The quickest way to stop the crying of a child who is upset for not getting what he or she wants is to just give in and hand over the desired object to him or her. Although this may be the quickest solution, it is by far one of the worst solutions in the long-run. Instant gratification robs your child of the opportunity to learn some very important lessons: (1) we will not always get everything that we want so immediately; (2) our imperfect world can never be set in a way that it perpetually provides whatever it is that we want; (3) the difficult feelings associated with not getting what we want are a normal part of the human experience and they will eventually go away with mindful acceptance and positivity.
Mindfulness and delayed gratification build patience.
Let’s start off by exploring a scenario that all parents are familiar with. You and your daughter are in a toy store. She wants a toy. You say no. She cries because she is overwhelmed by some unfamiliar feeling of discomfort in her heart. What do you do? You help her identify and express her thoughts and emotions by getting her to think about what she is thinking in her head and feeling in her heart. She may be feeling betrayal and rejection because her thoughts are saying, “All this time I thought you loved me. How could you betray me like this by denying me of what I understand to be love?” After she puts these thoughts and emotions into words to the best of her ability, you deliver comfort, not by handing over the toy, but by giving her comforting words of truth and physical affection. You assure her that you love her. You teach her your more mature definition of love. You explain to her that, although it is ok for her to communicate to others what she wants, she cannot expect to always get that from them. You also explain that, in the context of generosity and gift giving, she is not entitled to a reason when others do not give her what she wants. Therefore, in most cases, you too do not give her a reason. Help her then to accept and feel her difficult emotions. Assure her that they are only temporary and that good emotions are just around the corner. Help her practice delayed gratification by getting her to wait for some time before she gets that toy. Ideally, you do not want to choose birthdays or special occasions as that will just transfer the sense of entitlement to those specific days of the year (I am not sure if there is any way to avoid that). All of this will greatly reduce your child’s chances of developing a sense of entitlement in his or her later years.
The next scenario is one that is not as obviously connected with instant gratification and I see a lot of parents, especially in the past recent years, just “giving in.” You decide to take your family out for dinner at a restaurant. Your son gets bored. He cannot stand the waiting time for the food to arrive and the time after he finishes his own meal. He becomes restless and starts to make a scene as an attempt to create more stimulation for himself. What is the quickest way to calm him down? I see a lot of parents these days just hand over their iPhone or iPad (full of games) to their children. It works like a charm!
This quick fix, however, robs your son of the opportunity to learn how to recognize and cope with the difficult feeling of boredom and understimulation. So what do you do instead? Like the example above, you get your son to identify and express in words his feelings of discomfort. You validate his experience by showing empathy. You let him know that he will be ok and then challenge him to accept and feel his difficult emotions. Assure him that they are only temporary and that good emotions are just around the corner. Help him practice delayed gratification by getting him to wait for some time before he gets his chance to play. All of this will greatly reduce your child’s chances of developing problems with inattention, impulsivity, addiction, and escapism in his or her later years. Many gifted people struggle with these problems because, growing up, no one really stopped them from utilizing their instantly gratifying coping methods to their intense feelings of boredom and understimulation.
Finally, the last scenario is one that is least likely to be recognized by parents as instant gratification because it is often confused with something else that is very positive. Your child looks upon the condition of his own work or the work of somebody else. He sees the gap between how things are and how excellent they could be. This gap causes him intense frustration inside. In attempt to remove this difficult feeling, your child takes immediate action and tries to close that gap. From the outside, the closing of this gap just looks like your child has great work ethic. What parent would not feel even slightly proud about his or her child having this from such an early age? What you fail to notice, though, is that your child is removing his own opportunity to develop patience in this area. After years and years of taking immediate action whenever this difficult feeling of frustration arises, your child grows up to be an adult who is incapable of being OK with this gap. The most painful part of it is… this person sees this gap everywhere and all the time. This is one of the main challenges of people with OCPD. So how do you prevent this? You stay close while your child is at work. You examine his motives. Is he doing it out of pure love, joy, and curiosity or is he doing it out of frustration? If it is out of frustration, just like all the examples above, teach him how to recognize, express, accept, and feel this difficult emotion. All of this will reduce your child’s chances of developing problems with obsessive compulsivity, workaholism, and perfectionism in his or her later years.
As a result of all the instant gratification I grew up with, I am not the best at giving 100% of my attention to anything that I am not hyper-passionate about. It all began in elementary school when I experienced the frustration of having to sit still and listen to the teacher. I noticed that, out of all of the words that came out of the teacher’s mouth, only a fraction of them were relevant and interesting to me. I figured that it was pointless for me to give 100% of my attention when I could just get the meat of the lesson with only 30% of my attention. I would then allocate the remaining 70% of my attention on some other activity, usually finishing my homework (to maximize my playtime once school was over). This continued all the way into my later years. But in university, I had a laptop computer instead. During all my business classes, I could now simultaneously work on other exciting activities like video editing. Having always participated in some other stimulating activity in these times of frustration, I now cannot help but feel intensely irritated when I have no way out of others’ communication that is long-winded, uninteresting, and disorganized. One of the most excruciating settings for me is group sharing circles where it is considered very rude to do anything other than give full attention to whoever is speaking. When I share, I make the extra effort to deliver my message in a concise manner by prioritizing the juicy parts of my story and minimizing the irrelevant “filler” parts of my story. But why doesn’t everyone else do this? My frustration then turns into anger and my mind gets bombarded with extremely negative and judgemental thoughts. “Why is it that the least interesting member of this group, who ironically begins her exhausting monologue with ‘I don’t have much to say,’ takes up the most time sharing about her bland life!?” The agony gets so bad for me that my heart rate goes up, I start to sweat, my nervous ticks and compulsions (cracking my knuckles, scratching my neck, touching my face, digging my nails into my head, shaking my legs, blinking my eyes) go on hyperdrive, and I feel sick in my stomach. I feel like running full speed into a brick wall. There have been numerous times when my pain got so bad that I had to excuse myself out of the room to cool down by stepping on patterns on the floor (one of my obsessive-compulsive cooling down strategies). Although this looks very much like ADHD, it is not (ADHD is actually the most common misdiagnosis of gifted people). Nevertheless, it is an area that I really need to work on building my patience in.
Are you that child who grew up with too much instant gratification and now you have very little patience in one or more areas in your life? No problem. There is a solution! It certainly does not come in the form of a small pill that you just convenient pop into your mouth (come on now, that would just be another form of instant gratification!). The solution is to accept and experience the difficult feelings that arise every time you do not get what you want. This may be very painful at first but it will get easier with time.
FOR YOU: “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Henepola Gunaratana
FOR CHILDREN: “A Boy and a Bear: the Children’s Relaxation Book” by Lori Lite