If you were to offer a young child a cookie and give him/her the option of eating that cookie now or waiting 20 minutes and getting four more to eat, what do you think he/she would do? Before you jump to what you think is an obvious conclusion, consider the findings of the benchmark ‘marshmallow test’ conducted by Stanford University researchers on toddlers in 1972: although some people can naturally restrain themselves more easily, even little children can be taught to delay gratification if they are given effective strategies to do so (see 5 Easy Ways to Teach Kids Self-Control and Delayed Gratification). The internet is full of parenting resources addressing this but ultimately, parents will lean towards what suits their child’s personality the best. To get an idea of how some parents tackle this behaviour, I spoke to my friends Shane and Michelene, who live just outside of Jacksonville, FL, USA with their kids Shane, Jr. (11), Liam (9), and Zoe (4).
Shane, Jr. and Liam already have a good grasp on waiting for greater rewards: from the time they were much younger, the dialogue around waiting for what they want has been constant and has come to include making choices about the money they’re allowed to spend. Liam recounted in a previous conversation that his dad always encourages him and Shane, Jr. to wait a week before buying a particular toy because they might see something they like better in the meantime. This forces them to make a decision because they understand implicitly that mom and dad are not bottomless money pits that they can reach into at will. Shane and Michelene use an even more effective tactic very often during visits to the toy store: if the boys get excited about purchasing some random item, they are reminded of the long-term goal they’re saving towards (a go-kart and dirt bike at year end) – once again, they’re taught to prioritize between an immediate and future reward. They know that money spent now means possibly not getting what they want later.
With Zoe, however, the approach has to be different because of her younger age. At 4 years old, she doesn’t understand why she can’t have candy first thing in the morning (I can reach it in the pantry, so why shouldn’t I have it whenever I feel like it?). Through firm and consistent “dialogue”, Shane and Michelene make her understand that cereal comes first and then the fun snack. Zoe is witty enough to try and “negotiate” with a list of other options like chips and candy, but she’s always met with a response reinforcing that she must wait for what she wants. Other times, she gets very frustrated if she has to wait “long” (think more than 15 seconds) for her show to download. Shane and Michelene feel she’s still too young to really understand the concept of delaying gratification, so instead, they focus on teaching her that she can’t throw tantrums whenever she doesn’t get what she wants.
Tantrums aside, children today are generally more comfortable expressing and even advocating for what they want, partially due to evolving parenting styles and educational environments. It stands to reason, then, that they are also more likely than you think to embrace the idea of waiting for what they want: a 2020 experiment that piggy-backed on the original marshmallow test yielded the surprising result that these children displayed a greater tendency towards delaying gratification than the participants in the original study. In anticipating the (later) benefits of learning to wait for the reward, it’s easy to see why Shane and Michelene value so highly the constant conversation, firmness and consistency in their approach, and establishment of trust. This is how they continue to do it: using their own personal values and setting the right example to encourage positive outcomes for their children.