Set a (realistic) example
Teach them to delay gratification. Whether it's candy before dinner or skipping schoolwork to go to the playground, kids want what they want when they want it. But encouraging a child to wait helps him develop self-control, a skill he'll rely on throughout his life.
In a landmark experiment that began in 1968 and is still ongoing, Walter Mischel, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Columbia University, left a group of 4-year-olds alone in a room with a bell, three marshmallows, and a choice: If they rang the bell, he would come back and they could get one marshmallow. But if they waited for him to return on his own, they would get two marshmallows. Some kids rang the bell in seconds, while others sweated out a full 20 minutes. Dr. Mischel then followed hundreds of these preschoolers into adulthood. Those who were able to wait went on to attend better colleges and became more adept at coping with frustration and stress. The kids who couldn't were more likely to become bullies and have drug problems in adulthood. The findings underscore the fact that if a child can control his impulses -- and keep his eyes on the prize -- he'll be better able to handle all sorts of challenges.
To nurture self-control, Dr. Kindlon recommends establishing house rules -- such as "You must hang your coat in the closet as soon as you take it off" -- and enforcing them without exceptions. Once a child learns that these rules aren't negotiable, he'll more easily accept that it's homework first and TV second or that his room must be cleaned up before a playdate. And soon enough doing these things will become a habit.
Be a good role model. Your child watches you like a hawk, so it's important to handle your own disappointments with grace. If you panic every time you misplace your cell phone or curse when you stain a shirt, you're not demonstrating healthy coping skills. When Debby Clarke, of Colorado Springs, didn't receive a medal for finishing a 10K road race, her daughters -- who get trophies just for participating on sports teams -- expected her to be let down. "I told them I felt great because I ran my best and had fun, and that's what matters most," Clarke says.
Use phrases that will help your child cope with his own shortcomings, such as, "I'll try harder next time" or "I've done it once; I can do it again." And take responsibility when you goof ("I'm sorry I forgot to bring your bathing suit. Silly Mommy.") This shows that adults make mistakes too -- and own up to them.
Manage expectations. Kids fail tests, strike out, and forget their lines. Picnics get canceled when it rains. Stores run out of popular dolls. You can't prevent these things from happening, but you can reduce your child's distress by keeping her anticipation within reason. Stacey Cermak, of Montclair, New Jersey, discovered this when her 5-year-old daughter, Eliska, had her first sleepover. They spent the whole week looking through cookie recipes to decide what to bake, selecting toys, and arranging mattresses. When the friend backed out at the last minute, Eliska fell apart. "I realized how much I had fed into her expectations," says Cermak.
Rather than talking about exciting plans as guarantees, treat them as mere possibilities. Then if things don't work out in the end, you've cushioned the blow -- and reinforced the lesson that minor disappointments are a part of life.