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Learning to Wait: The Unrecognized Success Factor in Children — and Adults

(3 minute read)

Being a parent is hard work. Not only do you have to manage your child’s activities and overcome their resistance, you also have to deal with critical relatives and perhaps a spouse who thinks you’re too hard or too soft on the child. But you are worried: If you don’t push, your child will miss out on essential skills and knowledge, and their life will go off track — and it will be your fault. If you do push, your child will feel so pressured that they’ll never learn to be happy — and it will be your fault.

But perhaps the focus on skills and knowledge might be overblown. And perhaps we’re not paying enough attention to one attribute in our children that has been shown to correlate to all kinds of good things in later life: the ability to wait, or, in more technical terms, the capability for delayed gratification.

Delayed gratification became a hot topic in the 1960’s when a professor at Stanford decided to find out whether four year olds could resist eating a marshmallow. One by one, each child was seated at a table with the delicious looking treat in front of them and told that if they could stop themselves from eating it for 15 minutes, they’d get a second marshmallow. The experimenter then left the room and the child struggled with temptation — trying their best to get the bigger reward. (You can see their hilarious struggles here.)

Some kids held out for the second marshmallow, some gave in to temptation immediately, and everything in between. No surprise so far. Here’s the interesting part though: The researchers followed these kids for another four decades or so and compared the lives of the children who’d held out the longest with those who’d grabbed the marshmallow almost immediately. As adolescents, those that were able to wait showed more self control, were less distractible, more intelligent, self confident and self reliant, planned better and were better at resisting stress. When they compared the bottom third with the top third they found an average gap of 210 points on their SAT scores. By adulthood, the children who’d been able to wait longer were better able to pursue their goals, used risky drugs less, were more resilient and adaptive in dealing with problems, had better interpersonal relationships and were less overweight.

If your child is the type to happily plan for the future and put off immediate rewards for future benefit, then read no more. (Unless of course, you yourself have trouble with delayed gratification.) But most of us wish our kids studied more, played fewer video games and spent less time on Instagram and more time doing things that would benefit them in the future. So here are a couple of techniques to help your children (and maybe you) delay gratification:

Make The Future More Real

We tend to think of our future selves as a different person and therefore don’t treat that person very well. We don’t save enough money to ensure our future self’s financial comfort. We don’t take care of our bodies so that person will be healthy. We don’t work as hard as we could to ensure that person has a successful career. But psychologists have proved that when we focus on connecting our sense of who we are now with who we will be, we tend to plan better for the future. Here’s how you might be able to do that with your child:

1/ Engage them in a story writing exercise where both you and your child write down what life will be like for each of you in 30 years time. Cover topics like where you will live, what you will be doing, whether you’ll have enough money or qualifications to do what you want, who you’ll be with.

2/ Talk about the future with your children. Ask them to imagine how it will feel to be an adult, to be married, to have children of their own, and how it will feel to be old. If they have trouble articulating this, perhaps start with drawing a picture of their life as an adult.

In both cases, remember not to judge. You’re not trying to get a specific answer — you’re just getting your child to see their future as part of them.

Remove Temptation

What made the Marshmallow Experiment so difficult for many children was the presence of the marshmallow right in front of them. Discuss with your children the temptations they find hard to resist, and ways in which you can help them by limiting their access. As much as possible, make this a collaborative effort rather than something you’re imposing on them. Try to avoid making this a punishment, as that is more likely to generate resistance than if you take a collaborative approach.

Social Contracts With Self Punishment

Peer pressure isn’t all negative. For children who want to get something done and have trouble making themselves do it, research shows that making a public commitment with a consequence for failing to keep that commitment can be very effective. For example, they could announce to their Facebook friends that they are going to spend eight hours studying on Saturday, and if they fail to do so they will wash the dishes for the family on Sunday (or clean the toilets, or whatever else they hate to do.)

Self Distraction

When temptations (such as tasty marshmallows) are dangled in front of us, distracting our attention can be a useful technique. Going for a run, working out, talking to a friend, picking up a book or taking a shower — all can help someone resist temptation long enough for thoughts of the future to kick in.

Focus on the Negative Aspects of the Temptation

Most activities have some downside even in the short term. A child who wants to resist playing a video game can think about how bad it will feel to have their character die. Or to resist looking at Instagram, think about how bad it will feel to see pictures of parties they weren’t invited to.

None of these are silver bullets that will turn your child into a paragon of delayed gratification. However, small changes can lead to a feeling of “Yes I CAN wait if I want to”. That sense of mastery will lead a child to feel better about themselves, less vulnerable to their immediate needs, and further encourage their ability to wait for rewards, in an ongoing virtuous cycle.


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