I read about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment a few years ago when I was working in the Ed-Tech sector with K-10 kids. This study was done on 4-5 year olds who were given two options – the first to get a reward (marshmallow) immediately, or to wait 15 minutes to get two of those marshmallows. The gist of the study is that children who exhibited self control and an ability to delay gratification at the age of 4-5 years in this study, ended up more successful, healthy and better off in every area of their life than those children who took the first offer. This is one of the landmark studies in the field of psychology conducted by researcher Walter Mischel, over a period of 4-5 decades, tracing the progress of these children and making a positive correlation between self control and the ability to make better life decisions as a result of it.
It is interesting to note how the children who exhibited self control at such an early age continued to use that strategy as grown-ups to wait, slog it out and be patient to get to their desired goals. It is also interesting to note how children who were less patient and got tempted at a young age could likely not build the ability to delay gratification and focus on long-term return in their growing up years or even as adults. Both these deductions clearly indicate the importance of building the virtue of self control at an early age! No wonder that child psychologists and researchers around the world stress on the importance of value system formation and building the foundations of social-emotional learning in the formative age between 2-5 years.
But the big question is, how can we get our children to understand the value of delaying gratification. Surely, if you dangle a candy in front of them and tell them to wait some more to get two of those, it is almost certain that they would have gobbled the first one even before you finished sharing your proposition! Most children would either be too tempted by the sight of whatever object you use for inculcating patience, or they would simply be too impatient to hear, register and understand the value of the other option. This article talks about certain strategies that one can employ to build self control in children. Two of those strategies I have consistently followed in my style of parenting as well – First is to minimise distraction, which means keeping unhealthy junk food out of the house and not turning on the T.V. myself. Since I have consistently followed this strategy, my kid has learnt to savour home-cooked meals that we all enjoy and shows very little inclination to watch T.V. He is still excited by the prospect of a cake or a chocolate or a few cartoon videos, but it is very limited and he doesn’t throw a fit for it. The second strategy that I employ, which is also on this list, is that of de-emphasis on the reward. In any situation when my child is having a meltdown or I need him to behave in a certain way, I encourage him to behave in return for a better experience later, such as a great story-telling session or a run in the park, instead of things that he can get immediately. It acts as a distraction and helps him focus his energy on thinking about that experience rather than on losing his calm. This strategy works for me almost 90% of the times.
I am still not sure if my little one is very good at exercising self control or how he would have performed in this study, but I was pleasantly surprised by something he did today. We baked a cake together, where he mixed all the wet ingredients and I put the other ingredients together to bake. For the next 20 minutes, he kept reminding me to check on the cake if it is ready. When I finally took the cake out, he was eager to cut it, but I explained to him that it is better to let it cool off a bit so that the cake cuts smoothly. He touched and examined the cake himself and said that we should wait a bit to allow it to cool! I honestly didn’t expect my 2.5 year old to accept my argument pitted against his favourite cake, but he did, and how! I surely hope he can continue to analyse options for himself and make well though-out decisions later in life too.