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How Kids can Learn to Resist Temptation…and Why They Need to

The Famous Marshmallow Test and Implications for Our Kids’ Later Success

In 1960, Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Stanford University, conducted the now famous Marshmallow Test. Mischel challenged a group of four-year-olds: Did they want a marshmallow immediately, or could they wait a few minutes until a researcher returned, at which point they could have two marshmallows? Mischel’s researchers then followed up on the children upon their high school graduation and found that those who had been able to wait for those marshmallows years before at age four now were far more socially competent: they were found to be more personally effective, self-assertive, and better able to deal with the frustrations of life. The third who waited longest also had significantly higher SAT scores by an average of two hundred points of the total verbal and math scores combined than the teens who, at age four, couldn’t wait. Those results clearly revealed the importance of helping kids develop the ability to cope with behavioral impulses and learn self-control.

Mischel, who is now a professor at Columbia, and a team of researchers are still tracking those four-year olds. Hundreds of hours of observations have been conducted over the years on the participants. At first researchers figured that the children’s ability to wait just depended upon how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it became apparent that every kid wanted the treat. Mischel now concludes that something else was helping those kids put on the brakes so they could delay their desire. The finding is a critical secret to success and here it is:

Those kids who were able to hold off and not eat the initial marshmallow had learned a crucial skill that helped them do so.

The researcher calls that waiting ability “Strategic Allocation of Attention.” Jonah Lehrer described the self-control skill in an enlightening article entitled, “Don’t!: The Secret of Self-Control” (which I strongly recommend you read).

Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow—the “hot stimulus”—the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from “Sesame Street.” Their desire wasn’t defeated—it was merely forgotten. “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it,” Mischel says. “The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”

That finding has enormous ramifications for our children’s social, academic and even moral success.

Why We Can – and Must – Teach Our Kids to Delay Gratification

But here’s the good news: Mischel and his colleagues believe that parents and teachers may be able to teach children skills that help them learn how to delay gratification and stretch their patience quotients. As Lehrer explains in that The New Yorker article:

When he [Mishcel] and his colleagues taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes.

“All I’ve done is given them some tips from their mental user manual,” Mischel says. “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”

Meanwhile research is currently under way in classrooms in which teachers are teaching students “waiting” skills and the preliminary results are promising. The real challenge will be to see if those newly-learned waiting skills can be turned into life-long habits–especially in this N.O.W. culture in which our kids have learned to expect instant gratification and reward, ASAP.

The findings of this research are too critical to overlook. Our first step is to start looking for those countless little everyday moments we can use to help our kids learn to put on the brakes. There are dozens of opportunities. Best ideas are always simple and can be used everywhere (at the grocery store, in the car, at Grandma’s in the classroom, on the soccer field). And then once you find one that works for you, use it over and over and over until it becomes a habit. Here are a few from Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine.

1. Change the focus

Mischel found the more abstractly kids thought about the marshmallow, the longer they could delay. Teach one of these tips: “Focus on the least appealing part of the distractor.” “Don’t think about the taste but focus on its shape or color.” “Put a frame around the distractor in your head, like a real picture.” (Those kids could wait almost eighteen minutes!)

2. Use mental diversions

Temptations can rob kids’ focusing abilities and decrease attention spans. Mischel discovered that when he taught kids easy mental tricks, their focus and self-control improved substantially. The trick is not to think about how delicious that marshmallow is but learn a distraction diverter…

  • Ask your child: “What will be the hardest part?” or “What’s the toughest thing to control? or “What would tempt you most?”
  • Temptations could be “Playing Fortnite instead of doing homework,” “Eating cake instead of dinner” or “Shooting baskets instead of doing my chores.” (Then hide the temptation!).
  • For younger kids you simply divert their attention. “Look at that bird on the tree!” “Count the number of peas on your plate!” “How many things can you find that start with a “B” in the room?

3. Stretch waiting time

Mary Budd Rowe, a noted educator, discovered that children need “wait time”—more time to think about what they hear—before speaking. So whenever you ask a question or give a request, remember to wait at least three seconds for your child to think about what she heard. The child will absorb more information, be more likely to respond, and probably give a fuller answer. That also means that during those three seconds you need to wait patiently, and continue to give your kid your full presence. Just to see how well you’re doing, the next time you ask your child a question, time yourself: How many seconds are you waiting until you get impatient for her immediate response? Stretch your waiting time.

