Learning to wait for things is a learned habit, and one that we all need to practice, for ourselves and our children.
I’m not proud to admit it, but when my WIFI takes too long to load a page, I shout at my screen. When a car drives too slowly in front of me, I shout at the driver from behind my steering wheel, and get really agitated when I can’t immediately overtake. When I get to a coffee shop and there’s a queue in front of me, the wait makes me antsy and irritable. I’ve actually offered to pay the barista extra to bump me up the queue.
I’m so used to the instant access culture of the internet, smart phones and fast food, that waiting has become really difficult for me.
And I grew up in a time when we had to post letters and wait for a reply! When I had to wait around at home (sometimes for days) for a phone call I was expecting; when I would have to wait to get taken to the library to look up something that I wanted to know.
Imagine what it’s like for our children who have been exposed to instant access from day one. You want to know where granny is? Phone her right now on her cell phone. You want pizza for dinner? Let’s order one and it’ll be delivered to our door. You feeling bored? Here, take my phone and play a game.
If you’ve ever heard about the Stanford marshmallow experiment, you’ll know that this really isn’t a good thing at all.
In the experiment, researchers ask children to wait in a room with a marshmallow. They’re told that they can either eat the marshmallow right away, or wait until the researcher comes back, when they will be able to eat that marshmallow plus another one. The researchers went on to study the participants in years to come, measuring their levels of success and happiness in later life, and relating it back to how they handled the marshmallow situation.
In a nutshell, instant gratification potentially leads to a lack of self-control, lack of perseverance, and ultimately lower levels of success in adult life.
This may or may not hold true, as there are usually grey areas with all of these studies. But what I know to be true as an educator is that I can quite easily tell apart those children who are used to waiting patiently, from those who aren’t.
The ‘waiters’ are more respectful of theirs teachers and peers. They’re gracious and less anxious in a group situation, because they’re not focused on having their needs met instantly. They understand working consistently towards a goal because they don’t expect instant results. They show perseverance and tenacity, and put less pressure on themselves to do things perfectly the first time.
The ‘waiters’ are definitely who I want my own children to be. Don’t you?
So I’ve come up with a couple of tips to help us all improve our delayed gratification skills.
- Teach distraction. Most parents are masters at distracting their children from something they want. The trick is to teach your children to distract themselves. Like when they really, really want to play iPad but they know that they have to wait another hour, teach them the skill of going to play with a ball or reading a book to pass the time, instead of lying on the floor screaming for the iPad. Or moping around trying to make their grumpiness ruin everyone else’s day.
- Be intentional about it. Make a cake and let it stand on the counter all day waiting for tea time. Wait half an hour before handing over your phone. Let your children experience the feeling of being hungry for that hour before dinner instead of giving them another snack. Encourage them to save up for something you would usually just buy for them. Make them wait until Friday to watch the DVD they’ve borrowed from their friend. Does this sound mean? I’m pretty sure it’s how we all experienced childhood.
- Just deal with the tantrum and sulking. What is with this idea that we have to quickly put an end to every bit of unhappiness or sulkiness? It’s probably got something to do with our own instant gratification issues – we just want the uncomfortable feelings to go away quickly! Our generation of parents really needs to learn to be ok with our children’s unhappiness, because, believe it or not, it’s not our job to make them happy. It’s actually our job to teach them how to be decent human beings who can cope with their own (sometimes uncomfortable) feelings. Letting your children experience that bit of unhappiness in the safety of their own family is one of the best things you can do for them. They come out the other side realising that the world didn’t end because they didn’t get what they wanted. That they survived feeling frustrated and unhappy, and everything is still ok because the feelings eventually went away. As uncomfortable as the past half hour may have been, they can get up and get on with life. Next time will be shorter, and eventually they’ll realise that being grumpy doesn’t get them what they want, so they might as well just not bother with it.
- Model good waiting behaviour. As always, children learn much more from what we do than from what we say, so work at become a good ‘waiter’ yourself too. It’s not always easy… but I’ll try if you will.
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