What does parenting preschoolers, eating marshmallows, and success have in common? Apparently a lot. Daniel Goleman describes a fascinating study involving preschoolers and marshmallows. A researcher engaged a 4-to-6-year-old in play. After a short time, he told the child he had an errand to run. He plopped a marshmallow on the table and said, “If the marshmallow is there when I return, you can have two marshmallows.” The researcher then left the preschooler alone with the marshmallow for 15-20 minutes. Some preschoolers covered their eyes. Others turned around and “ignored” the marshmallow. Some even petted the marshmallow as though it were a stuffed animal or licked the table around the marshmallow. Of course, some ate the marshmallow. Those who did not eat the marshmallow until the researcher returned enjoyed two marshmallows. When the preschoolers prepared to graduate from high school, the researchers did a little follow up research. They discovered that the preschoolers who did not eat the marshmallow (waited until the researcher returned and earned a second marshmallow) were described by teachers and parents as more competent than those who quickly ate the single marshmallow. They scored an average of 210 points more on SAT tests. They tended to present as more positive, self-motivating, self-confident, and persistent. They exhibited the ability to delay gratification in pursuit of a goal (like waiting to get a second marshmallow). These habits, with delayed gratification as the centerpiece, can go on to contribute to thriving marriages, greater career satisfaction, and better health. This “marshmallow study” suggests that persistence and the ability to delay gratification sets the foundation for children to flourish and cope with the pressures of life. So, how can we help our children learn persistence? How can we help our children learn to delay gratification?
Researchers from Brigham Young University have recently helped us answer this question. They published a study that followed 325 two-parent families (with 11-14 year old children) in an effort to discover the origins of persistence. They found that both parents contributed to persistence. Interestingly though, persistence gained through fathers led to higher engagement in school and lower rates of delinquency over time. What did these fathers do that had the greatest impact on a child’s level of persistence? They did three things that all parents can do:
1. The fathers engaged in warm, loving relationships with their children. They were available to their children and engaged them in interactions. They listened to their children. They played with their children.
2. The fathers held their children accountable for their behavior and emphasized the reasons behind the rules. They loved their children enough to teach them right from wrong. They pointed out inappropriate behavior and disciplined that behavior. At the same time, they explained why that behavior was inappropriate and explained alternative desired behaviors.
3. The fathers gave their children an appropriate level of autonomy. They did not hold them back; nor, did they push them beyond their ability. This demands knowing your child. What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What are they developmentally able to do or not do? To learn the answers to these questions, a parent must take an interest in their child. They must become a student of their child and their child’s development.
Although this study pointed to the benefit of fathers in building persistence, both parents can practice the three ingredients noted above. When you do put these skills into practice, you increase the chances that your child will grow in their ability to stick to a task until it is done and pursue a goal until they achieve it. That is the beginning of success!
Remember those school-free days of summer you enjoyed as a child? I could not wait until summer arrived and I could relax during the long, lazy days of summer. I could swim, ride my bike, play with friends, go on a family vacation, sleep, and walk around town…the list seemed endless. Well, the list of possibilities seemed endless when summer began. Sometime in July, though, I began to get bored. My friends went on vacation at different times than I did. Riding my bike to the same old place day after day just lost its luster. Although I enjoy my sleep, you cannot sleep all the time. Besides, without air conditioning in the house it generally got too hot to enjoy sleep. That’s when I would hear it…the same old line every summer. I would approach my mother and say, “Mom, I’m bored.” She would look at me and smile before saying, “Well, find something to do.” That was not the answer I was looking for. I was hoping for a little relief…some direction…some sage advice that would direct me to the next exciting, over-the-top activity. But no, I’d just hear a simple, “Well, find something to do.”
As I look back, I realize what a great favor my mother did for me when she told me “find something to do.” She let me know that my boredom did not control me. I controlled it. It was under my power to be bored or not to be bored. Psychologists call the sense that “I have some control over events in my life” an internal locus on control. By throwing the responsibility for my boredom back on me rather than giving me something to do, my mother instilled an internal locus on control in me. This sense of control came in handy when I went to college. I knew that I had the control needed to manage my time. I could allow myself some boredom or I could find something to do. I did not have to rely on my peers for activities. I could decide for myself.
