Regardless of the topic of the seminar I am teaching, I end up making the same point: There are three peaks a child must climb in order to grow up and make his way through life fairly happily: learning to tolerate frustration, learning to tolerate disappointment (These first two are kind of twin peaks.), and learning to delay gratification. It is the last peak, the one that stands on its own, that parents find particularly daunting.
Being able to delay gratification is directly related to other positive and critical traits, like impulse control, self discipline, and persistence. It’s a biggie, in other words.
Not being able to delay gratification looks different on children of different ages. It can be not being able to wait for his cookie to the toddler. It can be pushing to be first in line or not being able to wait his turn to the preschooler. It can be giving up on a difficult homework problem when Mom doesn’t run right in to help the second grader. It can be following right along with the bad ideas of the risky friend of the ten year old. The older the child, the more far reaching the effect of not being able to delay gratification or control his impulses. In the longer term, the child who is challenged by delaying gratification has a hard time staying the course, following rules, and just following through.
In the 1960’s a Stanford University researcher, Michael Mischel, conducted a now famous study, The Stanford Marshmallow Study. In it he offered four year olds a marshmallow. He told the child that if he could wait until he, the experimenter, returned before eating the marshmallow, he could have not one but two marshmallows. Each child was filmed to record who couldn’t wait at all, who waited a little, and who waited the whole time for the experimenter to return. The results divided 1/3, 1/3, and 1/3. The interesting part of the study was in Mischel’s follow up, years later.
Among the many findings was that children who were able to delay gratification at four years old, seemed to have an easier time growing up all around, subordinating impulses, achieving long term goals, etc.. (You can google this study to see for yourself!)
Seems like starting out early to help you child to delay gratification is a good idea, right? How do you do that? Learning to delay gratification is just that, learning. It is accustoming your child, slowly, bit by bit, to learn to wait, to cultivate some patience. It can happen, but it takes time, effort, and patience on your part. You may have to tolerate a whole lot of screaming at first!
When there are two doting parents, a nanny, and 4 doting grandparents just waiting to meet the child’s every need, I can promise you, your child will not learn to delay gratification. So, for starters, call off the troops!
When your child asks for juice, don’t be so quick to run and get it for him. Say, “Sure. In just a moment I will get your juice. I need to finish this page and then I will.” When your child screams for you to come to his room, explain that you will be there in a few moments. When he insists that you go to the store to find the Lego piece he cannot live without, postpone your trip until the weekend. In other words, start by forcing yourself to wait, and always build in some delay to your response time. And certainly remember to praise the child’s ability to wait and be patient as you see he is beginning to get it.
Now that it is on your mind, I have the feeling you will catch yourself supporting or undermining your child’s ability to climb that most important peak, learning to delay gratification. The time is now.