This skill is essential for living a successful and rewarding life, but today's kids aren't learning it.
With the start of a new year, I began trying to instill new habits in our daily life. There were lots of rules and limits that had fallen by the wayside in the chaos of moving and the excitement and unpredictability of the holidays, and my kids had gotten used to being appeased.
Let me phrase that differently–I had begun appeasing my kids to buy myself time in the moment, and as the days added up to weeks and then months, I had effectively trained them to expect instant gratification.
I knew it was happening, but the scale and severity of it didn’t hit home until they went back to school.
They all came home in the afternoons a wreck. They were constantly complaining and spent every afternoon alternately begging for snacks and screens and whining when they didn’t get them rightthatverysecond. They had literally lost the ability to hear “no” or “wait” because I had stopped saying them.
In a post for Deep Roots at Home, Victoria Proody, an occupational therapist alarmed by our children’s steep decline in social, emotional, and academic functioning, identified the inability to delay gratification as the #1 problem today’s kids are facing:
“I am Hungry!!” “In a sec I will stop at the drive thru.” “I am Thirsty!” “Here is a vending machine.” “I am bored!” “Use my phone!” The ability to delay gratification is one of the key factors for future success. We have the best intentions — to make our child happy — but unfortunately, we make them happy at the moment but miserable in the long term. To be able to delay gratification means to be able to function under stress. Our children are gradually becoming less equipped to deal with even minor stressors, which eventually become huge obstacles to their success in life. The inability to delay gratification is often seen in classrooms, malls, restaurants, and toy stores the moment the child hears “No” because parents have taught their child’s brain to get what it wants right away.
You caught that last line, right? The part about how parents have taught their child’s brain to get what it wants right away? Because that is totally what I did to my kids.
And so it was up to me to undo it. I started slowly–after all, it had been a slow slip into this state of affairs, and I couldn’t expect them to change behavior they’d learned over a period of months overnight. So I started with putting bedtime back at its proper place and enforcing it like a boss.
It takes two weeks of repeated behavior to form a habit, so I waited until the bedtime piece was in place before I moved onto screens. I limited their weekly screen time to 30 minutes a day (and recently nixed it altogether), which required me to pay attention and set timers.
When they were used to that one, I tackled food. To be honest, this is still the hardest piece for me. They’re each allowed a snack of their choice after school (within reason, obviously–no one ever gets ice cream, though they keep asking). But they often complain of hunger after their snack, and I just really hate saying no to growing kids if they’re actually hungry.
So I fell back on the classic mom strategy of testing their hunger by offering as much fruit and vegetables as they wanted, but nothing else. Like a miracle, their hunger dissolved into resentful muttering and surly pouts. But they stopped asking, and they (mostly) stopped whining. And slowly but surely, they’re learning the fine yet painful art of delayed gratification.
But they’re only learning it because I’m teaching it. I accomplish nothing from 3:30 p.m. until 7:30 bedtime except pay attention to my kids, but that “nothing” is a whole lot of work. I help with homework, monitor snack consumption, prepare dinner, and forcibly remove screens from small hands. I set limits and enforce them. I also hear about their school days, their friends, their everyday triumphs and struggles. In short, I devote my full attention to my kids instead of keeping them occupied so I can do something else. This requires being meaningful with my time earlier in the day and later in the evening, but it’s worth it.
Or it will be, once I’ve gotten them past the “resentful mutters and surly pouts” stage. There will be gratification at the end of this struggle … but like all gratification worth having, it’s gonna take some time.