Your child may barrel straight into every task right now, but your ultimate goal is to gradually stretch his ability to control those impulses and learn to wait at his level. Start by timing how long your child can pause before those impulses get the best of him. Take that time as his “waiting ability” -and then slowly increase it over the next weeks and months.

  • “Wait just a minute, Sweetie. Mom is on the phone.”
  • “I know you want a cookie, but you’ll have to wait ten minutes.”
  • “Sorry. We’re going to open presents after we have our dinner.”
  • “Nope. You get your allowance on Saturday. No loans until then.”

The secret is set your waiting expectations a bit longer than your child’s current waiting ability and then slowly stretch it without snapping it or giving in. (Think of a rubber band: “Stretch but don’t snap.”)

4. Play waiting games

Research shows that what a child learns to say to himself (or “self-instruction”) during the moments of temptation is a significant determiner of whether he is able to say no to impulsive urges and/or wait. Keep in mind that those kids who were able to hold off and not eat the marshmallows usually had learned a skill to help delay those urges. Here are six strategies from that help kids control impulses. Choose the one that works best for your child and then practice, practice, practice together until that new habit kicks in and he can use when he feels those impulses taking over.

  • Freeze. In a calm voice say this to your child: “Freeze. Don’t move until you can get back in control.”
  • Use a phrase. Have him slowly say a phrase like “One Mississippi, two Mississippi.”
  • Hold your breath. Tell your kid not to breathe as long as possible and then to take a few long, deep breaths. (Just make sure he remembers to breathe!)
  • Count. Join your child in slowly counting from on to twenty (or fewer with a younger kid).
  • Sing. For a young child, ask him to pick his favorite tune, such as “Frere Jacques” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and hum a few bars.
  • Watch. Have him look at his wristwatch and count set numbers of seconds (such as ten). Expand that number to what is appropriate to the child.

Of course, don’t stop here. There are dozens of ways to teach your child to wait. The key is to find a strategy that works for your child, and then keep rehearsing it until your child can use it without you. A couple of weeks ago I encountered a mom and her four year old utilizing a great “waiting game” strategy. It was in the woman’s restroom of the Denver Airport with one long line (not the thing any young child needing to use that the bathroom wants to see). Her mom took one look at the line, rolled her eyes and then calmly turned to her daughter. “Boy, looks like a bit of a wait, so we’ll have to stand in line. Meanwhile why don’t you sign the “Birthday Song” about three times and I bet it’ll then be your turn.” That little girl’s impatience quickly morphed into singing a tune of the song. Half the line of women joined in to accompany the tune and her mother was right. At the end of the third chorus, she was at the front of the line. Smart Mom!

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Thrivers Book CoverAcross the nation, student mental health is plummeting, major depression rates among teens and young adults are rising faster than among the overall population, and younger children are being impacted. As a teacher, educational consultant, and parent for 40 years, Dr. Michele Borba has never been more worried than she is about this current generation of kids. In THRIVERS, Dr. Borba explains why the old markers of accomplishment (grades, test scores) are no longer reliable predictors of success in the 21st century – and offers 7 teachable traits that will safeguard our kids for the future. She offers practical, actionable ways to develop these Character Strengths (confidence, empathy, self-control, integrity, curiosity, perseverance, and optimism) in children from preschool through high school, showing how to teach kids how to cope today so they can thrive tomorrow. THRIVERS is now available at amazon.com.

How to Talk to Your Kids About…Strangers

As parents, we know we need to talk to our children about strangers, but it is hard to know how to talk to our children without scaring them.

Start by helping your children understand what a stranger is. A stranger is anyone that your family doesn’t know very well. They don’t have to look mean and evil like TV portrays.

When I was explaining strangers to our daughter, she said, “but we don’t know policemen, so are they strangers?”

Ah, after talking about bad strangers, be sure you explain that there are also Safe Strangers. Safe strangers are those people that our children can go to for help. Firemen, policemen, and teachers are good examples.

Once your child understands what a stranger is, talk about dangerous situations.

Explain to your children that anytime an adult…

  • Asks your child to keep a secret
  • Asks them for directions or help
  • Does or says something that makes them uncomfortable
  • Encourages them to disobey you or do something wrong

They need to get away and tell an adult immediately.

Next, role-play situations that your child might be faced with. (Helping your children understand that in these situations, it is okay to say “no” to an adult). Some examples might include…

  • A stranger asks your child if they want a ride home
  • A stranger stops to ask if your child has seen their missing dog
  • A stranger asks your child for directions
  • A stranger asks your child if they want a treat or candy.

