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The Power of Waiting

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Featured on Hong Kong Economic Journal (April 20, 2013)

We live in a microwave generation. In the same way that food can be piping hot and ready to eat within minutes, we expect things in this world to come quickly to us. We get frustrated when the person in front of us at the shop fumbles over his change, making us wait longer. We get annoyed if the restaurant takes longer than expected to deliver our food. We, with our latest smart phones, expect fast internet connections and for people to reply our emails instantaneously. As technology has advanced, everything has come more easily and more quickly to us and waiting has become more difficult.

And waiting is one of the most difficult things for children. Parents know all too well that if a child wants something, he wants it NOW. Whether it’s attention, candy or a new toy, children naturally want things right away. But there are great benefits in waiting.

In the famous Marshmallow Test that was first conducted at Stanford University, children were put to the test as they were made to wait. The Marshmallow Test was conducted on children between 3 and 5 years old. They were each given a time to be in a room with a plate in front of them with a marshmallow on it. The researcher told the child that he could eat the marshmallow after he left the room but if he didn’t, he would be given a second marshmallow 15 minutes later. With a video camera in the room, they saw that some children turned their chair away from the marshmallow to withstand the temptation, others played with the marshmallow until the researcher got back and others just popped it into their mouths. But what is most interesting are the follow up studies they did on these same children ten, twenty years on. They found that the children who waited for the 2nd marshmallow instead of giving into temptation to eat the 1st, ended up having better SAT test scores and were described by their parents as being more academically and socially competent, as well as having better stress management skills and linguistic ability. Researchers found that the children who could wait ended up being more successful later on in life. Goes to show that waiting pays off!

There are many ways of getting children to wait in their every day lives to help them develop their patience and self-control. One thing I was always taught to do as a child was to not interrupt others. I remember vividly the times when my mother would be on the phone or talking to a friend and I would want to ask her something. She would turn to me and ask me to wait. She would then later teach me that unless it was urgent (someone was hurt or something required immediate attention), I was to wait until she was finished. Walking in my mother’s footsteps, I now do the same with my students. If they want to speak to me whilst I’m speaking to an adult, they have to stand next to me and patiently wait their turn. Or in a class, they have to put their hands up and wait their turn to speak. Simple acts like this builds a foundation in self-control and patience.

Recently, a parent and I were discussing the issue of birthday presents and parties. We were discussing how children’s birthday parties have become a time where the birthday child is showered with gifts and unfortunately, they hardly remember who gave them what or play with each toy for more than one week. So this parent was telling me how she takes all the presents her child receives and stores them away. Her child knows that the gifts are stored away and that he has to wait to get them. Every month or so, or when the child behaves well, this mother would take one gift and give it to him. What a great way to teach a child the value of waiting!

If we can teach our children to wait when they are young, they will more likely be able to wait and resist temptation when they are older. I’d like to see my child be able to wait his turn to speak when he’s 5, resist the temptation to get the new gadget that everyone is getting when he’s 15 and wait for the right girl to marry as an adult.

So, as much as we love our children and might have an urge to give them what they want when they want it, parents, hold back. EmPOWER them to wait now, and watch them succeed later. It’s worth the wait.












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