Wait for it...
I love the "Second Marshmallow" test. My wife and I have been annoying our 2 kids with it for the last 19 years. Whenever one of them starts whining about wanting something immediately we will respond with "wait for the 2nd marshmallow". The first time we say it, we have to then explain what we mean by it. By the hundredth time, they don't care and are just exasperated with us. But my wife and I still get a kick out of it.
What is the "Second Marshmallow" test you ask? Well, back in 1972 a psychologist at Stanford University decided to run an experiment. 16 boys and 16 girls aged between 3 and 5 years old were invited to participate. Each child was led into a room and seated at a table. A marshmallow was then placed in front of them at the table. The child was told that they could eat the marshmallow now if they wished. However, if they waited for 15 minutes without eating it, they would then get not only the original marshmallow but 1 additional marshmallow!
The researchers were trying to determine when we learn control. How old are we when we can decide to delay instant gratification for a bigger reward later? I am not going to get into the results of the initial experiment. For this article, the follow-up studies and findings are much more interesting. Angela Duckworth summed it up nicely in the following quote:
"Children who had been able to wait for fifteen minutes for their treat had SAT scores that were on average, 210 points higher than those children who had rung the bell after thirty seconds."
But, the findings were not limited to SAT scores, 20 yeas later, the adults who had shown the ability to wait had "lower levels of substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, better responses to stress, better social skills as reported by their parents..." ¹
If we know that kids that can delay gratification generally go further, how do we train that in our babies? Seriously, if our kids can grow into adults who can consider two job offers and then take the one that offers long-term growth over the one with the big upfront salary won't that be a good thing?
One suggestion I read was to hide temptation. While I can understand that it is easier to delay gratification when the item of desire is out of sight, I am not convinced that it teaches our kids control. The idea of control is to manage their desire when the temptation is right there! But... maybe there is a way to take advantage of the "out of sight, out of mind" function of our kid's brains. Teaching our kids the tools for self-distraction might be useful. When patience is required, talk about how you often come up with fun things to do to pass the time (role modeling is more effective than preaching). "When I have to wait, sometimes I sing a song to pass the time. Shall we sing one together?" Feel free to plug in whatever age-appropriate distraction you think is suitable.
If you have read my other articles you know that I am not completely opposed to bribery. Rewards can have some impact here as well. When our kids show that they can wait, or exhibit other aspects of self-control, reward it. Ideally, rewarding them as a surprise rather than promising them something upfront. Positive reinforcement generally works well to create habits.
Money, yes money can help to teach control. Giving your child an allowance or the opportunity to earn money from chores then opens up the chance for you to teach them about saving. I like to get kids started with a bank account early on rather than the piggy bank but for these purposes either should work. Saving is inherently about delayed gratification. If your daughter keeps putting pennies into her bank she will eventually have more pennies and can buy something bigger. This approach aligns nicely with the challenge above of visible temptation. Most things your kids will need money to buy will not be sitting around the house and in sight all the time.
Finally, don't let your son see you eating that cupcake at 3pm. Contradictions with what you do and what you see will erase all credibility. Maybe this will help us to learn some self-control as well!