How I delayed gratification in my son

Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence. Plato


This is a four-part series on how I used my smart devices to change or start certain behaviors in my two year old son. You will find the links to each of the other articles at the end of this post.

Since my son turned 18 months, we made the huge mistake of showing him photographs of him on our iPhones. He observed how we swiped left and right, and of course was quick to pick that up. Not before long, he was really good at swiping, closing the top-down notification, accidentally deleting pictures, etc. I believe it doesn’t surprise most of us that kids can do that. Even monkeys can learn to use these handheld devices simply because they’re easy to navigate and so intuitive to use.

I recently realized that letting him swipe to see photos at will is terrible because it encouraged instant gratification in him. At this age where he has learnt to express himself, he doesn’t stay put to watch his favorite videos any more. Instead, he complains that Video A isn’t to his fancy and compels us to change to another one. This went on for a month or so and it drove us crazy because we could not leave him to watch those videos that were on autoplay anymore. We had to be with him to switch away videos so we were back to square one.

I thought hard about the reason behind his change in behavior from patiently re-watching videos that he liked, being gently introduced to a new video that he could relate to better as he developed through the months, to being a screaming hothead dictator who had no patience for any new video or any of the videos that he didn’t “like”. I thought about the time when he swiped photos so quickly that he barely looked at them, and I made the connection.

I realized I had to delay gratification in him. Why not start learning this earlier than later? Let’s go!

How I delayed gratification in my son, undoing a parenting mistake we introduced thanks to our smart phones
When he was young we didn’t have the foresight to not show him pictures of him on our phones. Fast forward to today our 2yo is winner of fastest swiper first.

Bonus benefit

When we made him sit through videos that he “did not like”, he was able to rediscover new interesting videos that we chose for him instead of instantly rejecting them. His threshold for novelty expanded. He started to be open to trying new things, new foods, new people.

My logic

Once again, I had to start small. I begun with twenty seconds, and increased that gradually by blocks of ten seconds. Now if he says he doesn’t like something, anything not just videos, he knows he has to stick with it for two minutes at least. The logic of starting small is because short delays are more readily received, even for grown-ups.

How I do it

Whenever he starts complaining that he doesn’t like an activity, we’ll whip out our smartphone and tell him, “Alright, let’s stick with it for twenty seconds. I will ask you whether you want to continue after twenty seconds.” It’s amazing how readily children agree to anything when you whip out your phone.
When the timer rings, I ask him whether he wants to carry out watching the video or doing the activity. If he says no, I make the switch for him or pull him to take on another activity. If he says yes he would like to continue, I let him be and don’t change a thing.
In the beginning I will need to sit next to him, it does take up some time, but as I scale over time he gets better behaved and more patient.

Reality in practice

I can’t wait for the day when he can completely play by himself in his nursery. Until that day, I will keep trying this method, and continually bring him along to social situations with the hope that he can enjoy the social interactions.

Other child-friendly hacks that I have successfully used the timer for are:

  1. Building up time management skills in my son (I was surprised how quickly his body clock adapted and what a sense of time he had)
  2. Getting him to fall asleep (it’s a creative game and it only works for day naps for us)
  3. Getting me some me-time (the most precious ten minutes of my life)

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