Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Kids Here and Now

How to get your kids to look ahead even though they're rooted in the here and now.

Nicolas Soler is no different than any other 2-year-old. When his mother hands him a water bottle for the trip to the park, the reaction is standard: He throws the bottle to the ground. "This happens all the time. He's not thirsty, so he doesn't want to bring water to the park," she says. The same thing happens when he doesn't think he'll need a coat.

Kids are rooted firmly in the here and now, having little ability to look ahead and imagine a different state of mind other than the present one. Now a study by Cristina Atance, a psychologist of the University of Ottawa, demonstrates how much kids' present state really warps their choices for the future.

In the study, the researchers found that 3- to 5-year-olds picked pretzels over water most of the time. Atance and her colleagues then induced thirst in some of the children and asked all of them what they would prefer when they returned the following day for a game of marbles: water or pretzels? Not surprisingly, the thirsty kids picked water over pretzels much more often. "It's likely that the kids would actually want pretzels, so they're really not predicting what they will want," she says.

Adults are fooled as well—remember the last time you went grocery shopping on an empty stomach? Yet, desires in the here and now are especially acute with children. So how can you help kids look ahead—just a little? Atance has these suggestions:

  • Talk to your child about previous similar events. Bring up the toy he left on the floor: "Remember when Daddy stepped on the yellow truck last week and broke it?" Also, it's best if time has not lapsed between the two similar incidences.
  • Acknowledge your child's current state: "I know you're really warm right now, but that will change the moment we get to the park because it's very cold outside."
  • You can also help model the desired behavior: Put on your own coat and pack a water bottle for the park. Go to the restroom before a long car ride.
  • Point out the benefits: "Aren't you glad you brought a coat, it's really cold out here."

Kids are often caught up in the moment, but with a prod looking ahead can become second nature. Coming from a place of patience and understanding will help parents get creative with solutions. Too often, parents mistake resistance as stubbornness or disobedience. Just remember that you've made mistakes as well.