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The Tricks of Treating

Long gone are the Halloweens of my childhood, where we roved blocks from home and collected pillow cases full of candy. Afterward, we’d spread out our hauls in the living room and negotiated trades with siblings, some of whom actually liked Licorice Snaps or peanut butter kisses! Then, we stashed that candy in a pest-proof container on our bookshelf, where it became our source of after-school snacks.

“But what about your teeth? And excess sugar?” today’s parents cry. Well, the sugar didn’t matter since we burned it all off playing Kick the Can and Capture the Flag. As for our teeth, we never ate much at once. In fact, we made it last and last and last. If we ate it too fast, Mom confiscated the bucket, a fate worse than death. The five of us competed, in fact, for who could make their haul last the longest—preferably until school let out the next summer!

What I know now is that Mom and Dad were teaching us the essential skill of delaying gratification. If you haven’t heard of the Marshmallow Experiment, watch the video “Don’t Eat the Marshmallow Yet” at www.ted.com. Researchers told preschoolers that they could have one marshmallow now, but if they delayed eating that marshmallow for fifteen minutes, they could have two instead of one.

About a third of the children managed to wait. But here’s the big deal: follow-up studies showed that the children who delayed gratification were far more likely to do well in school, avoid substance abuse, maintain a healthy weight, and even get higher college entrance test scores than those who ate that first marshmallow right away. The ability to wait has more to do with success in life than intelligence, even.

To learn this skill, children need to be in charge of their choices, and may need some strategies. If you watch the videos, you’ll see that the “winners” distracted themselves, made up little mantras to remind themselves why they were waiting, and so on. If parents stay in charge of treats, or exactly when the TV goes on and off, or when homework gets done, children can’t develop these skills.

Handing over the entire bucket of candy probably isn’t a good idea if your child isn’t practiced at delaying gratification, but you can start with simple steps. Say you’ll share a snack-size treat with them right now, but they can have the whole thing if they wait. If they claim they can’t wait, make suggestions they can choose from such as, “Take your mind off it. Read a book or talk to your sister or help me set the table. The time will fly.”

 Kidtelligent Extroverted children may have a little more trouble with this since they’re in tune to what is going on around them—like that puffy marshmallow or their favorite treat in that plastic pumpkin—but few children are born with enough self-control. Rational decisions, like waiting so you can double your return, require a developed prefrontal cortex. When you help your child learn to make decisions, you’re helping that part of the brain grow and flourish. And that’s a treat with future payoff!

By Jane Kise, Ed.D. – Educational Advisor and Consultant

Jane  writes an insightful post every Tuesday for Kidtelligent. Jane is an educational consultant, specializing in teambuilding, coaching, and school staff development. She is also the coauthor of more than 20 books. Jane’s website  is http://www.edcoaching.com/