I don’t know about you, but I have a bit of a sweet tooth. When confronted with oh say, a slice of good quality chocolate cake, I’d have a hard time waiting to eat it, such as after eating all of my green vegetables. So all this talk about waiting to eat marshmallows got me thinking about how I would have fared with the marshmallow task as a child. Probably terribly (but can I just point out here that I’ve done okay…I’m just saying…). And naturally, I’m wondering what my son would do (read: what are his future prospects in life and other enormous parenting questions that I should know better than to worry about). So how do young children cope when they have to delay gratification? What are those future Bill Gates doing to help themselves keep their little fingies off of those marshmallows? And yes, can parents influence this emerging development of self-control?
If you watched the video at the end of Isabel’s post on Monday (if not then try here), you were probably amused, as I was, at some of the strategies children attempted to keep from eating that sweet, seductive cloud of confection. They covered the gamut from the girl who just stuffed it into her mouth, unapologetically (even remembering to clear her plate from the table after wards – nice!), to the boy who pushed it up against his nose, to those who just studied it carefully. But it was the boy who turned his head to the side and just did not look at it, that really got me. Hmm… that seemed like it might help.
Turns out that in Mischel’s early work he gave children choices about what they could and could not look at while they were waiting such as the real reward vs. a colour photograph of it. He also asked them what they preferred to look at. Get this, preschool children actually looked at, and preferred, the actual reward over the picture! In other words, they seemed unable to anticipate that this would only drive them into a frenzy of frustration and effectively sabotage their efforts to wait for the bigger reward. Oh, the agony.
Children start to see the light around their 6th birthday. So e.g. they start to prefer to cover the reward rather than to leave it out in the open. By grade 3, their prefer to think more about the waiting than on the eating of the marshmallows. And by grade 6, they’ve moved on to prefer thinking of marshmallow properties e.g. that they are puffy like clouds. So don’t worry, it’s not a write off if your preschooler is having trouble waiting now.
The good news is: you can probably help your little one along the way. For one thing, out of sight is out of mind baby! So whatever you do, take the tempting item away. Put it on a high shelf, in the other room or cover it up. When you have dessert planned for after dinner, leave the pie in the fridge until you are ready to serve it. You’ll have a better shot at getting your little one to focus on the task at hand – dinner. You can also help by distracting your child. Get them to focus on things other than EATING that ice cream.
Here’s one last thing to chew on…As you become more aware that it is actually quite hard for young children to control their natural impulses, wait, delay gratification etc., you may become tempted to be more lenient. “It’s so hard for them, this insistence on getting that Halloween candy now is part of normal development etc., it will come in time", so you reason. But perhaps when parents insist that children wait for that treat for after dinner, they are effectively training them to get used to waiting and to find ways to make it work. Maybe those kids who managed to “step away from” the marshmallow in Mischel’s studies came from homes where this was more the case (too bad they didn’t interview or give questionnaires to the parents). Since, according to the research, they would go on to fare better on a host of measures including academic achievement, you could be doing your child a huge favour by saving the chocolate cake for after they’ve eaten their brussels sprouts (well okay, maybe not brussels sprouts). Just a thought.