Good things come to those who wait

By Greg Whitby, 25 May 2017

Weekly Column from the Executive Director of Schools, Diocese of Parramatta

We live in an ‘on demand’ world driven by the mobility of technology and accessibility to the internet. We can download books and music, watch TV shows and have multiple conversations, all from our smartphones – sometimes at the same time! The upside to this is greater connectivity and flexibility. The downside especially for young people is that the ‘on demand’ nature of their lives may not be beneficial to them over the long-term.

A series of famous experiments was conducted by American psychologist Walter Mischel 40 years ago to test self-control in young children. Mischel offered children the choice of an immediate reward in the form of a treat but if they waited a little longer, they would get a larger reward. Two-thirds of the children in the study acted on impulse by opting for the immediate but smaller reward. Mischel then tracked those children into their teenage years and found that the children who exhibited more self-control and waited for the larger reward ended up with academic success and were able to better control their feelings and emotions.

This is such an interesting study. It is not entirely clear why some children can wait while others don’t seem to be able to. Researchers believe that the children who are able to wait have the capacity to think through their choice, knowing that they will get a better outcome by waiting. They seem to be able to identify their feelings/goals and then use strategies such as distraction or positive self-talk to delay the need for immediate gratification and stay focused on their long-term goal. These students may, for example, be able to reflect on why it’s a good idea to finish their maths homework before playing the video game. Those who act ‘on demand’ are often influenced by impulse and strong emotions – they act first and reflect later on.

The good news is that young people can be taught strategies that help build those thinking skills. Teachers are trained to give students useful feedback about their thoughts and emotions. They can also help by giving them a vocabulary to talk about their feelings. Young people can learn the skills of thinking before acting.

It is not a bad thing for children to experience what it is like to not get what they want when they want it. The more we allow children to experience different levels of discomfort at different times (e.g not responding immediately to text messages or Facebook notifications), the more practice they get regulating desires and feelings. It is important to persevere! Adults need to model this too but it shows that there is science behind the expression ‘good things come to those who wait’.

Greg Whitby

Executive Director of Schools – Diocese of Parramatta

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