I recently read about a behavioral experiment with four and five year old kids that intrigued me. A teacher sat 10 children (who had all indicated that they REALLY liked marshmallows) at 10 desks with 10 marshmallows in front of them. The teacher told the children not to touch the marshmallows until she returned. The teacher was able to watch the children through a two way mirror.
Two of the children ate the marshmallows as soon as the teacher was out of sight. Three managed to wait two minutes before stuffing down the marshmallows. Two children resisted for four minutes, then bit a piece off their marshmallows. One child licked the table all around the marshmallow but didn’t eat it. And two children were able to wait until the teacher returned in five minutes.
This experiment revealed several things: most small children have slight ability to resist temptation, five minutes is a loooong time for a preschooler, and some children are quite creative about policing themselves. The most important fact a parent can draw from this experiment is that they can help children learn to delay gratification.
Significant research indicates that being able to put off something you want right now for a greater pay-off in the future is the single best indicator of financial and personal success. Unfortunately, too many of us never learn this skill! We can’t lose the weight necessary for good health, because we can’t pass up a hot fudge sundae. We max out our credit cards for fancy clothes and succumb to the temptation of a new car when a used one would suffice.
I heard about another memorable lesson about the importance of delaying gratification. A Sunday School teacher gave her class a choice between dividing up a bowl of candies right now or each having his or her own bag of candy the next day. Then she left the room “to get a drink of water.”
When she returned, all the candy was gone. Everybody explained that they wanted their share and had to eat quickly because “some kids” grabbed “too many.” The teacher merely smiled and said, “Well, I hope everybody had at least one piece” and the kids agreed that they had.
The next Sunday, the teacher displayed brightly wrapped bags of candy and said, “I brought these to show you that you would have had your own bag today if you’d waited. You wouldn’t have had to worry about how to divide things up. But you decided not to wait, so you’re stuck with what you got.”
When my teens argued, “It’s my life, I can do what I want” in response to a rule or being given a consequence, I always answered, “Yep, it’s your life. You’re pretty much grown up and if you really want to, I can’t stop you from climbing up to the roof and deciding to jump off. But half way down, you can’t decide you really didn’t want to jump. You’ll hit the ground and suffer the consequences.”
How awful the consequences of stupid choices can be for our kids! And how painful for us to watch them suffer. However, many decades of parenting and grandparenting have taught me that I shouldn’t even try to shield my children from consequences of their choices. Experience teaches more effectively than any lecture....
‘Tis better to help our youngsters learn lessons from marshmallows and candies when we can control the outcome! Otherwise, we just may endure the heartbreak of visiting them in jail, checking them into drug rehab, or supporting their abandoned children.
What do you do to help your kids learn this critical skill?