In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a psychologist named Walter Mischel conducted a series of studies on delayed gratification. These studies are now called “The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.” If you want to watch the marshmallow experiment on YouTube, go for it.
For those of you still reading, here’s a summary of the study. A child walks into the room with a woman, who gives the child instructions—If you don’t eat this marshmallow while I’m gone, you get another marshmallow when I come back. The woman leaves the room, and the child sits on a chair in front of a plate with a single marshmallow. This is repeated with a variety of children. Some of the children can wait for the 15 minutes to receive a second marshmallow, and some were not able to resist temptation and ate the marshmallow almost right away. Researchers found that the children with the ability to delay gratification grew up to become more successful and goal-oriented people.
It’s a clue for many parents on what to pay attention to when raising your child.
I believe parents play an important role in child development. Daily we teach our children emotional regulation and behavioral modifications through our own way of responding to situations. Children learn from imitating parents. We are the role models for them. Even though sometimes I don’t feel like being a good role model for my child!
As a product of today’s society, I enjoy the feeling of instant gratification during my daily routine: using credits cards without knowing how much money I have, ordering take out when in a hurry, texting a friend for an emotional connection, checking Facebook for socializing, reaching for gadgets to quiet my child.
The awareness of my poor self-control combined with my hope to be a healthy role model to my child makes me think that change is necessary. I need to be the one who starts to make changes in my daily life. With this in mind, I decided to pay attention to my emotions, behaviors, urges, and habits regarding instant gratification. I feel it is so important to model and teach these skills to my child that I’m willing to make this extra effort.
Family Time at a restaurant
First, I’ll describe my old way of handling family time at a restaurant. We are at a restaurant, and my child walks around, then starts running from table to table looking at what people ate. I know he is hungry. After only 5 minutes, I reach for my phone and tell him he can watch Blippi on it. I immediately receive my reward; my child is sitting still and forgets he is hungry for another 30 minutes.
The child has also received instant gratification and feels fully satisfied. The sad part of this story is, I truly had no other ideas how to handle this situation any differently. I think many of you can relate to the scenario.
What could be done differently? By the time of our next visit to the restaurant, I have been working on a technique to control the impulses and postpone the urge to receive immediate gratification. I tried a distraction technique that worked for us.
In that scenario, my child and I walk together, going outside to see parked cars in the lot, and visiting the restroom to wash our hands before our meal. Meanwhile, I consistently remind my child that the big juicy burger is coming very soon.
My awareness of the moment and patience has shown my child that he is capable of being patient and receiving his reward after a short wait.
Another new technique that I have started to use to teach delayed gratification is in our daily routine. My child, who is 2 ½, wants to play with toys right away after getting home from daycare. However, I remind him of the steps in our routine before he can start playing. Every day when he comes home from daycare, he takes his shoes off before entering the house, followed by potty time, washing hands, and changing clothes. Now I added one more task. He brings his dirty clothes to the hamper. After the steps are completed, we play with toys as he asked.
Some of you may argue with me about the importance of learning self-control.
I’d like to go back to the Marshmallow studies. The children who participated in the studies are adults now. Those who were able to show delayed gratification are much more successful people in many aspects of life.
The studies showed that the children who were willing to delay gratification and wait to receive the second marshmallow ended up having a higher SAT score, lower likelihood of obesity, lower level of substance use, better response to stress, and better social skills.
Delaying gratification certainly isn’t easy, but researchers have found that the ability to put off our immediate desires to pursue long-term goals is a critical part of success.
By helping our children apply their best self-control strategies to delay gratification in everyday situations, we help them to develop better self-control overall. But remember, we as the parent have to learn this for ourselves first.
Here are more ideas for helping our children to learn self-control:
- Play red light, green light.
- Teach kids to do chores and create rewards for completing them.
- Teach kids to wait for dinner, despite being hungry, rather than giving snacks close to mealtimes.
- Play freeze tag.
- Help your child practice yoga or meditation (during a walk invite the child to smell a flower, listen to the sound of a passing police car or fire truck, watch planes or helicopters, listen to a noise without seeing what or who makes the noise and guess what it is).
- Have kids sit for story time to improve focusing skills.
- Have kids play alone. This encourages kids to have enough self-control to problem solve with their toys and entertain themselves without outside support.
- Teach your children how to wait for a treat like a lollipop, cookie, or cupcake.
- Teach kids to self-regulate emotions. If your child is fussy, allow him time to calm himself before intervening.
- Praise effort not just results and encourage hard work to achieve goals.