It was 1972. Walter Mischel was a researcher at Stanford University and he was curious about the human ability to delay gratification. He gathered four year old children and one by one placed them in a room with a solitary marshmallow. The children were told that if they could refrain from eating the marshmallow while the researcher left the room (roughly 20 minutes), that they would be given a second marshmallow. About 30% of the children were able to wait. They along with the others were tracked for over 30 years and the tales of their lives are very telling. Let’s take a look.
Those children who were able to delay gratification showed higher levels of happiness emotionally and higher achievement academically. They had superior skills at managing personal and social stressors, had sharper focusing abilities, had lower levels of substance abuse, and enjoyed healthy, fulfilling relationships. Academically they boasted SAT scores that were, on average 210 points higher than the children who were not able to self regulate while in the grips of a tempting sugary delight.
Are you surprised? Self regulation and delayed gratification are both competencies of emotional intelligence skills. Countless global experts tell us that these skills create “happier”, more “successful” kids. These skills are clearly worth developing.
Now it would be easy if parents could simply mandate their kids to self regulate their urges. “Control yourself” or “just be patient” are two commands that come to mind. But since these character traits cannot be conjured in the time it takes to eat a marshmallow, we will have to institute measures to develop them in our kids. So we have reached the crux of this article. How exactly do we do this?
I believe it begins with a parent that is fully engaged with their child. Put the iPhone down and toss the newspaper aside. Get to your child’s level and teach them how to be patient so they can successfully delay gratification.
1. Be an example of patience. Kids are watching your every move. The “monkey, see monkey do” tendency in them will learn to whistle a favorite tune at the exceptionally long red traffic light, or to shriek or curse at it.
2.Communicate and teach them about alternatives. “Mary… I know you want to get that doll today, but you are going to have to wait until next week when it’s your birthday”. Until then, which of your other dolls would you like to play with?
3.Use fantasy. I know you really want the red toy truck. Wouldn’t it be great if you could have the red toy truck you want and I could have the red Ferrari I want?
4.Consider distractions. For younger children in particular, a different activity can create an “out of sight, out of mind” diversion. For example a child hungry for dinner that is 15 minutes away from being ready can be told, “No you can’t have a snack right now but we can color together until dinner is ready in 15 minutes.”
5.Praise is a powerful motivator. As always, it should be delivered with sincerity. Kids can see your adult artificiality with x-ray vision! Praise your children when you observe an honest effort at being patient, and self regulating their short term indulgences for their long term benefit. The key word here is effort. If it first they cannot succeed, encourage them to keep trying.
There’s one more thing I’d like to say about marshmallows. They are an essential ingredient in s’ mores. The individual who is in a rush to eat might just burn the marshmallow while the one who can delay gratification to slowly rotate the marshmallow over an open flame will find it a perfect golden brown, crisped on the outside, and delectably hot and gooey on the inside. It will melt the chocolate with ease to make this graham cracker sandwich a coveted campfire delight. How are your s’ mores turning out?
Please leave us a comment. We’d love to know what you think about marshmallows, tests, or s’ mores!
April was stress awareness month so I am writing about it in May! You’ve likely heard that it takes 30 days to make a habit. I used the 30 days in April to conduct an experiment that would help me combat life’s little and even some big stressors. Yes, Even a Life and Parent Coach has stress! And though stress is normal, I wanted to deal with it before it made me unhealthy, unhappy, and unbearable.My experiment trialed three techniques that were really very simple. The only hard part was to conjure up enough will power to succeed. I’ve been called… ahem…. “stubborn,” so I used that as a strength and made my experiment a smashing success. The 30 days of April yielded a positive sense of personal control, a more optimistic outlook, and a feeling of calm that made me happier and more pleasant to be around. Here are the three strategies I implemented:
1. Deep Breath at Traffic Lights and 10 minutes before Bedtime: A simple Google search on the benefits of deep breathing will surrender countless articles expounding scores of health and mood benefits. Here are 5 of those benefits in no particular order:
Gives pause for clear thinking. Exhalation releases tension and anxiety. Decreases pain. No wonder moms giving birth are taught breathing exercises! Increases positive moods by releasing pleasure inducing neuro-chemicals in the brain. Rhythmic breathing is more effective in reducing toxins from the body than shallow, stressed breathing.I deep-breathed at every red traffic light for an entire month. I told myself that I could create peacefulness. I visualized exhaling difficult angst-producing people and situations. I did this again before bedtime and since I wasn’t driving, I could close my eyes to add a calming beach visual in which warm rays of the sun would empower me. 30 days later, deep breathing comes spontaneously as a quick “go to” strategy to manage feelings of stress. By quickly regrouping, I can problem solve my way to positive outcomes. Not only do I feel more in control, I truly feel healthier. 2. Just say “no!” People will ask us to do all sorts of things. Can you bake 50 cupcakes for an impromptu neighborhood party? Can you volunteer to coach soccer? Would you come to school to decorate for the party, read to the kindergartners, chair the annual fundraiser, etc…? Like many moms, guilt derailed me to say “yes” to countless volunteer roles. I finally figured out that saying “yes” to everyone and everything made me say “no” to my own downtime, family time, and sanity. In April, I learned to limit my volunteer activities to two that brought me joy. Saying “no” to others meant I said “yes” to more time for my family and fun. I’ve finished two books and had time to connect with my old hobby of oil painting. Once again, I felt more in control and powerful to create peace and recharge my spirit.
