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Delayed Gratification – Helping Children to Build Self-Discipline and Autonomy

This week’s blog is a repost of a parenting article and published with permission from Visit their website for more great articles like this!

“You waited until the night before to get your project done, and now you want me to drive to the store to get the materials you need?”

“You’re not going anywhere until your room is cleaned. You were supposed to do it three days ago.”

“I asked you 20 minutes ago to get your things together for school!”

Wouldn’t it have been so much easier if they had just done it right away and gotten it over with? There would have been much less hassle and emotional energy used. You and I can see that as adults because we have learned (and some of us are still learning) the benefits of delayed gratification. The good news is that procrastination is not an inherited trait. It is a learned life skill that can be taught, and is one of the greatest indicators of success for children.

In 1972, a Stanford research project was published, that has become known as the Marshmallow Experiment. In this experiment, the researchers put a child in a room with a single marshmallow. The children were told that if they would wait until the researcher returned to eat the first marshmallow that they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Many of the children ate the first marshmallow soon after the researcher left the room, and a few were able to wait patiently until research came back with the second marshmallow. I’m sure this was quite fun to witness.

What made the experiment so well known, however, was the results of tracking the participants in the study for over 40 years. The results of the research are quite remarkable. The children that were able to exhibit the willingness to wait for the second marshmallow were more successful in a broad array of measures, including higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, stronger social skills (as reported by their parents), better physical health and stress management, as well as a variety of other life measures. In short, the ability to delay gratification proved to be a significant factor, across the board, in how successful these participants were in their lives.

While it may be that some children have a greater inclination towards self-discipline, most of people learn self-discipline through experience. Those experiences come from the child’s environment and their experiences in that environment. A home or school environment that provides a consistency and predictability allows children to trust the outcomes of their choices builds a sense of confidence in children that empowers them make decisions for themselves based on what they know will happen and when. (University of Rochester study on the effect of reliable and unreliable experiences can be found here: Take for example a child whose routine is to finish his homework before watching television at night, and bed time is at 8:30 a.m. And, each night, when he is finished with his homework his parents allow him to turn on the TV until bed time. However, when he doesn’t finish his homework, he is not allowed to turn on the TV. If this routine is predictable, what decisions might this boy make in regards to delaying gratification and finishing his homework after school? What might happen if his parents become more arbitrary in allowing him to watch TV, sometimes when his homework is done, and sometimes when it isn’t?

Developing Delayed Gratification

  • Develop routines that allow children to experience both the logical positive and negative consequences of their choices, without rescuing them or bailing them out or punishing them. The example of the television after homework is a sound example. Another one, is the child who procrastinates in getting dressed in the morning. A routine could be set up where the child’s clothes are picked out the night before, and the parent simply lets the child know if they are not dressed before leaving for school that the parents will simply put the clothes in a bag and the child can change at school or in the car (if there is time). As kids get older, the consequences of their decisions are often played out with their peers or outside the home. Let’s say an older child is responsible for their laundry. If they forget to do their laundry, consider putting your own feelings of potential embarrassment aside, and allow your child to wear dirty clothes.
  • One of the most powerful ways to create an environment of mutual respect and develop the ability to delay gratification is to involve children and adolescents in crating routines and solving problems. Brainstorm ideas together, and then choose what might work best together, and commit to reviewing the decisions at a later date to see if they are working. If the solutions aren’t working, then you can just make adjustments when you review the decisions.
  • Avoid reminding and nagging. Nagging and reminding only create power struggles, and it creates a cycle of dependency or rebellion. Instead ask open ended questions, like, “What will happen if you don’t finish your homework before 8:30 p.m.? OK, I’m sure you’ll figure it out.” Or, “What’s your plan to do your laundry. OK.” When it’s time to follow through, simply do so without nagging. For instance, if your child said she would finish cleaning her room before she went to her friend’s house, don’t remind her when you see the time to leave approaching. When it’s time for her to leave, simply let her know that she needs to call her friend to let her know that she will be late, because she has to finish cleaning her room. If arguing ensues, simply respond by calmly saying something like, “Please let me know when you are finished so I can check your work.”
  • Take a look at places that you find yourself bossing your children and expecting them to respond to your requests. When you see those areas or situations, talk to your child or children about those rough spots and ask for their help in finding a solution and/or routine to help solve the problem. Not only are children (and adults) more willing to cooperate when they have been included in the problem-solving, but they are more willing to do what is expected if they have advanced warning and can plan for what is coming.

When involving children in decision making be sure to avoid the two biggest pitfalls – not stating your needs and not allowing them to state their needs. It is OK to say, “That won’t work for me, and here’s why.” And, it’s also OK for them to say, “That won’t work for me, and here’s why.” As long as you have decided to revisit your mutual decision in the near future, it’s OK for both adults and children to make mistakes in their decision making. You can always alter or change your decision when you revisit your plan in the near future! In this way, children learn decision making skills and parents learn to trust their children more – and when children feel trusted and involved they feel better, and when they feel better the do better.
The joy and smiles of our children strengthen our commitment to a Montessori early childhood education. Westmont, an accredited school with the American Montessori Society (AMS) and Middle States Association (MSA-CESS), stands as one of the premier Montessori schools in NJ. We welcome you to discover Westmont.