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I bought a package of three little cakes with raisins on it, which both looked and tasted very well for my little daughter. She is now 3 years and 8 months old.

Before opening it, she had agreed that she would share these three among herself, dad and mom, one for each. She and I ate our cakes, but apparently, her appetite had not been met.

Mom was not there. So she began to sniff the last one at first, then licked it, then bit off a small piece, and again, though I kept warning it does not belong to her and mom would not have the chance to enjoy this delicious cake if she doesn't stop what she was trying to do.

I noticed her hesitation and thought she wasn't stopping because she didn't want to "obey my order". So I went out and told her to make a decision by herself. Unfortunately, when I came back a few minutes later, the last cake was in her stomach. Seeing me back, my daughter ran to her mom with a little more guilt than contentment on her face, as I feel.

So, is this a serious problem - should I stop her eating the last cake forcefully at that moment, or it's just a common situation that kids like her age still have some difficulties controlling themselves and I have made a big fuss over a minor issue?

  • Yes you should stop her! She needs to learn you're in charge not her! – L.B. Aug 18 '16 at 13:50
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You would probably enjoy watching or reading about the marshmallow test.

It was an experiment done on children around your daughter's age (some were a bit older) to see how well they can resist a marshmallow, if they were told they can have a second marshmallow in a short while - if they don't eat the first one! Then they would be left alone. The video shows how they struggle to maintain self-control. It's super cute.

Kids differ in how long (and whether) they are able to resist, but the main point here is that your daughter is the age where psychologists thought that resisting will be tricky :)

The experiment showed that the kids who resisted longer had more successful lives later on. This prompted interest in teaching children self-control. I think the simplest exercise, and you will have to do it many times in many forms, is to have your daughter perform one thing to get another ("We'll play ball if you put your shoes on!"), or get used to waiting for short periods to get something she wants. (But remember that a short period for a child is a few minutes - half an hour is agonisingly long!) These are probably things you do anyway.

In any case, I don't think her behaviour is cause for worry.

A second issue in your question is about learning to share. My son is a bit older, but after many of our own displays of sharing, and sometimes asking him if he'd like to share some of his own stuff - without forcing him if he didn't want to - he began to share goodies with us. He'd typically take the tiniest of pieces of his chocolate and give it to us, but we'd make a big deal out of how nice it is of him to think of us and share. It takes time...

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    It's not as simple as pure willpower. Subsequent experiments showed that you could radically alter the children's behavior by priming them with an example of adults who either kept their word or didn't keep their word about bringing a treat in the future. Some kids who "failed" the marshmallow test are simply doing what their experiences has taught them about adults. When adults make promises and don't follow through, waiting for a reward that isn't going to show up is the wrong response. – swbarnes2 Aug 18 '16 at 17:51
  • @swbarnes2 - indeed, no street kids passes the marshmallow test, because experience has taught them that good things in life don't stick around for them to enjoy at their leisure. So when I mention practice in willpower, it also means that the parent has to provide a safe, consistent environment, and to keep their promises. But still, even the most loved kid in the most stable environment has a problem resisting a treat at the age of the girl in question. – Ana Aug 18 '16 at 22:08
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You let your daughter make a decision and she made the choice most children her age will make. Ideally, your wife could have pretended to be very sad or angry ("That's not fair!") right after that, teaching her about the consequences. If it happens a few hours later, it's already nearly impossible for a 3 year old to learn that connection. Still, these harmless situations are good exercises for her.

Your daughter needs to learn both to follow your instructions and to make her own choices and experience the consequences. At first, almost everything will be covered by rules that need to enforced with timeouts and other unpleasant consequences. Once you create a rule, don't let her get away with "only" the natural consequences now and then. She may experience that as getting away without any consequence at all. Fortunately, you will be presented with many new situations not yet covered by rules that you can use to let her experience the effects of her choices.

A 3 year old will only learn from immediate consequences, so give her the freedom to choose in safe situations with immediate effects. i.e. eat mommy's cake when she's in the other room and about to come back. As she grows, you can slowly give her more choices and more delayed consequences.

What I've successfully used myself is to stop my sons, explain the likely effects of their choice to them and them let them choose. After things go wrong, I console them and then connect their choice to the effect again by saying "See how you did X and then Y happened?"

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