3. Create boundaries to reduce multitasking: Like anyone, I have segments that make up my day. My work time was bleeding over into family time, personal time, and even chores / errands. My laptop had escaped from the office and became a third wheel where it wasn’t welcome! Were the emails or tweaking PowerPoint presentations really that urgent? No! I told the computer in my office to “stay” and shut the door. I also shut out thoughts about work, stressful people, or stressful situations. This wasn’t easy but with practice I was able to be mindful and focus on the pleasure in everyday activities. It worked! Not only did I bake a perfect spinach and gruyere soufflé, I enjoyed my “me time" and family time without irritating, unnecessary distractions.
Making stress disappear isn’t realistic. Since I don’t want it to swim with me all day long I place it into its own segment of the day. There I deal with it with a targeted plan of action and kick it to the curb!
I want to manage stress. I can manage stress. I will manage stress!
So what do you think? Would these strategies work for you? How do you successfully attack your stress?
About a year ago, I worked with a client whose 9 year old (we’ll call him “Jacob”) was trying to deal with the pressures of being a little league baseball pitcher. Despite the self imposed pressure of throwing more strikes than balls or hits, he had to deal with the periodic setback of a poorly played game. During one particular game, Jacob was slow to respond to a bunt that rolled toward 1st base. After finally retrieving the ball, he dropped it, picked it up again, and then threw it to 2nd base where the batter had swiftly run. Jacob grossly overthrew the ball into the outfield which allowed the batter to come all the way around 3rd base and reach home plate to score a home run. That run broke the tie and resulted in Jacob’s team’s loss of the game.
Anyone who understands baseball knows that scoring a home run on a bunt results from a comedy of errors that can only occur in little league. Jacob wasn’t laughing. He was crushed at his performance and the heckling from his 9 year old opponents.
Jacob’s mom came to me concerned about his ability to “bounce back” from setbacks. Every time Jacob loses, he gets a “funny feeling” in his stomach, frowns incessantly, and worst of all, blames everyone else on the team for their errors without addressing his own.
We got to work on right away on building Jacob’s emotional intelligence skills of resilience and accountability. Many strategies helped him along his way, but one in particular stood out.
We asked Jacob to point his finger as if he was blaming a teammate for the loss of a game. When he pointed his index finger we asked him where his middle, ring, and pinky fingers were pointing. Jacob replied “back at me!”
After that, every time Jacob blamed others (and that was A LOT!) his very dedicated mom and dad firmly yet lovingly reminded him to use the other three fingers pointing back at him to focus on what he could do to be accountable for his own actions.
It worked! Within a month, Jacob and his parents even created actions ideas for the three fingers. They all started with the letter “s” which made them easy to remember.
The middle finger stood for “study and strength”. After losing a game, Jacob was encouraged to study his errors and learn from them. Of course, his parents helped. After that, he would focus on very specific strengths that he brought to each game. Jacob particularly liked to recall the number of strikes he threw with his famous curve ball and that made him happy. With prodding from his parents, he learned to add additional strengths such as “I gave John a pat on the back after he struck out”, and “I hit a line drive when I was up to bat.”
Jacob’s ring finger stood for “slide off.” He liked his mom’s idea of letting a loss or a poorly played game slide off his shoulders. He would literally lean back to act out the thought. By viewing the loss as a temporary event, Jacob could start focusing on the next game. (This thought process is part of a larger approach to learning the important emotional intelligence skill of optimism)
That led to “strategies” which was represented by Jacob’s pinky. Jacob’s dad was particularly helpful in helping him to think through his plays and practice them. They would spend a couple of hours at the baseball field every weekend. Besides improving his game, Jacob enjoyed the time with his dad and the feedback he received.
Jacob and his parents are to be congratulated. They were active participants in the coaching process and worked hard in between sessions to overcome unproductive approaches and implement new ideas in order to achieve success in their goals.
This exercise didn’t just help Jacob improve his game or his mood after a loss; it helped him understand how to be resilient, optimistic and accountable to himself. Research proves that these emotional intelligence skills will serve Jacob well in the problem solving arena for the rest of his life. If he slips back in to the finger pointing blame game and its ensuing negativity, he just has to remember where the other three fingers are pointing.
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