Teaching Children to Wait
- Jim Jackson ConnectedFamilies.org
- 2011 12 Dec
What would your child do if you left him or her alone in a room with a fluffy, tempting white marshmallow (or other preferred “sweet”)?
The answer may be a convincing predictor of lifelong outcomes for your child.
In a Stanford University study, a group of four-year-olds were each given a marshmallow. They were promised a second one IF they could wait for several minutes without eating the first one.
Fourteen years later, as high school seniors, those who had quickly eaten the first marshmallow had lower self-esteem, and were more prone to frustration, envy and conflict. Those who had waited were more socially competent, coped better with stress and frustration, and got better grades. The “waiters” even scored about 210 points higher on their SATs!
Instant gratification has become a hallmark of our culture. Two-thirds of parents believe they have not succeeded in teaching their kids self-control and self-discipline – that is, the ability to wait, to think before acting and to understand potential consequences of their actions. Dr. David Walsh, national expert on media and cultural influences, has coined a term for what he believes is a widespread problem among young people today: DDD – Discipline Deficit Disorder, resulting from our culture of “more, easy, fast, and fun.”
Silver Bullet Questions: Reflecting on our choices as parents is the starting place for counteracting these cultural influences. We can ask ourselves these important questions: What am I doing to help my children learn to wait? What example am I setting? What are my thoughts and feelings when my children make impatient demands? Do I affirm them whenever they wait respectfully – or do I just punish or scold them when they don’t? Am I talking with them – even when I’m practicing patience or delaying pleasurable choices – about my thinking?
Asking these questions, and then taking some time to thoughtfully answer them, can help parents begin to more purposefully teach and train their children the value of waiting.
A good practical place to start working on this is to simply notice times when my children wait well, and then compliment them. For example, when I talk on the phone, get dinner ready or wait in the line at the store, there are many times my child waits just fine. Instead of waiting for them to get antsy, I can slip in some encouragement or affirmation, just before the frustration and demanding start. I can even set them up for success by saying, “This is a chance to practice good waiting! How do you think you’ll do?!” Kids almost always predict success, which greatly increases the likelihood they’ll succeed!
TIPS FOR TOTS: With younger children you can create simple opportunities to work toward a special purchase or activity. A fun way to do this is to draw a picture of an object or activity they want, cut the picture into pieces like a puzzle, and give them one piece each time they complete a special responsibility. Help them feel proud about their hard work and good waiting!
TIPS FOR TEENS: With older children you can share your own successes and failures in learning to delay gratification and work toward important things. (Our children have many times heard the woes of our impulsive time share purchase!) Teens are greatly encouraged when parents are open about their own mistakes. Also, make an effort to look for, and compliment your teen’s small-scale successes, like doing homework before being with friends, or coming home from shopping empty handed – even though they had the money to buy things.
This article was originally posted on ConnectedFamilies.org. The mission of Connected Families is “To equip parents with practical tools and profound insights.”
Jim and Lynne Jackson, founders of Connected Families and co-authors of How to Grow a Connected Family, have nearly forty years combined professional experience working with children, teens, and families.