What Parents Must Know About Marshmallows, Tests, and S' mores!

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.

Toasted marshmallows and emotional intelligence
Toasted marshmallows and emotional intelligence

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!

A Boy, Three Fingers, and Lifelong Resilience

Resilience
Resilience

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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iPadding Children. Critical Information for Parents

The title for this post is inspired by Linked-IN’s “BrainInsights”, a group about Brain Development and Positive Parenting.  There, a talented group of experts connected to discuss their strong beliefs regarding the perils of screen time in toddlers and infants.

“Inspire the Genius” and “It’s Cool to be Smart” are marketing messages of the Vinci Touch Screen Learning System (recommended age 4 and under).  These messages are designed to target the emotions of parents who then open wallets and recklessly spend $479 for the promise of “genius.” 

To Vinci’s credit some of their other products have earned awards and their website clearly states the following:  “The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV watching before a child reaches the age of 2.”  But Vinci left out some very important sentences.

The full statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) reads as follows:  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no television or screen media such as computer games, videos, or DVDs for children under 2. For children over age 2, the recommendation is 1 to 2 hours per day for television or any screen media.  

Imagine that!  Vinci posted only part of the AAP’s statement because they don’t want potential buyers to know that their touchpad is on the banned list of “all” screen media for children under age two!

It comes as no surprise that the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) has awarded the Vinci Touchpad as their 2012 TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children) otherwise known as “the worst toy of the year.”   This organization gripes that the Vinci will “virtually lobotomize an infant.”

That allegation is likely made because research tells us that whether children are in infancy, toddlerhood, or of school age, that an unprecedented amount of screen time is thwarting healthy brain development.  While parents buy computer devices with hopes to make their child smarter they are overlooking other important parts of the brain growth that require the kind of nurturing that electronics simply cannot accomplish. 

Not only are excessive hours of electronic usage robbing children of emotional and social nurturing time through human contact, they are also poised to cause future damage.

A recent New York Times article cites numerous researchers warning that too much screen time actually decreases a child’s attention span, creates an environment where children “find the realities of the world underwhelming and under-stimulating” and may be a contributing factor to the skyrocketing diagnosis of ADHD.  Even childhood obesity has been blamed on children plastered in front of televisions for hours on end.

The research is boundless but enough said!  There are five suggestions below that parents can implement immediately to influence healthy brain development in children of all ages.

Follow the AAP guidelines no matter what it takes! 

Stubbornly refuse to let a child under age 2 get near screens of any type. Strictly limit screen time after age 2.

Replace screen time with play time as frequently as possible. 

Hurried lifestyles and adult dependence on screen time as “entertainment” have robbed children of essential play.  In a 10 page report, the AAP states “play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission of Human Rights as a right for every child.”  Consistent play times with loving caregivers provide children with the right kind of brain development not just cognitively, but emotionally and socially. Kids can grow bonds and trusting relationships with their caregivers.  Play allows children to learn how to interact with real people and real situations. They learn to manage difficult emotions and learn competencies that will help them when they face future challenges.  For example, with an adult’s help, three year old Johnny learns how to manage when Steven swipes his toy truck.  18 month old Penny learns how to clap for herself by following the cues of her caretaker.  She’s building her confidence too!  The life skills required to successfully navigate the game of life are born out of play.  And playtime is free!  It doesn’t cost anything to stack plastic containers from a kitchen cabinet, or dance to music in a living room.

Do not use screens as a babysitter! 

Do not use screens as a babysitter!  Do not use screens as a babysitter!  CCFC was right.  You might as well “lobotomize” your child!  Developing brains need as much quality human contact as possible.

Be present when your child is using any kind of screen device.  

The prefrontal cortex is the area of the child’s brain that discerns “good from bad”, “right from wrong”, “risk versus safety” etc. and will not fully develop until the mid 20’s. This means children need adult guidance to help them make sense of concepts applicable to their real world.  So while a 5 year old hears a good message about values from the television show “Arthur”, he or she still needs a loving adult to help them apply the concept into reality.

Consider your grandparents’ ideas. 

Generations ago, there were creative solutions for passing time in a car or an airplane.  Coloring and story books created a new and brilliant generation in which you, dear reader, are included!  Today many parents covet travel time as an “electronics free zone” in which they can learn about “stuff” in their child’s world.  Yes, parents can actually start conversations in which they learn about their child’s thoughts, ideas, opinions, grievances, and joys about millions of possible subjects. Why not capitalize on this window of opportunity to share your commonalities, debate your differences, guide your child’s maturity, or simply bond.

So in the end, parents can certainly choose to splurge on the $479 Vinci touchpad. If used as the only screen resource within the recommendations of the AAP, maybe, just maybe, it might serve a little short term value.  Used between ages 2 and 4 it ends up costing 66 cents a day monetarily. How much will it cost if parents allow it to become a babysitter? 

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