“Well, find something to do” also encouraged me to discover, get creative, and take some healthy risks. Sometimes I would do something unusual when allowed to “find something to do.” Maybe I could go for a bike ride, call a friend, mow the grass, go for a walk, or build mud pies. Many times, I chose to walk or ride my bike. In the process, I found interesting spiders, unusual leaves, and short cuts (adventures to a middle school child) to various places. I found my first record store while “finding something to do.” I learned how to “jump” my bike off a ramp and how to throw little green apples off the end of a stick. I found friends to ice skate with and I learned to skate backwards. I discovered what I could do, what I needed help with, and what I didn’t even want to try because my mother was kind enough to tell me to “find something to do.”
I also learned to entertain myself. I learned that I could have fun listening to music, playing music, reading, building, creating (I have to admit, my parents were less than happy with some of my creations—like the washtub bass I built), or just walking through the neighborhood watching people. I also learned that it is alright to be bored once in a while. Boredom did not kill me. In fact, boredom created the space for me to think and contemplate the world and the people in the world.
I realize we do not want to leave our children to their boredom all the time. But, boredom has its place…just as supervision and guidance do. Boredom encourages the development of many positive traits, like an internal locus of control, independent decision-making, discovery, time-management, and creativity. These traits come in handy when our children are faced with the peer pressures of high school and the sudden freedom of college. So, do your children a favor this summer. When they approach you to say, “I’m bored,” don’t tell them what to do. Don’t schedule their every waking moment. Simply reply by saying, “Excellent! Now you have a great opportunity to find something to do.”
One of the best gifts we can give our children is the ability to bounce back from failure, to overcome adversity, and to remain persistent in the face of disappointment. In a word, giving the gift of resiliency can impact a child’s life forever! What does a child need to develop resiliency? Here are some ideas.
· Resiliency begins with close family ties. Resilient children feel secure in their family relationships. They feel accepted and valued by their family. Even though they may express some interests different than their family, they know that family members accept them and cherish them. Take time for your children. Learn about their interests and abilities. Show an interest in what they think and do.
· Resilient children develop a sense of competence. Parents can help their children develop a sense of competence by accepting their strengths and giving them opportunities to develop those strengths. If they like music, give them opportunities to play or sing. If they like sports, get them involved in athletic activities. If they like to cook or draw or do scientific experiments, seek out opportunities for them to meet people with similar interests and become involved in related activities. Keep these activities fun. Do not push them beyond their desire. Let them guide the intensity of their involvement.
· Resilient children have a healthy self-confidence. Interestingly, confidence grows when we overcome obstacles and persevere in spite of difficulties and disappointments. Confidence grows when we learn to view adversity, struggle, and even failure as information about how to improve. Allow your child to experience disappointments and setbacks. Encourage them in their struggle to overcome those setbacks. Express confidence in their abilities to do so. Encourage their effort and point out specific areas in which you see improvement.
· Resilient children develop a strong moral character. They learn right from wrong and recognize the consequences of both. They develop compassion for others and practice kindness toward others. Resilient children learn that a life of honesty and integrity is not always easy, but always best. When your child does something wrong, do not bail them out. Allow them to suffer the consequences of their misbehavior. Trust that they can and will learn from those consequences to behave better in the future.
· Resilient children know that they make a unique and needed contribution to the world around them. God has endowed each child with a unique purpose. It may or may not be a visible to others; but, it is a vital purpose nonetheless. You can help your children discover their purpose in several ways. Provide opportunities to serve others. Help your children understand that many people in the world struggle to obtain basic life necessities. Provide opportunities to participate in volunteer work. Provide opportunities for your children to contribute to maintaining your home. All of these activities and more can help a child learn that they make an important contribution to our world.
· Resilient children cope effectively with stress. They learn to view challenges as opportunities for growth. Children learn effective coping skills by watching their parents; so, learn to practice and model good coping skills yourself. You can not only model effective coping skills, but you can coach your child in practicing those skills as well. Childhood and adolescence are filled with opportunities to learn coping skills.
Resilient children bounce back from failure, overcome adversity, and remain persistent in the face of disappointment. They thrive, even in the midst of difficulties. The most important ingredient in helping your child develop resiliency is you! Your active presence in their life, your loving affection, your healthy modeling, and your unconditional acceptance will give your children the wonderful gift of resiliency!