Can’t Wait!

A familiar question from parents is, when is it appropriate for children to be given various degrees of freedom and to receive certain privileges?  Children’s push to do things on their own begins at a very young age, increasing along with the acquisition of skills that make independent functioning possible, such as walking and other motor skills.  Often conflicts that arise during the “terrible twos” are a result of a child’s demand to “do it myself.”

The problem is not only that children’s reach exceed their grasp – that is they often are not yet really able to do on their own the things they think they can do.  It is also that parents are not always clear about children’s actual capabilities and are mindful of their responsibilities as parents for their children’s safety and well-being.  Parents lean toward being protective, but they also are often unsure about which expectations are appropriate at various developmental stages.

Another major issue that arises, is that along with children’s emerging skills is their immaturity in frustration tolerance.  They find it hard to wait for what they want, or to achieve what they might like to try to do on their own.  This impatience is a familiar characteristic of youngsters and for a long period of development may be out of synch with the development of other skills, emerging for example as a renewed source of conflict in adolescence.

In today’s culture one sees typical areas of conflict between children and parents with regard to the acquisition of various material things both when viewed as a privilege of adulthood and as requiring a mature sense of responsibility.  This is especially true with respect to the world of technology and all the electronic “toys” it has spawned.

The iPad and iPhone are good examples – following what seem to be various games and aps that even very young children play on their parents’ phones and electronic devices.  One parent who had very clear ideas about material things and values had refused to get her son an iPad.  She then discovered that he was, in fact, the only child in his class without an iPad and she was then torn between her own values and the social pressure of peer groups.

Many parents of teenagers have talked about the iPhone in particular having become the designated birthday gift for thirteen-year old’s and the competition relating to individual birthdates to which this has given rise.  The issue apparently is not just the phone itself and the ability to talk to friends, but also access to the larger internet which raises many other questions also raised by the computer.

Of course, the questions parents are facing are actually those of our society itself.  Those who follow the business world and writers about economics, refer to a theory of behavioral economics used to explain our consumption habits.  This theory holds that there is a tendency to choose short-term rewards over long-term gains.

There are reports in business news about the push in the world of technology toward automation within the home.  Apparently, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all working on variations of a personal assistant who can not only take over many functions such as keeping bank accounts, controlling appliances, or making purchases, but also seemingly will anticipate one’s every wish – and do it faster.

What comes to mind is a famous experiment by Walter Mischel at Stanford in the 1960’s.  A child was seated at a table with a marshmallow in front of him and told he could eat the marshmallow when the examiner left but that if he waited until the examiner’s return, he would get two marshmallows instead of just one.  The results of this experiment were later used to connect the ability to wait – to delay gratification – with later academic and other success.

     It appears that a trait parents are encouraged to foster in their children – the ability to delay gratification – runs counter to the move toward immediate pleasure in the world of consumption.  The implication of this is something that confronts us all – not just parents.