Dear Dr. T.,
I am a bit worried about my eight-year-old daughter who, unlike her siblings, has very little ability to wait. Whether it’s a need to spend her birthday money right now! or eat her snack in the carpool on the way to school, she needs to do it ASAP.
Is this a problem or just something she will outgrow with time?
What concerns you here is the lack of the ability to delay gratification, which is a large part of self-control. A very young child has little ability to wait; his mantra is, “I want it, and I want it now!” The ability to wait for rewards becomes increasingly important, though, as the child grows older. School is full of situations that require the child to delay gratification – raising hands, going out for a drink, waiting for instructions, lunch, and recess. In addition, the social scene makes similar demands: waiting for a turn in a game, taking turns in a conversation, or participating a non-preferred activity now in exchange for the preferred one later. (For example: “We’ll play handball today, and basketball tomorrow.”)
By the time we are (successful) adults, we live in the world of delayed gratification. We wait for the light, our turn at the store or dentist, our paychecks, vacations, and bonuses. In particular, the Torah life requires this very crucial skill as so many of our mitzvos are predicated on self-control and the delay of gratification.
The ability to delay gratification is not only an important skill but also a predictor of success in the child’s later life. There have been many interesting experiments; most famously, the one at Columbia University called the Marshmallow Study. In this study, a group of four-year-olds is told that they could have one marshmallow now or two later. The research team evaluated these children fourteen years later and found amazing differences between the children who took marshmallows immediately vs. those who waited. Those children who had the ability to wait at age four were more positive, self-motivating, and persistent in the face of challenges. They also evidenced the ability to delay gratification in pursuit of their goals.
In contrast, the children who could not wait were found to be more troubled, stubborn, and indecisive, and less self-confident. Even worse, this group scored an average of 200 points less on SAT tests, most likely because their desire for instant gratification interfered with their study time. It was predicted that his lack of impulse control and ability to wait were likely to trip this group up throughout life and possibly result in poor marriages, bad jobs, and lots of all around frustration.
So, to answer your question, though I wouldn’t exactly worry at this point, it is in your daughter’s best interest to learn to wait. For some lucky children, this behavior comes naturally; others may pick it up by osmosis. However, this is not the case with your daughter, perhaps because her temperament differs from that of your other children. But, don’t despair: the good news is that this quality can be taught, and parents are in the best position to teach it.
Let’s look at some ways of teaching children to delay gratification.
Modeling: Children learn what they see. If we find it hard to deal with our frustrations and just give in to our impulses, what can we expect from them? We want to let our children see our patience and perseverance in going for the long haul rather than grabbing the quickest way. We want to show them the value of waiting until the time is right.
Turn disappointments into teachable moments: When we’re rained out of a major chol hamoed trip, that’s the time to practice handling the postponement with grace and show our children how it’s done.
Practice: Look for projects that require patience. Some practical ideas might be baking cookies (no cheating and eating raw dough!), art projects, building toys (like model airplanes) or scrapbooking. Reading chapter books together (“Find out what’s next tomorrow night!”) is another good idea.
Give an allowance: Even a small child can learn the skill of sacrificing now for later – which is the essence of delaying gratification.
Encourage saving: Instead of blowing birthday and Chanukah money on the latest fad, we can set up individual saving plans so our children can save for big-ticket items. Even if we can easily afford to simply give them anything they want, it’s in their best interest to have them save for some longed-for purchases instead.
Teach: Studying music or some similar skill that involves long-range planning and results will let your children experience a process that may be long, or even tedious, but has results which are worth it.
Begin training the children when they are young and easy to work with: Molding desired behavior for the young, receptive child is much easier than the daunting task of changing behavior in an older child who is, to say the least, less open to our suggestions.
Two final thoughts: Firstly, our world today is set for instant gratification – from push-button-just-about-everything to touch phones, from electronic games (quite the opposite of those endless Monopoly or Risk games) to word processors. Information is instantaneous: speed is the order of the day. Be aware that we are swimming against the tide here. Because our environment does not support the concept of delaying gratification, parents must work even harder at establishing these concepts and behaviors in the home.
Lastly, a parent must astutely separate two things: encouraging the delay of gratification and forcing it. We want to teach our children the skill, not force them to wait. And, the younger the child, the less able to wait he is. Force can only lead to backlash, if not now – then when the child is independent. And, too much frustration (“He needs to learn to wait.”) will only push the child into a desperate need for instant relief, which is precisely the opposite of our goal.
The Book Nook: Understanding Your Child’s Health is a basic medical primer written by Dr. Susan Schulman, a renowned pediatrician in Brooklyn, New York. The book provides answers to the basic issues of childhood such as nutrition, sleep problems, and common medical complaints. Of note is the fact that Dr. Schulman is considered an expert on the poorly understood auto-immune disease called PANDAS, associated with a strep infection.
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com