Parenting Lessons: Step 3: Getting Rid of the Gotta-Have-Its

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.

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