By Annie Zirkel
For children, as with adults, life is a series of choices. Do I clean my room now or keep playing this fun video game? Do I eat this chocolate cake now or keep working on losing those 10 pounds? Finding a balance between enjoying your now self and investing in your future self can be a constant challenge.
It takes strong willpower to say no to ten more minutes of texting friends or playing instead of going to bed. It also takes willpower to say no to ten more minutes of sleep when you are still tired and don’t want to get up for school (or work). This is because immediate gratification has a serious edge over some possible vague reward that may, or may not, show up in the future, and only if you work for it. In other words, when working from our evolutionary default setting, now will beat later every time!
Because parents appreciate the value of investing in tomorrow, they spend a lot of time rooting for the future self underdog. They cheer for a good night’s sleep, waking up on time, and eating a healthy breakfast. They champion good oral health, exercise, quality friends, truthfulness, clean rooms, good grades, and good stress management skills.
Any one of these tasks (and possibly most of them) could challenge your child to make the choice that will serve them best in the long run. But parents want children to obtain this skill ASAP—not only for their children’s future selves, but for theirs as well. Knowing that our kids are making choices to benefit their future, lets us fantasize about our own parenting retirement someday. So how can we help facilitate this learning?
Given that babies are born as purely now beings, evolving a child’s sense of, and relationship to, their future self is a process. Luckily, all cause-and-effect learning contributes to this evolution, so the seeds of this mindset develop naturally.
Clock time is artificial and not a good place to start teaching about the future self. However, as children grow parents can point out timeline connections by pairing words like after or before with an event. For example, “After you finish your lunch we can go to the park.” Another word pair that is useful is when/then, as in “When you finish cleaning your room, then you can go have fun.”
In addition, observations that point out positive current consequences as a result of past efforts can enhance past-present-future awareness while giving a nod to the message that effort and delayed gratification pay off. For example, you could say, “How nice to enjoy these muffins because we took the time to mix all the ingredients and bake them!”
Of course if those tips were all it took to impart the wisdom of choosing effort, work, or stress right now so your future self could enjoy an easier, healthier, brighter, or more pleasant, next year or beyond, parenting would be easy right? So how can parents ease the ache of far off rewards? It starts with relationship.
You may recall the story of Pavlov’s Dogs—the experiment found that dogs would salivate to the ringing of a bell that had been previously paired with the presentation of food. When it comes to the future self experiment, parents and caregivers are usually the bell. Only it’s not food, but disappointment or anxiety, that parents get paired with when they are the ones ringing the bell that signals to their child that it is time to stop playing their Xbox, or do their homework, or clean their room. Parents are the bell when they come between a child’s carefree now self and their care-for, future self.
This bell phenomenon can increase resistance, hostility, and oppositional behavior toward the messenger. So being a kind bell helps. Try showing empathy and understanding for why a child would rather choose their now self goals. Empathizing with the dilemma of being asked to look past an immediate reward for some future reward can keep the conflict from sidetracking into a power struggle between parent and child.
Another way to address this is to work with your child on giving them some say over how and when they focus on future self choices within reasonable parameters. Just remember to hold them accountable with reasonable consequences if they fail to be good to their word.
Finally, make sure your child hears that you believe them to be strong and capable. Give them a vote of confidence that you have faith in their ability to push through a task even if it doesn’t thrill them or is challenging. Frame current tasks as challenges to accomplish or games to win, focusing on how good it feels to succeed. Remind them of past successes and how good that felt. Envision for them a future self who is grateful for beating that now craving.
Finally, and most importantly, don’t always ring the future self bell! Parents need to keep their own need to prepare their children for every future challenge in check. Sometimes you can root for the now side. Surprise your children by sitting down to watch their favorite show or being interested in what they are doing. Our children and their now focus have lessons to teach us as well. Remember the wisdom of babies and practice being in the moment with your child rather than always five steps ahead.
Blow their minds! As your child is enjoying a good test score or that warm muffin, see if they can follow this brilliance: When your past self was your present self it chose to help your future self. Now your present self, that was your future self, is enjoying the rewards of your past self who chose to put in the effort. Now you can say "thank you" and "you’re welcome" to all of your selves.
And parents? Because your past self chose to read this article, your present self hopefully has some good ideas, so that as your children get better at this skill, your future self will thank you.
Annie Zirkel, MA LPC is a local Positive Parenting Consultant, author and presenter. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.