Friday, August 1, 2014

Marshmallows, Patience and Trust

Recently, I was reminded of the famous Stanford experiment in the 1970s that tested children’s patience. A child was offered a single marshmallow (or cookie) to eat right away, but, if they could wait, they would get two marshmallows. The results of this experiment linked the ability to delay gratification with higher SAT scores many years later. Ability to delay gratification may be beneficial in the long run, but why are some children willing to delay gratification to get more of something at a later time, while others are not?

Patience and the ability to delay gratification is a learned skill and not an innate ability we’re born with. The foundation for patience is built through trust. If the child can trust the adult to follow through with the promised result, then it is much easier for him or her to wait. If the adult is somehow untrustworthy or the situation itself is untrustworthy, then it is much harder for the child to believe the promised result will be forthcoming. While it is normal for children to be impulsive, most begin to control their actions around age 4 or 5, and some even earlier. So, if we observe children who cannot wait, or who are impatient and unable to “delay gratification,” we should look to the environment around them. Have these children been given the chance to learn the value of delayed gratification? As parents and teachers, are we setting the foundation for the development of this skill?

Imagine a child who almost never has fried foods or desserts in her house. On a rare occasion, her family had homemade French fries. These were portioned up to everyone and they began to eat. The girl set hers aside on her plate to savor at the end of the meal. Her father finished all of his own and then looked at her plate and said, “Well, it looks like you’re not going to eat those.” And before she knew it, he grabbed a large portion of her fries and ate them. Do you think in the future that this girl would delay eating desired foods? Would she pass the marshmallow test? Probably not, because even though she has a great amount of self-control, she will believe that it does not pay off.

So how as adults can we help children learn how to delay gratification? First and foremost, it is our responsibility to create trust — and that starts with how we behave. Adults must be consistent and believable. We must treat our children with respect. If we truly forget or make a mistake, then we should make amends. Fairness is a part of respect. Listening to our children and taking their ideas, emotions and expressions seriously also builds an atmosphere of trust and respect. It sends a message that they matter and are valued. Trust is also conveyed about our attitude on their ability to handle tough situations. Parents who give their children space to learn from their mistakes show they have confidence their child will be able to handle the situation.

Children will imitate the behavior of the adults around them. Do we exhibit impatience in front of our children or do they see us wait? Do we work hard for a better tomorrow? These are all questions to exam-ine to decide for ourselves what we value.

I am not saying we must be perfect parents or teachers — simply strive to build trust and respect. This is not meant to create a rigid or harsh atmosphere. Yes, sometimes we can eat dessert before dinner — yes, sometimes we can seize the day. But waiting for the good stuff is fun, too. Eating and savoring that long-anticipated ice cream has rewards in and of itself.

Marla Nargundkar is an AMI Montessori guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta.

Nature as a Classroom

With Spring upon us, the natural world is bursting with activity and growth. Children are beginning to play more outside and so the importance of the outdoors to the child’s development becomes more prominent. Playing outdoors provides opportunities for physical development in the form of exercise, fresh air and exposure to sunlight with many benefits. The changing seasons also provide us with many opportunities for intellectual growth through the study of nature. We can observe the patterns and cycles of the plants and animals around us. For example, in the Spring, children can observe birds nesting, flowers blooming and leaves emerging. Insects and other animals become more active after the dormant time of winter. This gives us many opportunities to expand their vocabulary related to the world around us. Children can learn the names of flowers, birds, trees and insects. Gardening activities naturally lead to discussions about nutrition, composting, and preparing the soil. Direct experiences feed a curious mind and stimulate a thirst for more knowledge and lay a foundation on which we can draw upon later.

Not only do experiences in nature enrich the physical body and mind, it nourishes the emotions and spirit as well. Greenery and plants directly affect calmness and a sense of peace. The cycles of nature and study of the Earth foster a sense of connection among all living organisms. Being in nature connects us to ourselves and can bring us into a state of harmony. These first hand experiences foster a “Sense of Wonder,” as Rachael Carson so eloquently expressed:

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

So as parents, how do we incorporate the outdoors and nature into our daily life? Visiting parks and natural spaces as a family is one great way to do this. Feeding birds or caring for a garden is a way to incorporate nature into our daily life. Taking time to note the change in seasons and the weather each day connects to the yearly cycles of the Earth. Sitting quietly for a time each day to observe the natural world, even in our own neighborhood is a wonderful calming activity. There is no right or wrong way. It is more about an attitude of openness to nature - to see what we can learn and observe, than it is about specific activities. One can be in the forest and be too preoccupied with daily life to even see the snail on a leaf in front of us. Taking the time to watch that tiny snail slowly crawl up a leaf can be a meditative practice and connect us deeply to the wonder of life.

Marla  Nargundkar, AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Doraville/Atlanta

The Virtues of Boredom

We live in a society in hyperdrive. We constantly move from one scheduled activity to another – work, school, music lessons, sports practice, meetings, etc.  Many children never get the chance to experience much free time. But this free time is essential for well-being and growth. Children need unstructured time to play, daydream, wander (in a safe environment, of course!), ponder or reflect. And if this can occur outside in nature, all the better! And yes, children need to experience BOREDOM. Boredom leads one to turn inward for direction and to seek out one’s own interests.  Even if your children come to you for entertainment, firmly resist the urge to always rescue them. As a parent you can give them some ideas or hints but they must be the ones to instigate their own activity. This leads to opportunities to develop creativity and problem solving. “Necessity is the mother of invention” is the guiding force.

Boredom can be an important part of the cycle of rest and growth that everyone needs. Growth is not linear. It happens in spurts and phases. During the “inactive” time it is tempting to think that nothing is happening. But this is far from the truth. Energies and forces are accumulating within, paving the way for renewal and growth. This is true for both the body and the mind. And just as we need sleep and rest, we need downtime to maintain our levels of stress at a healthy level. Boredom helps us to develop skills we need through life. Boredom, and thus the urge to relieve it, leads us to become more self-reliant and independent. It pushes us to try out new things, to create, to explore. 

So work to value the free time that it takes to potentially experience boredom. Avoid overscheduling each day. Purposefully leave time slots blank. Resist criticizing children (or adults) when they appear to be doing nothing. Turn off the TV and computer and be open to the gifts of boredom. 

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” – Ellen Parr

Marla Nargundkar is an AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta, GA