Talk to your child about what to do if they are ever faced with one of these situations.

  1. Never get close to the car, or the stranger. Keep your distance.
  2. Yell “No” as loud as you can and run away from the stranger.
  3. Tell an adult, or safe stranger what has happened right away.

Practice possible dangerous situations so your children know what to do. This will give them more confidence if the situation ever presents itself, and will give you a little peace of mind as you send them out the door each day.

5 Simple Steps Teach Your Child Friendship Skills for Life

Making and keeping friends is a central part of entering school. Teaching your child pro-social friendship skills is a valuable part of your relationship with your children.

Where do you begin?

  1. A few great books have been written on friendship skills. Ones from the American Girls library include: Friends: Making them and keeping them; The Feelings Book, and Stand Up For Yourself and Your Friends. For middle school children and teens Queen Bees and Wanna Bees is a must-read for parents. Middle School Confidential by Annie Fox is a practical skills based book for middle schoolers. For parents who wish to coach their teens to health and wellness, The Parent as Coach by Diana Sterling is amazing for parents of teens.
  2. Healthy friendship skills begin with confidence and self-respect. Children who have self-esteem are able to be kind, share, and include others in their friendship circles.
  3. Knowing your own social style and what is unique about your child is another fine starting point. Emphasizing that everyone is different and we are all special in our own ways enhances acceptance and tolerance among children.

Here are a few, little discussed, tips on helping your children develop their friendship skills.

  1. As young as age four you can begin to help your child discover his or her personal style. What kind of child is yours? Help her see that she is bright, funny, articulate, caring or thoughtful. Teach her how to recognize positive social skills in others so she chooses skillful friends who are likely to share her values.
  2. In order to help your child see when she is using pro-social friendship skills, comment specifically on what your child does in her friendships that shows she cares. “When Jose hurt his arm and you offered to sit with when he could not play, that was a kind thing to do.” “Offering your sister your sweater at the skating rink when she was cold was a thoughtful thing to do.”
  3. Teach your child to observe the behavior of others non-judgmentally in a manner that helps her to see how other people behave. Talk with her about how other people respond to that behavior.
  4. As your child gets older help her develop the ability to observe the impact of her behavior on others.
  5. Giving your children the words and actions to: a. enter into and exit social groups, b. include other people in their group and c. recognize what characteristics your child wants in his or her friends is invaluable.

Talk with your children about what makes a good friend. Write a short story or a book on what one does to show respect, integrity and honesty. If there is a school-mate who criticizes others or mocks others, that is not a friend you wish for your child to choose as a close mate. Draw distinctions between kids who are willing to lift one another up and those who desire to feel powerful by cutting others down.

Here are some sample social skills you might wish to introduce to your children one skill as a time.

Role-play with your children, create positive conversations with your children and teach them the importance of learning these skills.

Sample List of Skills

• Accepting “No”

• Accepting Consequences

• Apologizing

• Arguing Respectfully

• Asking a Favor

• Asking Questions

• Being a Good Listener

• Being in a Group Discussion

• Conversational Skills

• Declining an Invitation

• Expressing Empathy

• Following Rules

• Good Sportsmanship

Developing friendship skills can be fun. So practice, play and enjoy with your children. Friendships will follow.

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This post reflects Dr Kenney’s “The Family Coach Method” used in practice by thousands of families worldwide. The Family Coach Method is ‘rug-level,’ friendly and centered on the concept of families as a winning team – with dozens of age-appropriate sample conversations and problem solving scenarios to guide a family to the desired place of mutual respect, shared values and strengths. The goal is to help children to develop the life skills, judgment and independence that can help them navigate the challenges of an increasingly complex world.

 

How to Talk to Your Kids About…Diversity

Children are very quick to point out differences. With their limited experiences and understanding, it is hard to explain that differences are a wonderful part of life. Talking to our children about diversity can be tricky. We don’t want to compromise our family values, but we want to cultivate a true respect for everyone.

There are a few key conversations we can have, that will help.

