As a developmental psychologist, I often meet mums who tell me their kids have all the latest toys and gadgets yet never seem satisfied. I also see worn-down teachers in despair at the rising number of pupils with attention problems.
Are we raising a generation of instant gratifiers?
I was recently asked to comment on the practise of large retailers putting sweets by the checkout. It's easy to criticise them for putting temptation the way of our kids. But as parents we have to deny our kids things all the time (Can I stay up and watch this? No. Can I have a giraffe as a pet? No).
And wanting sweets is just another one of those No occasions.
I slipped around this problem when my kids were little by setting a 'sweets only on Saturday' rule. If they saw sweets at the till they would simply ask, "What day is it?" If the answer was "Thursday" they learned to wait a couple of days.
Just like waiting for Christmas, the tooth fairy, an outing or a birthday, they started to enjoy the anticipation.
I like to think they learned self-control too. When the treat came it felt like a real reward. And because it wasn't the result of pestering they didn't get conditioned into bad habits.
(Not meaning to sound like the perfect mother here, believe me there were lots of other things I probably got totally wrong.).
Poorly regulated behaviour in children is often the result of inconsistent parenting, or engaging in partial reinforcement.
I refer here to parents laying down a 'rule' and then caving in. A typical example is the parent who says, "No. No. No! Oh, all right then".
This may defuse a short-term issue, but it stores up long-terms problems, such as tantrums and pestering, as the child learns to push the parent until they give in.
Research shows that adults who can delay gratification and regulate their behaviour are more likely to be high achievers. They're also the savers with long-term plans, quietly gloating over the live-it-up splurgers.
And with kids, as the psychologist Walter Mischel found, those who can wait for their sweets turn out to have higher IQs.
When Mischel followed up children who had shown the ability to delay gratification he also found that they went on to do better at school, were more successful in their careers and in their relationships.
So my three golden rules are:
1. Have as few rules as possible. Stick to the ones you have.
2. Reserve No for when it's important. Don't cave in once you've said it.
3. Teach your kids to wait, to delay gratification, and you've equipped them for life.
And your life as a parent just got a whole lot easier!Suggest a correction