Tales from the Parenting Trenches: On Teaching Children to Hold Out for a Second Marshmallow

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Delaying gratification and other benefits of waiting for Christmas.

By Sabrina Connell | Twitter: @sabrinaconnell
My husband and are at odds when it comes to our desires for celebrating Christmas in a way we each find meaningful. The sight of presents spilling out from under a tree is enough to nauseate him. He’d rather celebrate in as austere a manner as possible–reverently, of course–echoing the simplicity that surrounded the birth of Jesus.

I, on the other hand, find deep meaning in the presents. Not necessarily in the giving and receiving of presents, but, rather, in the waiting and anticipation of giving and receiving them. I love watching our children pace anxiously around the tree each morning, silently taking inventory of the treasures they eagerly wait to claim. I love listening to them strategize the order in which they’ll open them. Our daughter, nearly eight years old, describes the anticipation as an ache that fills her chest.

“Hold on to that feeling, sweetie. Embrace the wait. That anticipation is what you’re supposed to feel. It’s the same feeling the wise men felt as they followed the star. You’re in good company.”

Advent is a season of anticipation. Learning to wait and sit with anticipation are important skills for children to develop. Such skills are central to the discipline of self control.

Self-control

Throughout childhood and adolescence, temperament and parenting work together to jointly influence the extent to which self-control develops. Granted, some children are biologically more impulsive than others, but regardless of temperament, children who experience parental warmth and gentle encouragement are more likely to develop self-control, because such parenting models patient, non-impulsive behavior. When parents are highly power-assertive and exercise inconsistent discipline or structure, children’s abilities to manage their impulses develops poorly or may even fail to function. The more opportunities children have to wait with anticipation and the more their parents provide gentle coaching and strategies for managing the wait, the more likely they are to develop self-regulatory skills that can lead them successfully in the future.

Studies

Researchers who study the development of self-control typically create laboratory situations in which children are offered a treat of some kind and are given two options: 1. Eat the marshmallow when the researcher leaves the room or 2. Leave the marshmallow uneaten until the researcher returns and then earn an additional marshmallow for waiting. For a peek at how different children behave in this type of experiment, check out this adorable video:

Researchers found that preschoolers who were better able to delay gratification (wait for the second marshmallow rather than gobbling up the one) matured into adolescents that were more responsive to reason, better at concentrating and planning ahead, better at managing stress, and even scored higher on their SATs than their less-impulsive counterparts.

Pacing around a Christmas tree for 25 days and living with that chest-about-to-burst-with-excitement feeling for so long, helps to develop some measure of discipline. I’d like to think it helps exercise the mental and emotional muscles our kids would need to hold out for that second marshmallow. I love to think of our kids on Christmas morning, restless hearts pounding as they bound out of bed and race to our room, eager to enjoy the spoils of the holiday. I love to think how those same emotions can transfer to their own understanding of what it means to wait for and celebrate the arrival of Jesus. I love to think of how I can find more meaningful moments for them to experience a similar joyful anticipation beyond the holiday season.

I often look to Fred Rogers (beloved host of the show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) for parenting (or really just living) wisdom and came across this gem of a quote this week:

“I like to compare the holiday season with the way a child listens to a favorite story. The pleasure is in the familiar way the story begins, the anticipation of familiar turns it takes, the familiar moments of suspense, and the familiar climax and ending.” ― Fred Rogers

So, my SheLoves sisters, I’d love to hear:
- How do you rekindle that feeling of waiting and anticipation for your children throughout the year?
- What types of strategies to you use to help your children endure moments of waiting?
- How have you helped them delay their own gratification?

About Sabrina:

An artist-turned-academic, Sabrina spends her days navigating between a wide variety of roles including that of mother, wife, graduate student, researcher and daydreamer. She is currently a doctoral student in the Communication Studies program at Northwestern University where she researches the various ways in which children and parents engage media and technology and the potential effects these interactions might have on the development of children. Prior to her time at Northwestern, Sabrina earned a Master’s degree in child development from Tufts University, as well as a Master of Arts in puppetry from the University of Connecticut. She has a passion for all things involving play, whimsy and the art of nurturing.

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Idelette McVicker
I like soggy cereal and I would like to go to every spot on the map of the earth to meet our world’s women. I dream of a world where no women or girls are for sale. I dream of a world where women and men are partners in doing the work that brings down a new Heaven on earth. My word last year was “roar” and I learned it’s not about my voice rising as much as it is about our collective voices rising in unison to bring down walls of injustice. This year, my own word is “soar.” I have three children and this place–right here, called shelovesmagazine.com–is my fourth baby. I am African, although my skin colour doesn’t tell you that story. I am also a little bit Chinese, because my heart lives there amongst the tall skyscrapers of Taipei and the mountains of Chiufen. Give me sweet chai and I think I’m in heaven. I live in Vancouver, Canada and I pledged my heart to Scott 11 years ago. I believe in kindness and calling out the song in each other’s hearts. I also believe that Love covers–my gaps, my mistakes and the distances between us. I blog at idelette.com and tweet @idelette.
Idelette McVicker

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  • Kelley Johnson Nikondeha

    Sabrina ~ love the child development opportunities to be cultivated by the practice of Advent! Love that we can teach our children to ‘embrace the wait’ and learn to live with anticipation.

    My kids always ask what they are getting – wanting to know now! I think it might also be good that they live with the unknown for a bit… not knowing what gifts are coming but wondering, imagining, even trusting that mom and dad know how to give them good gifts (like their Father in Heaven, right?).

    So many development opportunities for our kids in the practices of Christmas – never thought of it that way until you reframed it for me. Thanks so much, Sabrina!

    • Kelley Johnson Nikondeha

      I have marshmallows in the pantry… kinda want to conduct my own test today!

      • http://www.shelovesmagazine.com idelette

        I saw the original test was 20min. I don’t know if I could wait 20min, sitting still in a chair, staring at the marshmallow. My mouth started salivating watching the video! Haha.

        • Kelley Johnson Nikondeha

          Maybe I’ll try it with 7 minutes… a good exercise! lol

  • http://www.shelovesmagazine.com idelette

    The Marshmallow test is adorable. // I have to say, I so appreciate your insights … I wish I could have started reading your posts eight years ago! ;)

  • http://www.twitter.com/teenbug Tina Francis

    Sabrina, I nearly pulled my hair out watching the kids in “The Marshmallow Test” video. Delaying gratification is definitely not an area of strength. While this post was meant primarily for parents, I find that this lesson applies to my life in so many ways. Thank you for the memorable visual lesson. xox

  • Sabrina

    So glad you ladies enjoyed the video clip! I was in stitches the first time I saw it. And how very true that even as adults, we still have to try so hard to hold out for those marshmallows. I often feel like I learn some of life’s most important lessons from my own kiddos!

  • Vanessa

    Sabrina, Love this. So much.
    I came from a family much like what you’re describing — I have a memory of Mom telling my brother something along the lines of, “I know you’re dying to know what’s in those boxes. Can you imagine how much Mary felt, waiting for her baby to be born. Woah.” I personally love the anticipation more than the opening of gifts. I’m grateful for them, but I’m more grateful that I have loving people in my life who want to find that perfect gift, and more grateful that I am bless by God with this family!
    This is a great reminder. I’m SO sharing this on facebook.
    Blessings and anticipatory goodness to you and your family, -Vanessa

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