  • Have a “diversity” conversation. Talk about differences that exist in your family. “Jill’s favorite color is pink, yours is blue. Your favorite food is spaghetti, mommy loves chicken” Explain that we are all different, and that is a good thing, not bad. When you encounter new people, explain that there are differences and similarities between all of us just like having different favorite colors. This simple conversation will help our children begin to understand diversity and see that liking different colors and foods is not bad, just different.
  • Challenge your children to get to know someone new on a regular basis and find out what they have in common. If they conclude that they have nothing in common, teach them that they still deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. Tie this back into your “diversity” conversations. “Remember, Jill likes a different color than you do, we don’t treat her mean because she likes something different.” Talk about how treating others with respect means that we take some time to get to know them and understand them. Our children need to understand that they might not like all the other kids, but they need to give them all a chance. In our house we encourage our children to meet someone new at school each week. Then our children talk to us about all the things they learned about the new person during dinner each Friday night.
  • Talk about the fact that diversity does not mean we forgo our values. Begin when children are young, and explain that there are choices that other people make that are not acceptable in our home. That is fine, but that doesn’t mean that we are rude or judgmental because they choose differently. To raise children who accept diversity talk to them about different cultures and traditions. You can start with something as simple as having them try different foods.

We will find that by talking to our kids about diversity, they will also learn key values like love, respect, kindness, and compassion for others.

How to Bring out Your Kids’ Best Behavior

If you’re the parent of a perfect child – one that never whines, argues, lies or misbehaves – this article isn’t for you. But if your child is guilty of any (or all) of the above, don’t despair. He’s just doing what most kids do. So how do you go about changing his negative behavior? Use positive reinforcement, says child behavior expert Noel Janis-Norton, author of Learning to Listen, Listening to Learn (Barrington Stoke Ltd). Here are some tools you can use to bring out the best behavior in your child:

Descriptive Praise

Instead of lecturing your child when he does something wrong, praise him when he does something right. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But for many parents, it’s trickier than they think. “Because humans are more inclined to notice what’s wrong in a situation, we are much more aware when there’s a problem,” says Janis-Norton. “It takes hard work and discipline to notice when children are doing things right, such as not whining or not interrupting.”

The key is to notice – and casually comment on – every little thing that your child is doing that is right, just OK or not wrong. “Descriptive praise is a powerful motivator,” says Janis-Norton. “It catches kids doing the right thing and inspires them to think of themselves as considerate and capable people. The rationale is: What you notice, you get more of.”

Traci McPhereson, 34, of Los Angeles, has seen it firsthand: “My 4-year-old twins responded almost instantly to descriptive praise. I’d say, ‘I see you’re not hitting your sister’ even when my son was just sitting on the floor doing nothing. Sometimes I feel insane saying stuff like, ‘You’re not whining and crying!’ or ‘You’re not sucking your thumb!’ but hey, it works! The positive changes in their behavior have been enormous.”

Reflective Listening

When a child is upset, parents instinctively want to defuse the situation by asking her what’s wrong and then giving advice. Or if she explodes with anger, they’ll get angry, too, and yell at her to stop it. In both cases, parents can calm things down simply by showing empathy, using a technique that Janis-Norton calls reflective listening. “That’s when a parent mirrors what the child is feeling. “It helps to deal with the emotion that’s dominating the child and get it resolved.”

It takes discipline on your part to step back and think before you respond, but the payoff is huge. If your child has lost his temper and is throwing things around, you could send him for a time-out and make him even angrier. Or you could take a step back and say, “You must be very angry about something. I’m sorry that you’re so upset. Can you tell me what happened?” Chances are your child would stop for a second to think about how he feels.

It’s often hard for a child to put what she’s feeling into words. “But when you use reflective listening, over time it will teach your child a vocabulary for expressing her feelings so that she doesn’t bottle them up inside and act on them inappropriately,” she says.

Action Replays

The next time your child misbehaves, be kind and rewind. Instead of scolding, repeating, reminding or lecturing, Janis-Norton suggests you try what she calls an action replay. “This is how parents can follow through with the rules they’ve established with their kids,” she says. “It’s simply asking the child to do things again, but this time the right way.”

Randall says dinnertime is the perfect opportunity to utilize action replays in her house. “My daughter, who’s 3, hates to use her fork,” she explains. “Whenever she starts to eat her food with her fingers instead of her fork, I say, ‘Let’s do that again. Show me how you’re supposed to be eating your food.’ Once she uses her fork, I give her descriptive praise, like ‘See, you knew just what to do,’ and then everybody’s smiling again. It’s nice to be able to avoid arguments that may have otherwise erupted.”

