatness. After all, that’s what we witness when these kids are up to playing video games. I have witnessed this change to greatness time and time again in my practice, and as I teach others about the nurtured heart approach, I hear story after story that proves parents, educators, and treatment professionals can have the same impact. .

I am convinced that all children can be Inner Wealth billionaires. That’s why the acknowledgments I recommend leveling up. They may seem too luxurious, but I am convinced that they inspire on a soul level. It’s worth the extra words. After all, we are all poets when it comes to talking about what is wrong. This is simply turning that same skill set to serve the greater good within the child and within our family.

The good news is that changing a difficult child is as easy as one, two, three. Go for the gold. Game In / Game On!


* View this MIA summary of a 2020 randomized controlled study of the nurturing heart approach conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona Zuckerman School of Public Health. It found that young children’s ADHD symptoms went from “strong” to “negligible” using an NHA-based intervention. For more information and to download the study, visit my website.

Editor’s note: You can listen to the “Mad in the Family” podcast on the nurtured heart approach here.


Mad in America hosts blogs from a diverse group of writers. These publications are designed to serve as a public forum for discussion, in general terms, about psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are those of the writers.

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