When my kiddo wants something, he wants it now. Sure, he may be a little spoiled, but a major part of it at least for him is that he can’t handle the anxiety in the space between one stimulating event and the next. Boredom, silence, and waiting — for him — are essentially the same as death.
I know I was like this, at least to some degree, as a kid, but my son has an added challenge because of our increasingly “instant gratification” way of living.
It’s not just our kids these days; even adults are getting to the point where they feel entitled to have what they want, and to have it now. You only have to look at any Starbucks line during rush hour for the evidence.
A major skill that can help us with this kind of reactivity to not getting our way all the time is emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence was famously demonstrated by the 1960s “marshmallow experiment” in which children (ages 3–5) were put in a room with a single marshmallow and told that if they refrained from eating it while the researcher briefly left the room, they would be rewarded with two marshmallows.
What ensued was absolutely adorable, as well as insightful into the range of restraint and forethought children exhibit. Some children sat patiently, others licked the marshmallow but didn’t eat it.
Some crawled under the table to “hide” from the temptation of the marshmallow. And, invariably, some just straight up ate the marshmallow, forfeiting their second treat.
The kids who ate the first marshmallow technically “chose” to do this, but when you’re that young it’s extremely difficult to put pause between a stimulus and your reaction to it, especially if it involves a strong desire. The children who showed more restraint and were able to endure the wait for the second marshmallow were exhibiting emotional intelligence; which is ultimately the ability to be aware of, control, and express emotions.
So how can you tell if your own child has emotional intelligence? And what can you do to improve it?
5 key elements of emotional intelligence:
- social skills
My son is definitely working on this skill. He knows that he should wait and get a better reward, but often doesn’t. My guess is he just can’t handle the intensity of the emotion, whether it’s desire, disgust, boredom, or what have you. I instruct him every night that after he waters the plants and takes a shower, he can watch one of his favorite shows.
Invariably he spends 15 minutes lamenting the fact that he has to shower first, wasting the time he could be spending watching a show. I’ve noticed when I prep him, especially on the car ride home, and explain that if he goes straight to take a shower he will have extra time to watch, he is a lot more likely to agree with my logic and do it.
My theory is that when we’re in the car, he’s not thinking about TV. He doesn’t have a strong emotion happening that’s clouding his reasoning ability (which he really does possess to an exceptional degree). He sees the logic and agrees that, yes, it is better to shower first and then watch TV. It’s easy to agree with a hypothetical.
Then, once we get home, he’ll run upstairs, water his plants — which he does without protest anyway — and get distracted by a couple things on the way to the shower. But no resistance, no melt down.
On those days where I’m distracted and I forget to prep him, he gets inside, sees the TV, and the world ceases to exist in his eyes. When he asks to watch and I remind him to shower first, he sees me as the oppressor of his deepest, most intense desire. Typically, this doesn’t illicit a fun reaction from him.
Obviously, prepping him ahead of time is a good way to get him on board with the idea, and avoid an emotional explosion, because he’s already expecting a particular outcome and not yet attached to another. My hope is that this delay will help him to adjust automatically to similar situations where he can grasp the logic of why things are done the way they are.
Ultimately, I’d like to teach him how to react with emotional intelligence even when those intense emotions are already up. To feel a strong desire, aversion, or fear, and to still react with equanimity is something most adults, myself included, are still grappling with.
By instilling the skills, or at least the seeds, in him early, I’m giving him the tools he’ll need to make the right choice in tough situations throughout his life.
Although he doesn’t do it every time (or even the majority of times) that he feels angry, sad, frustrated, etc., the fact that he ever does it and he’s so young feels like a win to me. It’s a testament to how much our kids actually absorb the important lessons we teach them, and why — while we shouldn’t expect perfection — we should remember what intelligent, adaptable, and potential-filled individuals they actually are.
This article originally appeared here.