“Plus, doing an action replay will boost your child’s self-esteem,” concludes Janis-Norton, “because she’s now proven to herself that she can indeed succeed.”

Heather Randall, 39, of Sun Valley, Calif., most recently used reflective listening when her daughter had a nightmare. “I went into her room and asked her to tell me about it,” she explains. “Instead of responding with, ‘Don’t worry, it was just a dream, go back to sleep,’ I said, ‘You’re so frightened. Nightmares can sure be scary, can’t they?’ She stopped crying, thought about it for a second, and replied, ‘They sure can.’ After that, she nodded right back off to sleep.”

No Forced Kisses for Your Kids: A Holiday Safety Tip for Families

As parents well know, the holiday season is both incredibly exciting and potentially overwhelming for kids, sometimes all rolled together into one. At gatherings with families and friends, expectations about affection, attention, and teasing can create unnecessary stress and discomfort. By accepting our children’s different personalities and thinking through our boundaries ahead of time, we can teach our kids important life skills and make holiday parties and reunions more fun.

Most of us can remember being pressured to just “suffer through it” from our own childhoods. Who doesn’t recall being forced to kiss “Great Aunt Edna” as a kid, or getting scratched by Uncle Bob’s beard as he leaned in for a squeeze? Or, being told to just ignore the teasing and roughhousing of our cousins?

As a mother, I can relate to the embarrassment that a parent might feel when a child doesn’t want to give a big hug to Grandma when she walks in the door—especially if Grandma has been eagerly anticipating the visit for weeks and months. But through my work teaching personal safety as a Kidpower instructor, I have learned that supporting our children when they set boundaries is a very important practice.

Backing up a child who doesn’t want to be kissed or hugged does not mean that Grandma, or Great Aunt Edna, or Uncle Bob or Cousin Sara are doing anything wrong, but it does demonstrate that touch and play for affection or fun is your child’s choice in all situations. The holidays are a perfect time to work on “boundary setting” with our kids, so they feel confident and empowered as they move through different ages and stages of life.

When possible, try to bring relatives into this conversation ahead of time, letting them know that you are practicing with the kids to help them learn to set boundaries—and who better to practice with than people who know and care about the kids. That way, when a child sets a boundary with Grandma, she can feel that she’s part of a positive practice rather than left out. Some parents report that this is a difficult conversation to have, but I maintain that is an important one, and an opportunity for meaningful dialogue and exploration. Many parents feel that their culture has expectations the children show adults respect through affection.

At Kidpower, we have found that this is truly a cross-cultural phenomena across a wide variety of backgrounds, and an issue that is worth addressing: how can we come up with ways for children to show respect to their elders in ways that feel nurturing and respectful to the child as well? One point I like to emphasize about child safety is to ask “How can we expect our children to set clear boundaries about touch when they are on their own, if we do not support them in doing so when we are together with our families, standing right there in a position to advocate for our kids and back them up?” In practice, this may be as simple (yet powerful) as saying, “Do you want to give Grandma a hug, a high-five, a kiss, or a wave? ….Not right now? Okay… Maybe you’ll want to blow a kiss or do a high-five later.”

Some kids are social butterflies and will thrive on the opportunities to be the center of attention. Be prepared to help them to notice the boundaries of others and to remember to follow your safety rules about Checking First before changing the plan, even in a family gathering. Other children are more reserved and are best off being allowed to warm up at their own pace. They might need your involved advocacy to redirect unwanted attention away from them and your help in setting boundaries when well-meaning adults try to pressure them.

Even if a relative is offended when a child does not want to kiss or hug them, this is an important time to keep in mind the bottom line—kids need to learn from an early age that touch or play for affection or fun should be the choice of BOTH people, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret. This core safety rule should be respected in all situations. (Editor’s Note: remember…this is not just a “keep my child safe “during COVID” rule – this is a teach my child a skill that will keep them safe “for LIFE” rule).

Touch or play for affection or fun should be the choice of BOTH people, safe, allowed by the adults in charge, and not a secret.

It’s confusing for kids to try to set aside their feelings of discomfort for certain kinds of affection or teasing in the name of good manners, since it gives young people a contradictory message about their boundaries. Keep in mind Kidpower’s founding principle: A child’s safety and healthy self-esteem are more important than ANYONE’s embarrassment, inconvenience, or offense. Or, more simply stated: Put Safety First.

Here are additional Kidpower resources about how to use boundaries to make our holiday gatherings truly joyful:

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