Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Marshmallows and the Power of No!

(this article originally appeard as a part of my weekly Practical Parenting series for the Daily Review Atlas in Monmouth, IL)

We literally live in a culture that fosters getting any and everything we want fast, easy and free with little or no money down! It’s no wonder then that parents have a difficult time telling their children no. Yet saying no to our kids can be one of the best parenting strategies in raising self disciplined, successful individuals. Don’t believe me? Ask a marshmallow.

In the late 1960’s Dr. Mischel of Stanford University recruited 400 four year old children and individually sat them down at a small table with nothing in front of them but a marshmallow. He explained that if they wanted to eat the marshmallow they could but if they choose to wait the fifteen minutes until he returned he would bring them a second marshmallow and then they could eat two. Some children could barely wait for the test to begin before devouring the marshmallow. Other children turned around in their chair or covered their eyes so didn’t have to face the temptation and yet others held, smelled and licked the marshmallow clearly agonizing over their decision to indulge or wait and double their bounty.

 If it sounds delightful it is. You can do a quick internet search and find some adorable, laugh out loud videos of children debating whether or not to eat a little air puffed ball of corn syrup. It’s funny until you understand the ramifications of the experiment.

The study followed the children for eighteen years and found that the youngsters who delayed their gratification had a remarkably higher success rate in school. Further research has since revealed that waiting to eat a marshmallow is a strong predictor of many quality characteristics including the ability to successfully deal with change, obtain happiness and develop high levels of maturity. What this means is the depth of a person’s self discipline is a huge factor in determining future success.

Seems clear and cut to me until we factor in the parent’s feelings. We don’t like to tell our children no. It is uncomfortable and it hurts our tender hearts. We don’t want them to experience the agony of waiting, especially if we have the means to give them what they want. However, those good intentions are very well thwarting our efforts to give them a good life.   

Listen, it’s a kid’s job to push against the boundaries. It is a parent’s job to set the boundaries. When we give into our children’s demands it might seem like sweet relief but it is very short lived. We will pay a long term price. Since self discipline is a key to children’s success (and some research says it is twice as strong a predictor of school success as intelligence) our kids need it to harness and balance their powerful emotional drives, delay gratification, learn the benefits of sacrifice, and build their powers of concentration and perseverance. Without self discipline they can become lazy, self indulgent and self centered. This is precisely what we don’t want for our children. Let’s face it – the world is a cruel place to maneuver. Are we giving them the tools they will need to navigate their future when it comes time for them to leave the nest?  
I’m not advocating we never tell our children yes. I love when I am able to give my child something they want but there are times when no is appropriate as well. “No, I won’t buy you junk food!  No, I’m not buying you whatever you want when you want it! No you can’t stay up past your bedtime/curfew!”

When you must say no to your child, please stick to your word. Don’t negotiate. You must teach your child that no does, in fact, actually mean no. If you say, “I’m not buying you anything in the store today” but purchase a candy bar in the check-out lane you’ve successfully redefined the word no.  You’ve taught your child that no actually means escalate until you get what you want. You’ve encouraged them to get louder, be more disrespectful and throw temper tantrums!  You’re child is left wondering if you really mean what you say because the last time you said no they cried and got what they wanted.  (And if you think a two year old can throw a fit, honey, just wait till she’s fifteen!)

The agony of waiting for a marshmallow, candy bar, the latest video game, cell phone or car might actually help your child. We all know that life is full of frustrations and disappointments. We all want our children to be able to handle those challenges right? Well how will they if they don’t get to practice? So the next time you tell your child no, mentally pat yourself on the back. Good things do come to those who wait. Why? Because I’m the mom and I said so! That’s why! 

1 comment:

  1. I'm of course thinking about which of my children would probably eat the marshmallow and which would hold off. My oldest two are awesome at saving money up to buy something big... so I think they would have been okay. My youngest two? I might be in trouble...

    Loved the column as always!


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