I watched my kids get incredibly impatient the other day while waiting for a video to load on the TV. The message that the video was “loading” just stayed there and the longer that the video took to show up, the more irritated the kids got.
My wife and I don’t react all that much differently to videos that don’t load or products that won’t arrive with Amazon’s free two-day shipping. In fact, we’ve gone as far as to make our order selection based upon the speed of the shipping, even for items that we could probably get faster by going to Target. Instead of being pleasantly surprised when something shows up at our doorstep early, we’re annoyed when it hasn’t been delivered by the time we get home the following day.
We live in an on-demand society where we can have what we want when we want. Craving tacos for lunch? UberEats can have it outside your office right away. Don’t feel like going to the library? Get the e-book from Amazon or Overdrive immediately. Not too mention how easy it is to access simple things like the news, weather, and traffic by just asking Alexa, Siri, or Google Assistant.
The convenience of these services is amazing. And they have the potential to make life operate more smoothly and seamlessly, relieving stress from our lives.
Instant Video, Instant Parenting Problem
But like most technological innovations, the law of hidden consequences is in full force.
In a recent essay in the Atlantic, writer Ken Gordon worries about the impact that the constant barking of commands to Alexa has on his son. When we give commands to others, there is pushback and feedback that helps us adjust our behavior. Is Alexa, as Gordon write, giving our children “an empathetic blind spot” and could our behavior transfer from how we interact with an artificial intelligence to how we speak with people?
Technology is changing the way that we interact with the world which is what its role is. As parents, though, we need to think deeply about the behaviors that these tools elicit from us and from our children.
What are we doing to our children when they have access to anything that they want via on-demand videos or products from Amazon at any time? Unlike parents of any other era, we have the ability to fulfill our children’s every desire at any moment in time. We can give them their fix of Sesame Street instantaneously or even replace a prized stuffed animal before they realize that it is lost.
But, if we feed into their every desire at every moment, are we teaching them patience? Have they learned how to wait? If we fill every moment, are we losing out on opportunities to teach them compassion or empathy? Or even use their own problem-solving skills?
Promoting Self-Control as a Path to Patience
As parents, helping our kids develop self-control is critical to helping our children grow into confident, capable, and independent adults. Do you remember Walter Mischel’s famous Marshmallow Study at Standford? In it, young children were offered a marshmallow and given the option of eating it now or waiting 15 minutes and receiving two marshmallows.
As you can see from the video, the results are pretty amusing, but they are also connected to later outcomes for the kids. This was a long-term study and the researchers found that those kids with the ability to delay their gratification and not eat the marshmallow had much higher positive outcomes. The researchers measured things like SAT score, levels of obesity, and social skills. In each area, the children with the ability to delay gratification outperformed their marshmallow gobbling peers.
The problem that we face is that all of the on-demand tools that we have at our fingertips turn us into the marshmallow gobbling children. Watching the children who were able to delay gratification gives us a few strategies for our kids (and ourselves).
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
There are some great moments in the videos of this experiment where the kids simply cover their eyes to make sure that they aren’t looking at it. Keeping a yummy treat out on the table makes it easier to access. Keep the cookies out of site and maybe even the remote for the TV. We are much more tempted by things that we can see. (And while you’re at it, consider turning off a lot of the notifications on your phone – you won’t check Facebook as often if the notifications aren’t nudging you).
Downplay the Reward
This may seem counterintuitive, but don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on all of the wonderful aspects of whatever it is that you are delaying gratification for. Talking about the wonderful aspects of the marshmallow made the kids in Mischel’s experiment more likely to eat it! So, don’t overemphasize the reward. This will keep your child from perseverating about it.
Misdirection is Key
As I mentioned in this earlier post, pulling a child’s attention away from the situation can work wonders. The children in the experiment engaged in all sorts of imaginative play to avoid focusing on the marshmallow. You can do this too with silly songs and stories, games, or even other chores.
Let’s Talk about It
Self-talk is a very powerful tool. When working with counseling clients, I often encourage them to develop internal monologues to help motivate them towards certain behaviors. We can do this with kids, too. It’s just like the Little Engine Who Could – have your child chant to themselves, “I think I can, I think I can.”
If we can provide our kids with self-control skills, they will approach Alexa, binge-watching, and next day shipping with greater willpower. And maybe, like those marshmallow kids, they will turn out alright, too.
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