I never knew we could learn so much about raising children from a simple marshmallow. But, the classic “marshmallow test” suggested that children with greater self-control also experienced greater health and success as adults. In response we wondered: “How can we nurture self-control in our children?”
A twist on the “marshmallow study” showed that children exhibit more self-control when the adults around them followed through on their promises. In other words, when children see their parents as reliable, they practice better self-control. Reliable parents, parents who follow through on promises, nurture self-control in children.
Now, a third twist on the “marshmallow test” gives us another parenting hint. This study tested the ability of children from Japan and the United States to delay gratification for either food (a marshmallow) or a wrapped gift among children in Japan and children in the United States. The researchers hoped to discover how culture might influence self-control. Interestingly, children in Japan waited significantly longer for food (about 15 minutes) than did the U.S. children (less than a 4-minute wait); but the U.S. children waited longer before opening a gift (almost 15 minutes) than did the Japanese children (less than 5 minutes). These differences may reflect cultural training differences. Specifically, waiting to eat is emphasized more in Japan than in the U.S. and waiting to open gifts is emphasized more in the U.S. than in Japan. In other words, culturally specific habits impact delayed gratification and self-control in children.
What does this mean for our families? Families can nurture self-control in their children by…wait for it…wait…yes…building a family environment that is comfortable with waiting, even encourages waiting. You can do this by identifying opportunities to politely and appropriately allow your children (and you) to wait. In doing so, we will develop a culture (a home environment) that emphasizes habits nurturing delayed gratification and impulse control. Life is filled with opportunities to nurture the ability to wait, the ability to strengthen self-control. Here are some examples:
- Wait until everyone sits down at the table and the family has prayed before eating the food on the table.
- Wait your turn to open your presents. Or wait until everyone is present before opening your presents.
- Play games that involve taking turns so each person has to wait his or her turn.
- When you want to watch a show with your family but two people want to watch a different show, pick one and let the other show wait for another time. Make sure it’s not always the same person who has to wait.
- Wait for dessert until the table is cleared and kitchen cleaned up.
- Teach children how to wait by occupying themselves with another activity. Engage your child in calm waiting activities. Prepare ahead for activities you know will involve waiting, like going to a doctor’s office.
- Save the favorite activity for the second half of the day…and enjoy the wait.
You get the idea. One other caveat, avoid pulling out your cellphone while you wait and just let your mind wander. You’ll find it rather enjoyable. Now get out there and…wait for it…wait…. enjoy strengthening self-control in your family.