It isn't easy for toddlers to put off until tomorrow what they want right this minute! From age twelve to thirty-six months, toddlers should get much better at managing the tension born of wanting something
Not grabbing a cookie from the counter when Mom steps out of the kitchen even though the chocolate calls to her insistently
Protesting but not falling apart when a parent says he can't have a ride on the mechanical pony in the department store lobby
Confining herself to some whining and foot-dragging when her father says it's time to leave the park
Handling his anger over being forbidden to play with a toy by pleading and pouting
Being able to delay gratification means that toddlers may whimper some, whine a bit, cry a few tears, argue, and drag their feet before forging ahead. It does not mean that they continue whining until parents want to smack them, wail to the point that they have to be carried kicking and screaming from the store, argue until parents give up and give in, or fall to the floor in a tantrum. (At least, children close to age three should not be doing these things
The Lesson of the Marshmallow
In a series of studies that shook the nation in the 1960s (as reported in Daniel Goleman's
Video cameras captured the children's reactions, which ranged from gobbling the marshmallow the instant the door closed to trying to resist the sugary temptation. Some caved in despite commanding themselves aloud not to touch it, covering their eyes or turning around so as not to see it, hopping on one leg or reciting nursery rhymes in an effort to distract themselves. Clearly, this was a big challenge for them.
Most children were able to control themselves. They got the kind of reward that so often comes to those who can wait: something even better. The eventual conclusion from these studies was that being able to handle emotions constitutes “emotional intelligence.” On evaluating this research, some psychologists concluded that the ability to manage emotions is even more important than IQ for success in school and in life. The idea that children's grip on their emotions could be more important than their ability to handle intellectual tasks came as a shock, and a heated national debate ensued.
There is some evidence that emotional IQ is a critical ingredient in long-term success and happiness. Studies show that when it comes to delaying gratification and controlling impulses, children who wait their turn are more popular with peers, students who refrain from talking and getting out of their seats without permission do better in school, and young adults who go to work although they'd rather not are better able to hold down jobs.
Learning to Wait
How do you teach a toddler to hold it together and wait? Here are some tips:
Be calm, not angry. Parental anger triggers more emotional upset in tots, making difficult situations all the more taxing for them. Remember that there is nothing wrong with a child
Don't anticipate trouble! When parents anticipate a scene and react to what they
Be a role model. Let your child know when
Give reasons. Explain why your toddler must wait. It is all too easy for toddlers to conclude that their parent is withholding things and privileges capriciously. That compounds their frustration.
Furthermore, reasonable explanations enable toddlers to apply what they learn in one situation to another. Tots in church may not understand when a parent says, “You must be quiet now. People are talking to God with their hearts and you're disturbing them. You can talk later.” But as their language skills improve and they continue to hear explanations, they will eventually understand. Then they can use their knowledge to figure out how to act in other situations where people are concentrating, such as at a live performance, instead of needing an adult to tell them what to do at every moment.
Sometimes parents can't give explanations because they aren't clear about the reasons for certain rules themselves. They only know they must be observed. If you can't supply a reason at the moment, think about it later. When you come up with a reason, share it with your toddler: “Remember yesterday when I said you couldn't watch TV until later? That's because too much TV isn't good for kids. Kids need to play to exercise their bodies and minds.” There is sometimes a benefit to sharing reasons later rather than during a contentious moment. Children are more able to listen and consider the parents' words more objectively.
Here are some other things to consider:
If after thinking about a conflict, you can't come up with a reason that your toddler needed to wait, it's time to hold the mirror up to yourself and consider whether you actually needed to deny your child's request.
Hold bullying to a minimum. Every parent will have to use the “No, because I said so” line from time to time. Still, it is a power play. Children who are regularly bullied learn to bully others — including their parents when they get big enough. No one likes a bully. Toddlers who bully others at age three are at greater risk for a lifetime of home, school, social, and work problems.
When you promise your toddler she can do it “later,” “tomorrow,” or “next week,” be as good as your word! It's true that if you don't remind your toddler of your promise to let him finger-paint later in the afternoon, he may forget. Toddlers have short-term memories and a poor concept of time, so it's easy to trick them. But trusting that when the parent says “later,” that time will actually arrive makes waiting more tolerable.
Help your child manage the time spent waiting. When children are excitedly anticipating something, their play may become unfocused and their concentration may deteriorate. Suggest an alternate activity.
Explaining “why” may be one way to give toddlers the tools they need to work out conflicts without resorting to a blowup. One study found that 75 percent of toddlers age twenty-one to twenty-four months tried to negotiate to get parents to alter their demands. By thirty months this figure increased to 93 percent.
If children are admonished when they have difficulty waiting and hear nothing when they do wait patiently, they won't recognize that they are capable of delaying gratification of their wants and desires. When your toddler finally calms down after a scene over wanting something
Maybe your child's tantrum was so violent you were still trembling an hour later. Maybe complimenting your toddler for waiting seems like complimenting Dracula for having such a charming effect on women. But toddlers need to know they are in fact capable of waiting. They prove it every time their wish isn't gratified and they live to tell the tale!
When pointing out a child's success at delaying gratification, focus on his achievement. Save the “thank yous” for when your child has done
Building Frustration Tolerance
When a toddler learns that if at first he doesn't succeed he can try, try again and eventually get it right, he has accomplished another important emotional victory.
Temperament has a hand in dictating how toddlers react to frustration. Some concentrate long and hard on that tiny button as they struggle to fit it into the little buttonhole on their shirt, watching carefully to move all those little fingers just so in order to get the button lined up and in. Others have far less patience with these nerve-wracking situations. Their feelings of frustration overwhelm them, and when they are upset, they can't think clearly enough to work effectively. Work with your toddler to break the cycle of difficulty, frustration, upset, and giving up.
To help a toddler learn to tolerate frustration, keep the following tips in mind:
Don't over-praise a job well done. It doesn't take toddlers long to decide that the opposite of all those “Good job!” comments is “Bad job!”
Give lots of encouragement and moral support: “You're getting it … almost … you're close … by George, I think she's about to get it!”
Express your feelings aloud so your child can hear you actively dealing with a difficult task: “This seat belt is stuck again! I've tried it a dozen times and I still can't get it to extend properly. If I pull hard, the belt comes out too far. If I don't pull hard, it's too short to buckle. I need to calm down. I know I can do this, but it's tricky. There! I got it! Hurray!”
Teach your toddler to break large and/or difficult tasks into a series of small steps. Complex tasks viewed in their entirety become overwhelming. Help your child tackle one small piece of a task at a time, and pause to help him appreciate his accomplishment before he moves on to the next step.