Here’s a Strategy to Help Kids Make Fewer Dumb Decisions

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Photo: Erin Lester/Cultura RM Exclusive/Getty Images

Most of us could probably stand to be a little kinder to our future selves. The problem is, we tend to think of our future selves as distinct from our actual selves — and it’s a whole lot easier to sign up for that 7 a.m. workout, or make those dinner plans with a sort-of-not-really friend, or order a few more drinks, when you imagine the sleepiness or the awkwardness or the hangover as someone else’s problem.

Focusing on the present, in other words, can lead you to make some dumb decisions that you’re probably going to wish you could take back. And that’s extra true for kids: While they may not be signing themselves up for any regrettable activities, they are doing a lot of dumb stuff, pretty much all the time — things like trying to jump off high surfaces, running outside without pants, refusing to touch their dinner, without much regard for the fact that they’re about to be bleeding or cold or hungry.

But just as consciously working to close the gap between present and future can spur you into better decision-making, reminding kids of their “extended selves” — the version of them that existed earlier that day, or the one that will exist tomorrow — can help guide them toward better planning and self-control, according to a study recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology and highlighted by Christian Jarrett at BPS Research Digest.

The study authors recruited 81 kids, all between the ages of 3 and 5, and had them chat with an adult about one of four topics: a memory of the recent past, plans for the the near or more long-term future, or a description of what they were up to at the present moment. Afterward, Jarrett explained, a researcher tested how well each kid could plan for the future:

There were several tests, including a “prospective memory” challenge, which involved remembering to remind the researcher to open a box at the end of the tests; a “mental time travel” test that involved selecting appropriate items to take on a trek through the forest or snow; a “temporal discounting task” that gave the opportunity to forego a sticker “right now”, for the chance to have two at the end of the day; and a “saving task” that involved showing patience and waiting for a better play opportunity.

The conversations didn’t seem to make much difference in how well kids performed on the latter two tasks (both versions of psychologist Walter Mischel’s famous Marshmallow Test), but they did have an influence on the first two. Specifically, the kids who had been encouraged to think about their experiences in the recent past or near future seemed to be better planners than the others, outperforming their peers at both the memory and “mental time travel” tasks. Being in the moment has its, well, moments, but sometimes it’s better to remind kids (and yourself!) that they’ll still exist after they make that choice, and so will its consequences.

Here’s a Strategy to Help Kids Make Fewer Dumb Decisions