In Lesson Two you explored why you may be indulging your kids, and practiced setting some real limits by modifying one of your child’s behaviors. This week, you’ll discover how to help your children learn self-control through delaying gratification.

There are few of us who don’t know someone for whom self-control is a big problem, who has put his health and happiness at risk because of his inability to resist temptation. This is one of the reasons why the government agency entrusted to keeping us healthy, the Centers of Disease Control, places so much emphasis on trying to help teenagers develop self-control. Research clearly shows that without adequate self-control, teenagers place themselves at greater risk for problems later on because healthy habits are established in childhood and adolescence.

Self-control Leads to Better SAT Scores
Self-control affects more than our child’s physical health. Self-control is often vital if we want our kids to excel academically as well. Astounding as it may seem, scientists can predict what a preschooler’s SAT scores will be when she is seventeen based on early self-control. Psychologist Walter Mischel has researched what he and his colleagues call “delay of gratification.” They constructed experiments that gave children a simple choice: something small, not all that desirable right now; or, if they wait and resist temptation of the immediate payoff, a bigger reward. Mischel found that he could predict how well a four-year-old would do on his SATs by how long he was able to resist, say, some M&Ms, knowing that if he did resist and wait, he would be given several treats, not just the M&Ms. A child who could only delay gratification for five seconds had an overall SAT score that was about sixty points lower than the child who was able to wait five minutes. When the choice was between one marshmallow immediately or two marshmallows after an unspecified waiting period, the kid who was able to wait twenty minutes for the two marshmallows had a combined SAT score that was 210 higher than the kid who was unwilling to wait. Not only did the children who were able to delay gratification have higher SAT scores, but they were also rated by their parents as better able to cope with stress, effectively pursue goals, and resist temptation.

Some children are simply born with a predisposition to impulsivity while some are born with greater ability to resist temptation. But scientists still say that self-control can be altered by our experiences, which places much of the burden onto us parents. If we want our children to develop self-control, we must stop overindulging them and, instead, make them learn to wait their turn, delay gratification, and resist temptation. Likewise, we must exhibit self-control ourselves. If we can patiently wait in a 45-minute line at Disney World, keep our cool in traffic jams, and keep calm while we struggle to assemble a 4,000-piece Lego set, our children will tend to imitate this behavior in similar circumstances.

Teaching Frustration Tolerance
Closely linked to the importance of learning to delay gratification is a child’s ability to tolerate frustration. One of the hallmarks of what we call emotional maturity is the ability not to be fazed by setbacks; to roll with the punches and persevere in the face of difficulties. Kids today can press a few keys on their computer and download music or order movie tickets. They can instant message half a dozen friends at the same time. So much comes to them so easily; they rarely need to wait for anything. So it’s no wonder that kids whine when you’re busy and they want your attention, rant when you make them wait for a ride to the mall, or throw a fit because you refuse to buy them the hip sneakers they don’t need. It’s up to us parents to teach them how to wait and not get frustrated, to develop skills such as frustration tolerance, and more generally, how to cope with stress.

I think it’s paramount to talk to your kids about the importance of delaying gratification and frustration tolerance. If they’re old enough, you may even want to give them the SATs/M&Ms example. It is also necessary to put these concepts into practice by putting firm rules and structures in place for children to follow – to insist, for example, that they clean their rooms or finish their homework before watching TV. As painful as it may be for a child to experience stress and frustration, and for us as parents to watch, this strategy will reinforce the fact that self-control is important and pushes kids to build up their frustration tolerance level.

Play the Delaying Gratification Game
Here’s a way to put these strategies to the test. Start by making a list of three areas where your child can practice delaying gratification and building up her tolerance to frustration. Here are some common examples:

• Finishing homework without an extended break
• Being completely quiet while you are on the telephone
• Brushing teeth before hearing a bedtime story
• Cleaning dinner dishes before playing on the computer
• Finishing dinner before eating dessert
• Not eating breakfast until bed is made
• Not buying sneakers until they are on sale or they really need a new pair

Sit down and talk with your child about this exercise and what you expect of her. If your child is too young to understand, skip the talk and simply insist on the new behavior at appropriate times. If it helps, go ahead and make a game of the exercise. For example, use a timer and see how long can she work on homework without a TV break. If all goes well, the time will increase substantially by the end of the week, and you can reward her by cooking her favorite dinner or taking her to the movies.

Take the time to also examine your own level of self-control. Select three areas where you need to practice delayed gratification and frustration tolerance, such as waiting in long lines or sitting in a traffic jam. As you find yourself in these settings, be conscious of how patient you are or are not being. By developing your own self-control, you will be setting a better example for your children.