In the 1960s, a team of researchers led by Walter Mischel gave children a marshmallow, told them that they would receive a second marshmallow after 15 minutes if they resisted eating the first one, and then left the room and observed how the children would behave. Years later, the researchers contacted the same children to see whether there were differences between those who had passed the test and those who had not. They found that the children who had resisted eating the marshmallow were more successful than those who had showed “low willpower”. This research is today commonly referred to as the marshmallow test.
Ever since these studies, children’s ability to delay gratification has been associated with future success. A recently published commentary published by Sobel and colleagues argues that teaching your child to delay gratification is not only possible, but also matters for later outcomes, as the marshmallow test found.
But how exactly do you go about it, given that most children want everything and want it now?
The good news is that much work has been done around delaying gratification and we now know more about how to make children better at waiting.
Here are four easy things you can do to make your child better at delaying gratification
- Help your child work on her executive functions
According to Adele Diamond, teaching children executive functions skills is an easy and low-cost approach that can strengthen numerous skills and therefore their ability to delay gratification. Executive functions are what helps your child resist temptations and distractions, improves her ability to keep and retrieve necessary information, and makes it easier for her to adjust to change. These functions increase your child’s self-control skills.
Here are three simple ways to increase your child’s executive function skills:
- Encourage your child to play games that help her practice taking turns: boardgames, telling stories in turn, etc.
- Play games that encourage your child to listen and pay attention. Musical chairs is a good example of a game that can help strengthen your child’s executive function skills.
- Sing-along songs can help your child practice listening, memorizing and following instructions.
2) Take your child’s level of development into account
If your child is young, he will find it harder to delay gratification if he has to wait too long to receive his reward. Younger children find it harder to resist temptation, that’s just the way it is. To help your young child practice, privilege smaller rewards obtained quickly rather than large rewards that require long waits. If a young child has to wait too long before obtaining his reward, he will lose interest in that reward.
3) Provide your child with strategies to help her succeed
Some people cannot resist chocolate cake: if they see it, they’ll have to have some. The same is true for children. While some children need to regularly see their reward to remain motivated, others can only succeed if the reward is kept hidden. Knowing what your child needs will help you determine the approach that will help her succeed.
Mischel spoke of “cooling strategies” to help your child succeed. For example, he suggested that putting rewards at an imaginary distance (for example using photos of the reward instead of the real reward), picturing the reward as something else (in his example, he spoke of picturing marshmallows as clouds rather than candy), and focusing on a completely unrelated experience can help your child succeed in learning to delay gratification.
4) Let your child know that he can count on you
Researchers wanted to know whether trust influenced children’s ability to delay gratification. They made children watch adults act in a trustworthy or untrustworthy manner toward another adult, then the children’s ability to delay gratification was tested by the adult they had watched. The researchers found that the more the adult who tested them was perceived as untrustworthy, the lower were the chances that the children would wait for the promised reward.
Your child is more likely to delay gratification if he knows that he can count on you. This means that making, then breaking, promises can make him lose trust in you and influence his ability to delay gratification.
In 2018, Watts and colleagues analyzed over 900 students and found that the marshmallow test had a low predictive power if other factors such as race, ethnicity, parents’ education, the child’s home environment at age three and parents’ income were taken into account. In other words, they found that circumstances play an important role in determining later personal achievement.
What these results mean is that helping your child strengthen her ability to delay gratification begins right at home. Providing different opportunities throughout the day to help her practice self-control will undoubtedly put her on the right track.
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