Don’t eat the marshmallow!


If you were four-years-old, could you resist these?

It is really hard work to teach children how to work hard.  Zach and Eliza often take the easy road.  Here are a few examples:

Eliza: “Mommy, can you do motorboat with me?”  Me: “Sure, after you get those horses off the bottom of the pool.”  Eliza: “I don’t want to do motorboat.”

Zach: “Mommy I want eye keem (ice cream).”  Me: “Zach, after you eat your dinner you may have dessert.”  Zach: “Mommy, I want eye keem.”  Me: “Sure, after you eat dinner.”  Zach: “No mommy.”

(And while getting out of the car) Eliza: “I want to carry everything by myself.”  Me: “Eliza, this is a lot of stuff, are you sure?”  Eliza: “Yes.”  (Here are your lunchbox, backpack, jacket, sandwich, and painting.)  E: “Mommy (crying hysterically) it’s too much I can’t carry it I need help I’m AFRAID OF CARS!!!”

In some cases, they’re trying to establish their independence, and in others, they obviously do not want to do the work required to get what they want.  Part of our jobs as parents is to figure out which of those is happening and adjust our reactions accordingly.  And when it is obvious that they are being lazy, I am trying to come up with ways to help motivate them.  I think humans often give up easily if what they’re doing requires effort or discomfort, or if they have to be patient for longer than they deem worthy (which, for my children right now, is generally anywhere between a millisecond and a few seconds).

So how do I convince them to work for what they want?  Or to have self-control and patience?  I have read about the famous marshmallow study.  What is so scary to me about this study is how great a predictor it is for later success.  Kids in the test who delay gratification do well in life; kids who can’t, don’t.

Now that Eliza is four-years-old, I have started going over a responsibility chart with her each night.  She has five things on the list every day, and my goal is not to nag her about them, but to ask her once to feed the dog or unload the silverware from the dishwasher, and if she chooses to do her chores, she gets stickers.  If she does all five chores, she gets a quarter.  If she does four, she gets a dime; three, she gets a nickel; two, she gets a penny; and one or none, she gets nothing.  At the end of the week, if she has 30 or more stickers, she gets a $1 bonus.  This is working well because she is taking pride in doing the work and putting up her stickers.  She gets to control things.  She can choose to do her chores and be rewarded, or choose not to and accept the consequences (not getting stickers and coins).

And when we go to church on Sundays, there are doughnut holes.  When we arrive, she gets to choose whether to eat one immediately, or wait until her class is over and get two.  So far she has chosen to wait two-out-of-four times.

With Zach, we are teaching him that we mean what we say, so that when he doesn’t eat, he doesn’t get dessert.  He definitely shows us through crying and screaming that he is unhappy with us, but he’s learning that his choices have consequences, too.

I guess this is just another example of how it’s hard to know exactly how to teach your kids what you deem to be important.  I don’t want to be so rigid and ruled and stressed about making sure we cover all these “important” things that we don’t have time to be silly and messy and spontaneous.

Yet again, I’m struck by what hard work parenting actually is.  If you have ways you are helping your children learn to be patient and self-controlled, let me know!  I love getting help and suggestions from other parents.  And now that I’ve finished my work (writing this blog), I’m going to go have some tea and cookies.  And perhaps a marshmallow, too.

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2 Responses to Don’t eat the marshmallow!

  1. Dana says:

    This is SO hard and seems to take lots and lots of time and energy! We do the same thing with food and dessert for my 3 year old. We also just started a get-ready-in-the-morning chart with 5 things that she needs to do if she wants to listen to her music in the car.

    One thing that we did that I found really effective was when my daughter learned to walk at 10 months (ahhh!) we played the “waiting game”. We basically played a version of red light, green light to get her to wait for things when we said. Randomly, and frequently, throughout the day we’d tell her to wait while she was walking around. When she would listen we would pick her up and hug her and praise her for good waiting. After a few days she finally started understanding and we were able to use that in all the other areas of our life like when I was getting the food ready and such. It was really useful and I appreciated having something I could use at such a young age to teach her patience.

  2. peeinpeace says:

    That is SUCH great insight, my dear! Thank you for sharing that. I think my kids are still at an age when “red light, green light” is fun. I appreciate having another tool in the parenting toolbox!

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