Delayed gratification is essential for success in health, work, and life in general. For this reason, scientists have carried out extensive research to determine what moves a child to choose instant or delayed gratification. One of the earliest research, known as The Marshmallow Experiment, was carried out by a Stanford professor named Walter Mischel in the 1960s. In 2019, Ariel Knafo-Noam, a professor of developmental psychology, led research that dug into the motivational aspect of children’s delayed and instant gratification in middle childhood. It is well worth looking at this on YouTube and trying it yourself. To put it simply, children had to choose one marshmallow instantly or wait 10 minutes and have three. Watching the faces of the younger children contort is hilarious, but they followed through years later to see how successful they were in later life in things such as exams.
According to the research, the two motivations underlying children’s decisions in this aspect are conservation and self-enhancement values. In this context, conservation is the desire to reduce uncertainty and preserve the status quo. Self-enhancement, in contrast, is the desire to maximize resources and profit for the self. In practice, conservative children tend to grab what’s available as soon as possible. But a child with self-enhancement values will brave the uncertainty if there’s the promise of more.
Importance of Delayed Gratification
During the Marshmallow Experiment, Mischel and his team tested hundreds of children between 4 and 5. For fifteen minutes, each of those children was left alone in a room, a marshmallow placed before them. The deal was that if they held back and didn’t eat the marshmallow within those 15 minutes, they’d get three marshmallows.
Sure enough, reactions varied. As soon as the researcher closed the door, some of the children devoured the marshmallow. Others made for an entertaining sight. They turned, shifted, wiggled in their seats, and then ate the marshmallow before the fifteen minutes elapsed. But some came out victorious. They waited out the fifteen minutes and got a second marshmallow.
Years later, Walter Mischel and his colleagues revisited the adolescents who participated in the Marshmallow Experiment. Those 4-year-old children who delayed gratification longer developed into more cognitively and socially competent adolescents. They achieved higher academic performance and coped better with frustration and stress. Their parents rated them as more socially adept, verbally fluent, rational, attentive, and playful.
Ways to Teach Children Delayed Gratification
Current social media trends and the like are moving to promote instant reward. Delayed gratification can be taught at almost every level, even in adolescence. According to Mischel, “The good news is that this cognitive and emotional skill set is eminently teachable, particularly early in life. It’s great in preschool, it’s great within the first few years of life, it’s great in adolescence even. And it continues to be a skill set that can be developed even when we’re quite mature adults.” Below are some strategies to teach children to delay gratification. Hobbies and sports are fantastic ways to do this, this is why learning a skill like sport is so important.
- Teach distraction. You would recall that in the Marshmallow Experiment, some children wiggled and shifted in their seats but ended up eating the marshmallow. They could not overcome the temptation of the marshmallow in front of them. Other children remained in control through creative ways. Instead of wiggling in their seats, they looked for something in the room to distract them from the marshmallow. You can teach your child this same trick. It would help strengthen their self-control. A few distractions you can teach your child include drawing pictures, counting backward, and exercising.
- Use “the pause” method. As the name implies, the pause is simply about teaching your child to wait. Waiting is at the very heart of delayed gratification. It’s typical of children to want something instantly. When your child does this, ask them to wait instead of buying that thing for them right away. You could say, “If we’re going to buy you this, you’d have to wait a week to be sure you want it.” This is effective in helping a child cool the itch to derive pleasure instantly. They realize that resources are finite. Again, do you want to buy this small toy with your pocket money or wait until you can buy a bigger one with savings? The important thing is not to then buy both for them. Here we have an article about teaching your child the value of time and money.
- Make them wait for the next grocery shop when things run out. With a cell phone, you can have anything delivered to your doorstep. But just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should immediately order anything that runs out at home. Use the opportunity to make your child wait. Sometimes, you can even intentionally let something run out so that they’d have to wait a few days to get it again. It’s a hassle-free way to teach your child self-control. Here we discuss the importance of doing things with your children.
- Create trust. The famous quote one bird at hand is better than two in the bush embodies delayed and instant gratification so well. Trust is very integral to delaying gratification. The child with the marshmallow in front of them had probably thought: what’s the guarantee that I’ll get that second marshmallow? Your child needs to know that if they wait, they’ll get what you promised. You need to create an environment where self-control is rewarded. If you promise them anything as a reward for waiting, make sure you deliver. Similarly, if they do well in a test that they have revised for rather than playing computer games, make sure that they recognize the link. A common mantra in teaching is to reward the effort rather than the result.
- Model patience and self-control. Even adults can be generally impatient. This is evident when adults get stuck in traffic or at the end of a long queue. In situations like these, your child is observing your reactions and learning from them. You need to model impulse control and patience. Start by talking to them about patience and cultivating healthy habits with money. When at the back of a long queue, you could say, “The queue seems long today, but I think that if we wait patiently, our turn will come.”
- Show them the joy of anticipation. Finding joy in anticipation helps your child stay the course when delaying gratification becomes difficult. For your child, you can demonstrate this by ticking days off on the calendar together as they wait. The fun in this masks the difficulty of waiting. It also reminds your child that what they’re waiting for will come.
- Help them set achievable goals. It’s even harder to delay gratification when it comes to goals. This is because goals are often long-term. They seem so far away, unreasonable, and impossible to achieve sometimes. Goals require greater discipline. To help your child raise their discipline levels, start by assisting them in setting achievable goals. Commit to breaking the steps down, creating a plan, and including visual reminders for your child. So instead of acing an exam, set a small target every evening to reach that. In the same way, rather than play for their country at a sport, practice every day.
- Teach them how to prioritize. Through modelling and discussion show them how to prioritize tasks where the reward may be in the future, for example an essay grade, over the short-term dopamine hit of the video game.
In creating the plan for their goal, make sure the child is involved in the process. Ask them the problems they anticipate. How would they tackle the problem when it happens? And when they achieve each goal, celebrate it. This gives your child a sense of pride that makes them want to go again.
Final Thoughts on Helping Your Child Develop Delayed Gratification
Ultimately, delayed gratification hinges on “self-control,” “self-regulation,” and “impulse control.” To promote these qualities, try not to give in to your child’s every demand. If your child gets everything they want from you, they may not have a chance when they get their hands-on gadgets. Nothing drives instant gratification like technology. From their bedroom, anybody can buy anything and have it brought to their doorstep. Anyone can carry pocket games around all day to keep the fun going.
Interestingly, studies have shown that lack of playtime and decreased time in nature are two of the most significant factors driving instant gratification in children. In their 2013 research, Dr. Elena Bodrova and her colleagues wrote, “For preschoolers, play becomes the first activity in which children are driven not by the need for instant gratification—prevalent at this age—but instead by the need to suppress their immediate impulses.” Encourage your child to go outside and play. Let them direct their play. Activities that promote delayed gratification include role-playing, puzzles, and board games.