Can You Wait?

I’ve been reading Bringing Up Bebé, a hilarious meditation on differences in French and American parenting, wherein author Pamela Druckerman sets out to answer the question of why French children sleep through the night from early on, sit through multi-course gourmet meals, and by and large seem happy, well-behaved, curious, bright, and patient. I’ve heard about this book for a couple years but resisted reading it because I was worried it would give me yet more ammunition for self-judgment and guilt around parenting.

But what it is actually doing for me is pointing out that this very temptation to agonize over “Am I doing this right? Or at least well enough? Would my toddler not be having meltdowns if I were doing something differently?” is a particularly American parenting tendency, perhaps borne of having so many different parenting strategies and “shoulds” to choose from.

One factor that Druckerman teases out as a vital piece of French parenting that leads to children who can happily entertain themselves and hear “no” without having a meltdown is: THEY LEARN TO WAIT. Their parents kindly and firmly teach them that they are capable of delaying gratification and finding alternative ways to interest and entertain themselves until the thing they want finally happens.

Ergo: moms can sit and have full conversations over coffee; a parent can speak at length on the telephone without their child banging drums, whining, or hanging up the phone (um, yes, all of these have happened in my house); children can participate in baking a cake and then not dig in while it’s still warm after coming out of the oven (I don’t think I’m personally capable of this one yet…not sure I want to be).

Children’s capacity to delay gratification has been linked to long-term positive outcomes. Walter Mischel is the author of the famous “marshmallow test” experiment at Stanford in the 60’s wherein 4-year-olds were each brought into a room one by one and told that if they could resist eating a single marshmallow they would be given two marshmallows in the end. Out of 653 kids, only one in three resisted the marshmallow for the full 15 minutes, and those who resisted generally did so by somehow distracting themselves by singing songs, playing with their toes, etc. When Mischel and his colleagues followed up with the participants years later as adolescents, they found that those who were able to delay gratification as children had greater capacity as teenagers for concentration, reasoning, and staying calm under stress.

My creative husband (in a flash of inspiration, no book needed) recently started teaching our son to twiddle his thumbs while he’s waiting for our attention, so after my past few days of reading Bebé and asking my son to Please Wait, I have to laugh when he promptly sits down, clasps his hands, and diligently begins trying to get his thumbs twiddling, murmuring “doo-to-doo, doodli-doo-ti-doo….”

If we missed teaching our toddlers how to wait, all is not lost! We can still help our teens learn and practice delaying gratification, so they can resist that extra drink or postpone the risky activity until they’ve had more time to think it through and breathe past that initial impulsiveness. (There’s a lot more going on in our teens’ brains, though, that I’ll continue to address in future posts, like real need for risk, testing oneself, initiation, and spiritual seeking.)

Best of all, what would it be like to practice wisdom and patience ourselves as adults, as well as dive into the full gratification itself with the benefit of insight, modeling this for each other and our kids: waiting mindfully and then savoring that delicious thing we love with all the abandon in the world?


  1. My husband LOVES this exepeimrnt. He’s always going on about it. I believe that they have followed up on the original group of kids and found a pretty much perfect correlation between kids who can wait for the marshmallow and those who go on to be successful as adults.They did not, however, find the reverse correlation: kids who couldn’t wait to eat the marshmallow aren’t doomed to be slackers. Some of them went on to be successful, too.And according to my husband (sorry, I couldn’t be bothered to check his references), the South Korean government is so impressed by this exepeimrnt that they are now trying to teach all kids how to avoid eating the marshmallow.

    • Thanks for this comment and the reminder that if we can’t resist the marshmallow we’re not doomed! And I didn’t know about South Korea utilizing this experiment. Apologies for missing this and not responding sooner (I just got alerted this morning to dozens of spam comments to this post so am attending to that, although now that I’m looking at them they’re all so cheerily, if fakely, positive that they made me laugh and laugh…if only all spam were so encouraging.)

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