Supporting impulse control for early childhood: Here's what to know

Your child’s ability to focus on what they're looking forward to in the future is a skill that will help them throughout their life.
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By Jamie Farnsworth Finn

A rather well-known study out of Stanford University conducted in the 1960s and ‘70s focused on children’s impulse control, or delayed gratification. Children were put in a room at a table with a marshmallow, candy, or pretzel, and were told if they waited to eat it until the researcher came back, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows (or pieces of candy or pretzels). The researcher then left the room for about 15 minutes. While some children ate the treat immediately, or pretty soon after the researcher left, other children struggled and fought, but managed to wait until the researcher returned in order to double the prize. The study found that the children who managed to wait for two marshmallows ended up having better life outcomes as adults than those who could not wait. For example, they had higher SAT scores and lower body mass indexes. They were also higher academic achievers than the children in the study who couldn’t wait for the bigger reward.

Why does impulse control, or delayed gratification, matter in children? Your child’s ability to focus on what they're looking forward to in the future -- and therefore resist temptation now -- is a skill that will help them throughout their life. In older years, it may mean turning down an invitation to hang out with friends so they can study for a big exam. It could also mean saving money for a trip or for college instead of spending everything at once on junk food or video games. If a child develops these skills early on, they’ll be in a better position to achieve their goals in the future. The ability to delay gratification isn’t something your child is born with or without. Parents can be a big factor in developing their child’s ability to wait, or to resist temptation. One of the most basic forms of impulse control is simply waiting, like waiting in line, waiting for food to be passed at the table, or waiting to talk until someone is off the phone.

Compliment your child when they show impulse control. If you’re at the playground and you notice they are able to let another child use the swing before them, tell them that it was very nice of them and that you’re proud of them for letting someone else go first. Pointing out the ways in which they are able to delay their own gratification to work toward a goal, to have work done before play, or to help someone else, can help reinforce those positive behaviors.

If your child has a difficult time staying on task or staying focused, you can talk to them about ways they can avoid distractions. Ask them what they were doing when they got distracted, and what happened just before they got off task. This way, you can help them identify where their distractions lie. For example, if they stopped to get a snack or the television was distracting, you could suggest they have a snack before starting homework or close the door so they can’t hear the TV.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Anne Morrison, Pre-Kindergarten Teacher, Lycée Français de New York, and Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab.