My husband and I did something a little crazy last weekend. We hid all of our kid’s toys in the basement. Every last one.
We weren’t sure about their reaction. Initially my kids looked at me, and then looked back at dad, and then wondered if they ticked off Santa because their toys were all gone.
Our new house rules were made abundantly clear after this. If they want a toy they have to ask for it, and when they want another toy they have to put the last toy away. Our mission is to teach our children the importance of delayed gratification, and maybe walk through sticky playdough a little less while we are at it. And truthfully, our untidy house takes away from enjoying our kids. We were finding that every weekend we needed to have a tidy up day, because every week my children went bananas and made our house look like an episode of Animaniacs. Something has to give.
Why is delayed gratification important for our children?
The obvious benefits to teaching your children to clean up their toys before they bring out another one is that your house is tidier (in theory) and your kids will learn which toys they are truly attached to. In addition to this, they will be thankful for what they have, they will work harder for what they want to achieve, and they will gain patience. But that’s not all – our main reason for taking their toys away is to provide more consistency and structure in their lives. Kids thrive on routine and reliability.
Imagine being a child and wanting a chocolate. You are told you have to clean up your toys and then eat all of your dinner so that you can get your chocolate. As it happens, your sweet toddler brain forgets about the reward and you remember the next morning – only to be told that we don’t have chocolate for breakfast and you have to wait even longer for this treat that you were promised last night. You would feel pretty crummy. And let’s face it, we can’t rely on a three year old to remember that they only have a one-time chance to get their chocolate.
What happens to their brain when this occurs? They learn that there is no point in working for what they want because they won’t get it anyway. They learn that they will likely get that chocolate if they cry for 30 mins until mom is at the brink of insanity and gives in (immediate gratification).
Now flip this around and imagine that you give your child the chocolate after dinner without them asking. You remembered your promise. You remind your child that he asked for a chocolate and because he waited, he is rewarded. This reinforces that your child can wait, and still get what he wants when he is patient. Imagine how productive your child will be in 10, 15, 20 years when he learns that if he completes his homework, he will get good grades. If he doesn’t get into university on the first try, he upgrades and gains life experience for a year and gets into a program he wants the next year. When he isn’t granted the promotion in his first adult job, he doesn’t need to quit and throw a fit, because he has learned that a “no” doesn’t always mean no forever, but rather a “no for right now”.
Easy ways to teach delayed gratification
Teach them skills that require them to wait for a result
Gardening, baking, and crafts that require glue to dry are great ways to start teaching this with your kids. They want to eat the raspberries, but first they have to wait until they have flowers, are pollinated and turn red. They want the chocolate chip muffins, but first they have to mix all of the ingredients together and wait for them to bake (and look mamas, we don’t have to do this from scratch—a boxed mix will do just fine as well). Waiting for glue to dry might be the most difficult task you can ask a toddler, but if they pick up the picture too fast, all of their hard work will fall on the floor.
Making them wait for good things doesn’t mean you have to tease them with a toy they can’t have. Keep them occupied in other activities while you wait for the muffins to bake or the glue to dry. Setting a timer on an easy-to-read device can be helpful as well (egg timers work great!)
Remember to always follow through
If you said he can have two cartoons after he has cleaned up his toys, give him the two cartoons. Set a reminder in your phone so that you can build this trust and consistency with your children. When kids know what to expect, they behave better. We see this with infants as well as children – a confused baby is a very unhappy baby. Why do they get fed to sleep for naps but not for bed? Why can they snuggle in bed at 5 a.m. but not midnight? Why do they have to fall asleep on their own when they are at grandma’s house but mom will rock them to sleep at home? Consistency goes a really long way with kids.
Be kind to yourself
You forgot to give your child the chocolate after dinner and now he is crying in the morning. Apologize to your child. The best way to teach forgiveness and love to a child is to show them. Saying a phrase like “you’re right, I did say that you can have a chocolate. Thank you for reminding me and thank you for cleaning up your toys. Let’s have healthy food with our chocolate instead.”
Delayed gratification has lifelong benefits for our kids. In a world where entering your pin for your credit card takes too long, it’s important as parents to recognize we have the opportunity to teach our kids that everything isn’t instant in our lives (just ask the steel cut oats in your pantry). The toys may be in the basement, but I will get them for my kids every time they ask as long as they are following through on their end of our rules. We aren’t perfect parents, far from it in fact, but consistency is easy with practice. And my reward will be less time taking Lego pieces out of my heel and more time with my kids!