Want to teach your children to be less impulsive? – Family Therapist View

If children can learn to delay gratification, they will grow up with stronger willpower and stronger self-control. According to this Miami Family Therapist and child psychologist, willpower and self-control contribute greatly to a person’s ability to achieve long term goals in life.

The core of the research, posted on PLOS Biology, states most people have a tendency to be impulsive or non-impulsive. In general, most humans tend to delay a reward for longer term gains based how much larger the long term reward will be. We think in terms of percentages. Should the reward be a large enough percent greater, we will wait. But for a smaller percent we may take the reward now. The only difference between people stems from how much we lean towards longer term gains vs shorter term gains… in other words, the value of the percent it takes to trigger a longer term decision.

Research indicates people are more likely to take the longer term, less impulsive option (with greater rewards) based on well they imagine the delayed reward. If they spend more time imaging the details of the event and the feelings it will bring, then they often make the less impulsive decision. However, when it is simply a numbers game, say, $1 today vs $2 tomorrow, the wiser choice is not as apparent.

For example, most long term vs short term questions are asked: “Do you want X now or a bigger Y later?” Would you prefer to receive $6 today or $16 in 10 days? This is a hidden-zero question. They don’t explicitly state that choosing one option means you can’t have the other option too.

What you are really asking your child is, “Do you want to receive $6 now and not receive $16 later, or do you want to receive a bigger $16 later but not receive $6 now?” This is an explicit-zero question. Explicit zero questions help children better understand the situation and grants them a feeling of greater control.

In either case, there aren’t many details of the future reward. An even better way to ask the explicit zero question would be:
Do you want $6 today or, $16 in 10 days which will give you enough to buy that great shirt you’ve been wanting. Just imagine how nice it will feel to put on that shirt and wear it next weekend. This helps direct the child towards the less impulsive choice.

How else could this apply to children?

Scenario 1: Candy

Child: I want a piece of candy now.
Parent: We are having your favorite ice cream after supper.
Hidden-zero question: Do you want to have a piece of candy now or chocolate ice cream with sprinkles and a cherry (their favorite ice cream) after supper?
Explicit-zero question: Do you want to have a piece of candy now and not have any ice cream after supper, or do you want to have chocolate ice cream with sprinkles and a cherry (their favorite ice cream) after supper and not have a piece of candy now?
Advice from this Miami family counselor: In both cases, try to evoke an emotional response in regards to the future choice. Remind them how it will feel as they sit at the table enjoying their favorite dessert.

Scenario 2: The Nap

Child: I don’t want to take a nap.
Parent: If you don’t take a nap, I will send you to bed at 8:00 instead of 9:00.
Explicit-zero question: Do you skip your nap now and go to bed at 8:00, or do you take a nap now and stay up until 9:00? You cannot have both.
Advice from this Miami family therapist:Talk about how great they will feel staying up until 9 like a big kid. Talk about the TV show they really want to watch, or the fact that they can then go to bed at the same time as older sibling. How great will that feel?

Scenario 3: Chores

Parent: Please pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the laundry bag.
Child: Why do I have to pick up my dirty clothes and put them in the laundry bag?
Parent: If you don’t pick up the dirty clothes and put them into the laundry bag, I will not wash them.
Explicit-zero question: If you choose to leave your dirty clothes on the floor, I will choose to leave your dirty clothes on the floor. If you choose to pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the laundry bag, I will choose to wash them.
Advice from this Miami child counselor:Remind your child how it feels to wear clean clothes. How good they feel and proud when they dress nicely. How others will compliment them and again, how those compliments will make them feel.

It takes more effort to develop an explicit-zero question and even more add the details of the long term reward thereby evoking an emotional response, but the effort produces life changing results. While the child is thinking about, deciding, and answering a detailed explicit-zero question, the child becomes real to herself or himself and not just an object in the adult world. M. R. Montgomery in Saying Goodbye: A memoir of Two Fathers wrote, “There is a thing that happens with children: If no one is watching them, nothing is really happening to them… If you are very small, you actually understand that there is no point in jumping into a swimming pool unless they see you do it. The child crying, “Watch me, watch me.” is not begging for attention; the child is pleading for existence itself.” The explicit-zero question really puts the child on center stage by giving the child a real choice and that is existence itself.

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