Can’t hardly wait…

I have a confession to make. About eight months ago I conducted a psychological experiment on my daughter and filmed it with a hidden camera. You might be wondering why I would do such a thing. Well, it’s because I had to know what her chances were of being successful in life and the experiment that I did is one of the best predictors for lifelong success. What was it that I did? The marshmallow test, of course.

This experiment was first designed by Dr. Walter Michel at Stanford University in the 1960’s. It was conducted on four-year-olds that attended the campus preschool. They were seated at a table in front of a marshmallow. An adult informed the child that they would be alone in the room while the adult went to run an errand. If the child could wait to eat the marshmallow until the adult returned, the child could have two marshmallows. The children were left alone in the room for fifteen minutes.

The marshmallow test was initially designed to see what sorts of coping mechanisms young children employ when attempting to delay gratification. However, the most interesting results of this study occurred in the decades after the initial test. Dr. Michel’s daughters went to school with the children used as subjects. As they grew, he began to notice that the children who were able to delay gratification were very successful and the children who ate the marshmallow right away seemed to be struggling in all aspects of life. Their grades were lower in school, they were less likely to go to college, they struggled to have successful relationships and keep steady employment.

Research regarding impulse control has been on the rise in the US as more people begin to realize how critical this one ability is to the success of each individual. Of course, Dr. Montessori could see this 100 years ago. Much of what we do in a Montessori classroom is designed to facilitate impulse control and delay gratification. We move slowly, purposefully and with great care and intention. The materials are limited so that children must wait patiently until that which they truly desire to use is available. We allow the child to struggle and do not offer help until
the child requests it. When we do help, we give as little assistance as is possible. The child must learn to patiently pursue a goal and not expect that all will go perfectly the first (second, third, fourth) time around.

Think about the person you know who makes brash, impulsive decisions. You know, the one who storms out of every job and relationship with a boom? The one who has all sorts of stuff but no savings account. The one who struggles to be faithful in monogamous partnerships. This is the adult who failed to develop impulse control as a child.

The self-esteem movement that occurred in America in the 1970’s brought with it significant changes to how we parent our children, many of them were positive. However, we have become so worried about our children’s feelings that we are almost unable to allow them to struggle in any way ever. This is unhealthy.

Children with low impulse control are created by parents. We create this problem by giving in to their every desire, needlessly helping them with daily tasks and modeling a lack of impulse control in our own behavior. When your child rattles off a list of items that he wants for his birthday, let him know that he will get three of the things he has requested and will have to wait for the others. When your child is struggling with a self care routine such as getting dressed, walk away and allow her to struggle. And finally, when your child is throwing a fit in
the store because he wants a toy or a treat, say “no”. Even if you are mortified and just want him to stop crying, NEVER give your child something he wants if he is asking for it by throwing a fit. Your instinct to give in is directly tied to your own need for instant gratification. Giving your child the toy is akin to eating the marshmallow right away. Saying “no” and being firm is akin to waiting for the bigger treat, a child with self-control.

So, how do you develop impulse control in your child? The opportunities are MANY. First, when you are having a conversation with someone, do not allow your child to interrupt. You can say, “When I am done talking to Nancy, then I will talk with you.” Second, establish a rule in your home that nobody eats until everyone is at the table and nobody leaves the table until everyone is done. It isn’t mean to put a plate of food in front of your child and ask her not to touch it. That would only be mean if she never got to eat it. Making her wait is one of the best things you can do for her.

Third, when your child is four or five, establish an allowance that is earned through basic help around the house. Divide it into three jars: saving,
spending, and donating. When your child wants a toy at the store say to him, “When we get home, let’s count the money in your spending jar to see if there is enough for this toy.” That’s right, I’m telling you that you should actually make your child work to earn special treats so that he learns not to just expect everything to be handed over. Children who are just handed money and items for no reason grow into adults that expect that they shouldn’t have to earn the things they want.

I can’t help but picture a world full of Veruca Salts, “I want a golden ticket now daddy!” Give your child the gift of knowing that, even if she doesn’t get everything she wants, she will still be okay. Self-control is truly the ultimate freedom.

So how did the marshmallow test work out for us? The video is hilarious. She did everything she could to not eat that marshmallow. She sang to herself, she talked to the dog, she made faces, she turned away from it, she poked it and she hid her eyes. In the end, she made it the full fifteen minutes. We gave her a second marshmallow and she didn’t eat it. At four-years-old, things are looking pretty good!

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~ by vegucationmama on October 11, 2011.

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