Recently, I was reminded of the famous Stanford experiment in the 1970s that tested children’s pa-tience. A child was offered a single marshmallow (or cookie) to eat right away, but, if they could wait, they would get two marshmallows. The results of this experiment linked the ability to delay gratification with higher SAT scores many years later. Ability to delay gratification may be beneficial in the long run, but why are some children willing to delay gratification to get more of something at a later time, while others are not?
Patience and the ability to delay gratification is a learned skill and not an innate ability we’re born with. The foundation for patience is built through trust. If the child can trust the adult to follow through with the promised result, then it is much easier for him or her to wait. If the adult is somehow untrustworthy or the situation itself is untrustworthy, then it is much harder for the child to believe the promised result will be forthcoming. While it is normal for children to be impulsive, most begin to control their actions around age 4 or 5, and some even earlier. So, if we observe children who cannot wait, or who are impatient and unable to “delay gratification,” we should look to the environment around them. Have these children been given the chance to learn the value of delayed gratification? As parents and teachers, are we setting the foundation for the development of this skill?
Imagine a child who almost never has fried foods or desserts in her house. On a rare occasion, her family had homemade French fries. These were portioned up to everyone and they began to eat. The girl set hers aside on her plate to savor at the end of the meal. Her father finished all of his own and then looked at her plate and said, “Well, it looks like you’re not going to eat those.” And before she knew it, he grabbed a large portion of her fries and ate them. Do you think in the future that this girl would delay eating desired foods? Would she pass the marshmallow test? Probably not, because even though she has a great amount of self-control, she will believe that it does not pay off.
So how as adults can we help children learn how to delay gratification? First and foremost, it is our re-sponsibility to create trust — and that starts with how we behave. Adults must be consistent and believable. We must treat our children with respect. If we truly forget or make a mistake, then we should make amends. Fairness is a part of respect. Listening to our children and taking their ideas, emotions and expressions se-riously also builds an atmosphere of trust and respect. It sends a message that they matter and are valued. Trust is also conveyed about our attitude on their ability to handle tough situations. Parents who give their children space to learn from their mistakes show they have confidence their child will be able to handle the situation.
Children will imitate the behavior of the adults around them. Do we exhibit impatience in front of our children or do they see us wait? Do we work hard for a better tomorrow? These are all questions to exam-ine to decide for ourselves what we value.
I am not saying we must be perfect parents or teachers — simply strive to build trust and respect. This is not meant to create a rigid or harsh atmosphere. Yes, sometimes we can eat dessert before dinner — yes, sometimes we can seize the day. But waiting for the good stuff is fun, too. Eating and savoring that long-anticipated ice cream has rewards in and of itself.
Marla Nargundkar is an AMI Montessori guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta.