In the famous psychological marshmallow test, researchers placed a marshmallow in front of young children, ages 4-5. Researchers told the children you may have the marshmallow right away. Or, if you wait a few minutes, you can have two marshmallows.
The marshmallow test measures a child’s ability to delay gratification: to wait for a reward or for something you want.
Much has been made of these findings. The ability to delay gratification is associated with a wide range of positive outcomes, including stronger academics, better executive function, less risk-taking.
But there are two important nuances to this body of work.
First, the ability to wait as a young child does predict success later in life, but the size of those effects is small. Like, really small. Failure at the marshmallow test at the age of five is hardly predictive of a life of crime. This means that while this skill is important for our children, there is plenty of time for them to catch up and other life variables that matter just as much or more for positive development.
Second, when you look closely at the children who are successful in waiting for the larger reward, they aren’t just sitting there. The successful children use strategies to distract themselves from the marshmallow.
Some look away from the marshmallow, adorably even covering their eyes or turning around in their seat so they cannot see it. Some children sing songs to themselves. Some children play games with their fingers or their clothing. Some children even run around the room.
In short, some young children are already using waiting strategies in early childhood and that is helping them succeed in the marshmallow test.
What does this mean for us as parents?
Children can be taught strategies to wait for what they want.
We can teach our teach our children how to wait. It’s a skill that will serve them throughout their life when some of the most amazing rewards take time and effort. Plus, from a practical standpoint, you can’t always respond immediately to your child’s needs.
They need to learn how to patiently wait.
Here are the top four strategies to keep in mind to develop patience in your child.
1. Use patience stretching. We develop patience in our children by slowly stretching how long they can be patient for. When your child makes a request to you, acknowledge it. Then, ask them to wait a moment before you respond.
Imagine your child wants you to read them a book RIGHT NOW. Acknowledge their request, and then ask them to wait for just a few moments. “Yes! I will read you a book. Let me get a quick drink of water first.” Over time, you want to stretch how long your child can wait for something they want from you. Check out this video for a description of the strategy.
2. Even if you can respond right away, don’t. Like most skills in child development, like controlling tantrums or encouraging your child to tell the truth, we develop skills in the moments that don’t require the skill. In other words, we practice skills in the calm before the storm.
The reason we start in the quiet moments is that it means that our children will have the skills for patience when we simply cannot respond to them quickly.
3. Co-regulate the wait time. Children don’t know what to do while waiting unless we teach them. That means that we have to help fill that time with songs or activities. Over time, our child will be able to produce their own strategy for distraction when they need to wait, but in the beginning, we must teach them what their options are.
4. Screens are a last resort. An important part of learning to wait is experiencing the passage of time. When we are engaged in a screen or movie or video game, we do not have awareness of time – it simply flies by. Consequently, waiting skills do not develop when your child is having screen time. Screen time should be your last-ditch effort to help your child wait.
Does this mean that we can never use screen time to pass the time and help our children wait? Not at all. But we need to help our child wait as long as possible before we plug them in.
Imagine going out to dinner. Talk, color, play games, and help your child pass the time until the food arrives. After your child eats their food, that’s the time to let your child play on a phone – so you can enjoy grown up conversation and a chance to eat with two hands.
Above all, be reasonable. If you are waiting in the ER for a scan to know if your 7-year-old has a broken arm turn on that TV right away.
All children have different abilities to wait. But its empowering to know that parents can help children grow their waiting skills.
Taken all together, tiny changes you make at home can teach your child to wait patiently. Using these evidence-based strategies, you can grow your child’s ability to delay gratification. Now, you can save the marshmallows for s’more night.
I am an award-winning scientist, educator, author, and a mom. I help parents accomplish their goals for themselves and their families.
You have successfully joined mailing list. Don't forget to add us to your contacts!