What has been taken from the findings of the research in which children were rewarded for their ability to wait, is the idea that some children have a natural capacity for self-control, have achieved early the ability to defer gratification, and that these are the children who will be successful in life. In recent years, there has been much focus on these traits, particularly their absence, in discussions of educational difficulties and problems with children’s behavior generally. Parents are frequently implicated as a source of the difficulty.

By temperament and physiology some children are more easy-going than others and may have a natural greater ability to achieve self-control and wait for what they want. However, it is a characteristic of young children generally to seek immediate gratification of their needs and wishes. As with other skills, the ability to wait, to tolerate frustration, to control impulses, and to defer gratifying wishes, is in large part a matter of development, maturation and learning. Also, as with other skills, there is greater variation in the speed and ability with which children achieve mastery.

The 15-minute wait time of the research is a long time to expect young children to sit and wait — particularly alone in a room with the tempting treat in front of them. It is an unrealistic expectation for children under five years of age. Researchers have studied the techniques used by the children who were successful in waiting, such as closing their eyes, turning their backs on the marshmallow, pushing it away and purposefully thinking about other things. Problem-solving in this way is itself a developmental matter in which children are moving ahead differently.

The fact is that education as well as physical maturation plays an important role in the development of these skills. Teachers and parents teach these skills in various ways even when they may not realize it. Teaching is involved in the way expectations are set for children and in the readiness to offer support in meeting those expectations. Since young children do seek immediate gratification of their wants and have limited tolerance for frustration, daily life offers many opportunities for such teaching.

A recurring example is children wanting treats between meals or a toy they see in a store window. Too often, when children seem demanding, adults are judgmental and react critically to their requests. But our job really is to help them through the difficulty of waiting or of not getting what they want. We offer support by sympathizing with how hard it is to wait but also by being realistic about what we expect of them.

Observing in nursery schools when children are asked to wait in line, it is always interesting to see the different results reached by teachers who help them by offering distraction or talking to them about something, as compared to those who are more critical and reproach children who are not managing well.

As parents of young children, it is difficult at times to be patient with children’s recurring demands. At times it feels easier to either just give them what they want or to scold critically. But real learning takes place through repetition and success. If we help them through the times that are difficult for them, they can begin to experience what that is like and to eventually accomplish it on their own.

Two marshmallows instead of one may be a reward for waiting, but the larger goal is for children to learn that deferring gratification is a requirement of growing up that can bring other kinds of more meaningful rewards.
— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.