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Parents Have Grown Accustomed to Instant Gratification

It is OK to slow things down in your child's life.

Key points

  • Parents often model instant gratification for their children.
  • Try not to rob your child of an opportunity to solve their own problems.
  • When approached by your child with a problem, be patient, listen to the whole complaint, and then ask, "What have you tried?"

Part of the reinforcement for instant gratification for children and teens is that parents get caught up in the phenomenon, too. Think of the frustration you feel when a webpage is buffering or there’s a weak Wi-Fi connection. We usually react with frustration and intolerance. Waiting even a minute can seem like forever.

As adults, we also have become accustomed to an onslaught of information anytime we want it. Not only do we appreciate our computers and smartphones because they allow us to stay up-to-date on current events, emails, and the news, but we also use them as a quick and efficient way to tackle interpersonal communication. It is very easy for adults to get caught up in the social media frenzy, too. It isn’t just your children who spend hours a day staring at their screens on social media. Just as many adults as teens have told me that they have canceled their social media accounts because they were taking up too much of their free time or making them feel bad about their life.

Because the drive for things to happen quickly is so infused into our culture, it is particularly important for parents to be aware of how they inadvertently support instant gratification as an expectation in their children.

The temptation for parents to jump in and rescue their children from problems can often be due to a lack of patience on the parent’s part. In fact, solving a child’s problem quickly can feel like a relief to parents. Very often, parents get caught up in rescuing their children because they, too, have a hard time waiting. Many times children and teens come to their parents with a complaint about something that is happening in their life, and the adult jumps right in and skips to offering solutions. It takes a lot of patience to be a good listener, not offer any suggestions, and, ultimately, avoid rescuing them. It would be much easier to quickly offer advice or tell children what to do. This not only takes away opportunities for them to solve problems and find solutions on their own, but it also communicates to them that problems should be solved quickly.

Parents also model how to use electronics with their own actions.

Adults often complain or make jokes about how teenagers always have a phone in their hands. Many parents go so far as to describe it as a compulsion or “addiction.” It is not uncommon for parents to try to set limits on cell phone use and try to break their kids of this habit by telling them it is a distraction and inappropriate. Then those same parents take out their phones to check emails, text messages, and read news reports when they could have been spending time with their family.

Pay attention to how many times you check your phone when waiting with your family at a restaurant, at a child’s sporting event, or even with kids on vacation. Parents also need to be watchful of their intolerance for downtime. Children and teens are eager to fill their downtime with electronic devices. How often do parents promote intolerance by modeling it with their own actions? Have you sat down for dinner at a restaurant and pulled out your phone? If so, you are just giving permission to your children to do the same.

Parents have a hard time delaying responses to text messages from their kids too. However, there are times when you shouldn’t respond immediately, such as when you’re at an appointment, a social event, or personal activity. Your children should know that you’re not going to reply right away during these times. Text messages are an option for contact, not a guarantee.

Therefore, consider waiting before replying to a text that isn’t urgent. If you’re in a meeting, spending time with a friend, or taking time for yourself, don’t break away from that to answer every text immediately. Even though it is tempting, remember part of the temptation is your need for instant action. Don’t deprive your children of the practice of building tolerance for waiting because you want immediate action.

Then clarify times when your kids need to know that you are available to them. For example, assure them that you will reply promptly to texts if they’re home alone, driving somewhere new, or if you know they will need your permission for something. During those times, it is great to agree on when you will be available for a text message or a phone call if they need you.

Another important thing for parents to do is to recognize when they feel like they’re caught up in the rip current of the fast pace of society and pushing towards instant gratification themselves. Step back and look for everyday opportunities to slow things down. This has been the way of life for most children and teens, so they are unaware of the poor habits that are being developed. Parents may need to slow the pace for them. Doing so means you need to have more patience and remain self-aware of the tendencies to support the immediacy that is rampant in this generation.

It is very important for parents to be aware of the signs that may be happening with their children. The next step is for the parent to closely examine what they may be doing or communicating that encourages such a fast pace and take steps to balance accomplishments and reasonable expectations. It’s OK to slow things down a little bit every once in a while. Your children don’t know it, but they’ll appreciate it.

More from Ronald Stolberg Ph.D.
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