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
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.