My Three-Year-Old is My Role Model

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Boy holding skewer of marshmallows
23 Oct 2018

Kids have a pretty solidly negative reputation when it comes to dealing with disappointment or delayed gratification. Not getting what one wants, or even having to wait for it is, I think it’s safe to say, one of the biggest challenges of childhood – and by extension, of parenthood. (Hey, we’re the ones who have to defuse the tantrums!)

Don’t get me wrong; my kids struggle with this too. But surprisingly, I’m often struck by how my youngest in particular – at the age of three – is able to accept disappointment and to wait for what she wants.

One of her recent coping techniques is also one of the cutest, and consists of one word: “Humph!” There’s some dispute as to which of her older siblings taught her this, but wherever she picked it up, the effects are practically miraculous. “Ima, can I have your phone?” “No.” “Humph!” – and with that, she goes on her merry way. She’s expressed her feelings and is done.

If only we could all accept disappointment, express it, and move past it so swiftly and succinctly.

And what do you think happens when you tell a toddler she’ll have to choose between two options, that she can’t have both? For that matter, what do you think happens when you tell me – at the ripe age of *cough!* – the same thing? I’m of the “eat my cake and have the other one too” school of thought; decisions are extremely difficult for me. (This is where every reader who’s ever seen me try to decide anything bursts out laughing at the understatement.) But of course, I want my kids to be better, and the little one is actually my inspiration: “Ima, I want to have this one today and the other one tomorrow.”

Brilliant solution, isn’t it? She can have the other one tomorrow! (In her lingo, “tomorrow” means “sometime in the future” – just like, to her siblings’ and parents’ eternal amusement, everything in the past happened, “last night.” It’s a very straightforward approach to tenses.) Like Scarlett O’Hara (“I can’t think about this now… I’ll think about it tomorrow!”), but more mature. Scarlett wanted to put off unpleasantness, while my little girl is willing to accept the unpleasantness of deprivation in the moment, with perfect faith that there will come a blissful future moment when she can enjoy what she has so far missed.

She even applies this approach when it’s not a matter of choosing between two things – when she wants something and is told she can’t have it. Sometimes this involves a little bit of revisionist history – “Can we go to a store before school?” “No, it’s already late.” “No, Ima, I said can we go to a store after school!” But she’s rewriting history for the best of reasons: to adjust her own hopes and help her accept the reality of what she must miss.

If only we could all be so patient and trusting, able to accept not getting everything, or even anything, now, but to look forward to its potential in some near or distant “tomorrow.”

Thinking about my daughter’s surprising ability to delay gratification, I was reminded of the famous “marshmallow experiment,” in which a researcher offered children the choice of either eating a marshmallow right away or earning two if the marshmallow was still there when the researcher returned to the room a few minutes later. One now, or two later? Most couldn’t wait, but though I’ve never tested her, I bet my three-year-old could. And if she couldn’t, it wouldn’t be because she couldn’t delay gratification; it would be because “No, Ima, I only wanted one marshmallow.” I might even believe her.

And lest we think she is only able to wait for what she wants because she doesn’t really want it – she’s begun to demonstrate the same philosophy about my presence – which of course we know she does really want! For months, she went through an excruciating phase in which, at the merest indication I was thinking of going somewhere without her, she would burst into tears and fling herself at me, wrapping every limb around me so I couldn’t possibly get anywhere. Flattering, and really an impressive physical feat, but so awful for both of us when I had to peel her off and say goodbye.

One day, though, instead of crying that she didn’t want me to leave, my little philosopher burst into tears and exclaimed, “I want you to come back!” Horrified at the thought that she was so worried, I quickly reassured her that of course I would come back, and was then able to go where I needed to go without further incident. (I may have been a little traumatized myself, though.) Since then, she’s been able to accept that being with me is something she can wait for too. Now, when I tell her I’m going somewhere, she will cheerfully say “And then you will come back, right?” Last time this happened, she even giggled about it, and explained in detail that I would come back after bed time and she would see me in the morning. Once she was able to grasp the plan, she was okay with waiting.

Intrigued by my own speculations about my daughter, I asked Google for more information about that marshmallow test and discovered that the researcher behind it, Walter Mischel, died last month. I also discovered that, apparently, his interest in the topic came from his experiences in Nazi Germany and the question of how people take control of their own lives – “What are the enabling conditions that allow people to go from being victims to being victors?” (I will just note my awe of someone who could live through Nazi Germany and find a way to relate his experiences to something as trivial as whether a child eats one marshmallow or waits for two. Seems like an example of the very traits he was interested in researching.) His work suggested that the ability to delay gratification early in life correlated with increased success in various realms later in life. If that’s the case, my three-year-old is off to a good start in learning to take control of her circumstances, whether by convincing herself they’re the circumstances she wanted or by deciding she can wait for what she does want. I, for one, could stand to learn from her example.

Of course, like most positive character traits, this acceptance of waiting can go too far – as evidenced by another of my little stoics. (That’s probably not really the right term – it’s been a while since Philosophy 101 – but as I do recall from Philosophy 101, everyone misuses it anyway.) Upon being informed that, due to excessive talking in bed for an excessively long time, screen time would be withheld from him and his brother for a week, this child – probably 5 or 6 years old at the time – did not start screaming at the injustice of it all. No, he said “I don’t care if you take away screen time, because I know eventually I’ll get to watch again.”

Hmm, that didn’t work as planned. If we are too accepting of disappointment, then we lose the motivation of striving to improve ourselves and, thereby, our circumstances and pleasures.

But I can still admire my kids their philosophical approach, and following their example, try to remember that if I don’t have the cake or watch the show, it will likely be there “tomorrow” – in a day, or a week, or a year – for me to enjoy.

And if it’s not, I can always just say “Humph!”

Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.