Developing Delayed Gratification in Children
What is Delayed Gratification?
Imagine given an option to choose between A) Receiving $500 today or B) Receiving nothing today, but $1,000 in four months. It may be a difficult choice for us to make. Delayed gratification, or delay of gratification, is the ability to give up an immediate pleasure or reward in order to gain a more substantial one later. In other words, it is about delaying what gives us pleasure and happiness now (i.e. option A), for the possibility of obtaining something greater in the future (i.e. option B).
Studies on Delayed Gratification
A famous study conducted in the 1970s, aptly named Stanford’s Marshmallow Experiment, shows that there is a significant correlation between impulse control and future success. In the experiment, children (between age 4 to 6) were brought into a room and given one marshmallow each. The children were then informed that they can either have a marshmallow now or choose to have two marshmallows fifteen minutes later. To the researchers’ surprise, only a handful of children (30%) chose to wait for their two marshmallows.
The researchers then did a longitudinal study following the children as they grow older to their thirties and forties. They discovered children that were able to delay their rewards performed better academically, had less behavioural problems, and are better at stress management. They are leading more successful careers and personal lives.
Knowing this, how do we educate delayed gratification to our children?
Nurturing Delayed Gratification in children
- Create an environment that promotes self-control (reliable environment)
Parents need to create an environment where children are actively and consistently rewarded for controlling their impulses. For example, parents should limit TV or phone time in the house. Parents need to find a balance between homework and leisure activities for their child. There is also a need to be reliable and consistent. If you promise your child a reward, be sure to fulfil it.
Surprisingly, parents may not realise this, but most primary schools have already been trying to create such an environment for the students. Some schools adopt a “sticker” economy that promotes a structured environment and incentivise children to do well now for a reward later.
- Be the role model they need
Probably the most powerful role models for children are their parents. Set an example for them, and not just tell your kids what to do but rather do the same yourself. If you want your children to save money and be thrifty, it does not help if you are spending money frivolously online.
It is also helpful to share with your child your long-term plans, such as “We are saving money for a holiday at the end of the year, that is why we need to save up”. Also, saying small statements such as “The queue is long, we need to be patient,” can go a long way.
- Develop and practice “if-then” plans
“If-then” plans are often used to tackle procrastination and improve efficacy. It involves identifying a situation where we will take a step towards a certain goal. For example, IF I finish my homework early, THEN I can watch TV for 30 minutes. Develop simple “if-then” plans with your children and practice them. This will allow them to understand that they have control over what can be done and more importantly, understand that some tasks should be prioritised over others.
Casey, B. J., et al. (2011). Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(36), 14998–15003.
Mischel, W., et al. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244(4907), 933–938.
Stephanie M. Carlson et al. Cohort Effects in Children’s Delay of Gratification. Developmental Psychology, 2018.