How to Encourage Delayed Gratification in Children

Have you heard of the 'marshmallow test'? Researchers tested children's ability to delay gratification, a necessary skill for kids and adults alike. Here's how to encourage delayed gratification in your child.Do you want one marshmallow now, or two in five minutes? That was the question Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel posed to several children back in 1972 in the now-famous marshmallow test that studied delayed gratification. He found that children who were able to forgo the instant reward of one marshmallow in lieu of waiting for two tended to enjoy greater success as adults. The question now is, how can we help encourage such delayed gratification with our own kids?

Mischel states that genetics plays a huge role, as it seems to do with most everything about us. Yet nurture can still contribute to how well we—including our kids—can delay gratification. The simplest way?

How to encourage delayed gratification in children:

Have them wait.

You see, the driving force behind why some children were able to hold out on eating one marshmallow lay in their ability to distract themselves and find ways to keep from succumbing to the temptation. Kids resorted to pulling on their pigtails, tucking their hands under their legs, and an assortment of other means that kept them from gobbling up the marshmallow. And Mischel says that one of the best ways to develop this skill is through waiting.

Kids have the ability to devise creative ways to distract and entertain themselves, but when parents fulfill every need and desire instantly, kids lose out on an opportunity to do so.

I can relate. When my son was a newborn, I hardly skipped a beat before rushing in to pick him up at the slightest sound. Even when he was a toddler, I’d prepare his breakfast before he wakes up for fear that he’ll flip out if his food isn’t ready. I wanted to avoid the inconvenience (and headache) of an impatient child clamoring for whatever he wanted right this minute.

Yet most other times, I’ve been able to have him wait. Below are a few simple ways you can promote delayed gratification:

  • Cook and bake together. Simply by witnessing the process of how food is made, kids can learn patience and realize that some things, including their meals, take time to make. Since your child is helping, she’ll be even further invested in the result, not to mention that the act of cooking is distracting her from wanting her food right now.
  • Don’t always offer a snack at every request. If your son is asking for food 30 minutes before dinner, have him wait until his food is ready. He’ll have an opportunity to find ways to keep himself occupied before dinner time. Similarly, establish set mealtimes so he understands that each meal has its designed time instead of whenever he wants a bite.
  • Don’t let kids interrupt conversations. When you’re talking to another person and your child chimes in about something else, pause and say, “I’m talking to so-and-so right now sweetie. Let me finish first and then you can tell me.” This doesn’t have to be cold. Usually I’ll acknowledge my son’s presence by placing a hand on his back, but I try as much as possible to say that he has to wait for the current conversation to finish.
  • Encourage independent play. One of the benefits of independent play is the opportunity for kids to find creative ways to entertain themselves. Rather than relying on external sources such as adults to provide entertainment, kids are better able to develop their imagination, tinker with distractions and even pass the time in less-than-desirable environments, such as sitting in a waiting room or standing in line.
  • Say ‘no.’ Kids need to hear you set limits. While you want to provide freedom to explore and let children be, they still need to do so within the confines of limits. Be firm where it matters, whether it’s not buying impulsive toys at the store or establishing set bedtimes. Kids will understand that they can’t always have what they want.
  • Write wish lists, savings and goals. For those with older kids, encourage them to draft wish lists for items they would like to have. Teach them how to save money to buy a coveted item or experience.

As with anything child-rearing, having kids wait is a work in progress. It’s tough to wait, and kids may show their displeasure. Other times, it’s better to meet their needs right away, like when your child is sick or you feel like they’ve been waiting too long. In most cases though, giving kids the opportunity to wait increases their chances of devising creative ways to stave off instant gratification in lieu of better rewards in the future.

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Have you tried promoting delayed gratification with your kids? How do you encourage delayed gratification in children? Let us know in the comments below!

Nina

Nina is a working mom to three boys—a five-year-old and toddler twins. She blogs about parenting at Sleeping Should Be Easy, where she writes everything she's learning about being mom and all its joys and challenges. She also covers topics like how kids learn and play, family life, being a working mom and life with twins. Download her free ebook, "Time Management Strategies for the Overwhelmed Mom" for more tips.

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  1. Karen says

    We are really working on this one in our family as of late. For every request Eli makes it is stated three times. “I want….. I want…..now! I want…right now!” it’s a very hard lesson for little ones and boy are we getting a lot of practice in these days! I agree that it is a super important life skill and well worth the time investment (and tantrums endured).
    Karen recently posted..Felt Play FoodMy Profile

    • says

      Aw, nothing worse than your kid wanting something *right now*! I totally get you, Karen. It’s tough! Hopefully though through time he’ll learn that waiting is necessary and can even reap its own rewards.

  2. says

    I’m wouldn’t say I’m actively trying to promote delayed gratification in my 2yo daughter – just hadn’t occurred to me in those terms – but of course I agree it’s a good idea for her not to get everything she wants all the time and pronto, cos life’s just not like that , and I do endeavour to teach her that this is the case. I hope soon to be cooking and baking together,I think she is at the right age now (going on 2.5) but with a newborn atm it hasn’t always been practical recently! I do make her wait and not snack if we’re close to dinner – have taught myself to zone out of the ensuing tantrum… We are teaching her not to interupt which has also been hard, mum and dad are not allowed to speak to each other sometimes! “No” is so hard at times when the path of least resistance would make for an easier life for me in that moment, but in the long term it’s not worth it – it would be a slippery slope!! Independent play so very important also. And saves my sanity when it is all going well for a while 😉 Love your list of suggestions!
    Pam @TheMindfulMum recently posted..A Grand AdventureMy Profile

  3. KatyE says

    I have triplets, and it was nice to read an article that actually endorses something I have to do by default with my three kiddos. They have to wait – they’ve always had to wait. They don’t always do it with patience and kindness, but it is getting better (well, it goes in waves – but usually there is one or two who will wait patiently, or one or two who expresses frustration – in meltdown form, heh).

    Great tips and a very nice article. Thank you.

    • says

      I know what you mean, Katy, but with twins and a five-year-old instead of triplets (so I get a bit of a break with the five-year-old being more patient with age). Not everything can be had right this moment, and I’ve heard that they can take that skill well into adulthood.