Get tough with son who shirks chores for computer

Our youngest son is 19 and can’t get simple chores done around the house because of an inordinate love affair with his computer. Yes, he’s ADD, but he really seems to lose all sense of time and place and reasonable expectations for family interaction and responsibility when he dives into his screen. We’re both at work, and he lives at home while going to technical school. He’s great about showing up on time for school and gets fantastic scores, but as for the homefront, it’s a total loss. Despite notes and reminders, he’s adrift on the Internet. Yeah, I could police him, but he’s 19. This is a new frontier after a disciplined high school regimen. Does he need help?

— G.C., Houston


Much has been written about modern media — cell phones, texting, computers, e-mail, instant messaging, social network sites — and whether these are good or bad for us. My view is that, on the one hand, I was born for this world! So utterly convenient and fun to communicate so easily and so quickly. On the other hand …

I cannot easily dismiss my disquiet about the social/interpersonal consequences of these technologies. These communication/entertainment habits tempt us to normalize isolation and inertia. Playing "World of Warcraft" with "friends" for six hours sitting in your underwear by yourself in your bedroom is not the same as being with your friends. And, speaking of friends, Facebook stretches that term to the breaking point. It’s a verb now, as in "I friended you, but you never responded!"

Modern social media and cell phones tempt us to work harder at pseudo-relationships than actual flesh-and-blood relationships. Recently in my private practice, I’ve treated teens distraught after a breakup of a long-term love relationship … with someone they have never met in real time. Yep, they met online. The deeply meaningful love affair was virtual. Yikes.

Developmentally speaking, it’s normal and healthy for adolescents to turn their attention to "the primacy of peers," to have less and less time for family. This is part of the way adolescents become competent adults — that is, to leave home.

But respecting the more urgent import of peers does not mean parents relinquish any and all expectations for family, mutuality and equitable participation in domestic duty. I distinguish between a healthy "primacy of peers" and a fiercely isolated, inertia-riddled "addiction" to self-important omni-availability to cell phones and computers. Remember H.G. Wells’ "The Time Machine"? Remember those blond- haired, blue-eyed, vacuous, smiling humans he found in the future, the ones who didn’t read or think or relate? The ones who watched dispassionately while one of their own nearly drowned? The ones who, when the siren sounded, walked obediently, as if in a trance, to their own death?

That’s pretty much what I think modern social media and cell phones are doing to us.

So I tell parents all the time: Treat cell phones, computers and social media like you do ice cream. Great stuff but not all the time.

There will be limits. No cell phones while we eat. No cell phones during homework, during certain family activities, etc.

Ah, but your son, G.C., is not a young teenager. He’s 19. He’s a stellar student in tech school, proving to the world every day that, despite his ADD, he can and does pay attention and behave responsibly regarding that to which he wants to pay attention and behave responsibly. You got him cold!

I’m saying I totally agree with you. This intervention should have nothing to do with the computer. Nothing at all. It should be singularly focused on the claims of respect and reciprocity for cohabitation and family. We try once with words. Then twice. Then notes and reminders.

Then we do something radical. Feeling daring?

Take his bedroom door off the hinges. Go into his room and remove every light bulb from every light fixture. Or, depending on how your house is wired, throw the breaker to his room. Turn off the water supply line to the toilet in his bathroom. When he comes barreling out of his room to ask what’s happening, look nonplused and casual, detached and businesslike.

"Oh, I forgot to tell you. Your dad and I decided that it was ridiculous to be arguing with a 19-year-old about reciprocity and respect for how we live together. We decided you were right. To hell with obliging ourselves in relationship. We’re going strictly quid pro quo. You want light bulbs, a door and a toilet? Yours, as soon as you clean the kitchen, take out the trash and get your mildewed laundry out of the washing machine like we asked."

Originally published in View News, Sept. 14, 2010.

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