Do you want one marshmallow now, or two in five minutes? That was the question psychologist Walter Mischel posed to several children back in 1972. His now-famous marshmallow test studied delayed gratification in children.
He gave children two options. The first was to eat the one marshmallow in front of them right now. The second was to eat two marshmallows, but only if they could wait a few minutes. All with one marshmallow sitting in front of them.
Turns out the children who resisted the one marshmallow enjoyed greater success as adults. The question now is, how can we help encourage delayed gratification with our own kids?
How to encourage delayed gratification in children
Mischel says 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?
Have them wait.
The children were able to delay eating one marshmallow because they could distract themselves. They found ways to resist temptation. Kids resorted to pulling on their pigtails or tucking their hands under their legs. They turned to other means that kept them from gobbling up the marshmallow.
And Mischel says 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, 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. When he was a toddler, I’d prepare his breakfast before he woke up for fear he’ll flip out if his food wasn’t ready. I wanted to avoid the inconvenience (and headache) of an impatient child.
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.
Through cooking, kids 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. Plus, 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. Establish set mealtimes so he understands that each meal has its designed time.
When you’re talking to another person, don’t let your child interrupt. Instead, pause and say, “I’m talking to so-and-so right now. 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.
Independent play provides the opportunity for kids to find creative ways to entertain themselves. Rather than relying on external sources such as adults, kids develop their imagination. They tinker with distractions. They can even pass the time in “boring” settings, such as in a waiting room or standing in line.
Kids need to hear you set limits. While you want to provide freedom to explore, they still need to do so within the confines of limits. Be firm where it matters, whether it’s buying impulsive toys 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. Maybe your child is sick or you feel like they’ve been waiting too long. But making kids wait promotes delayed gratification and better rewards in the future.
Get more tips on how kids learn:
- Homework Tips for Parents: Crucial Mistakes You Should Definitely Avoid
- How to React when Your Child Makes a Mistake
- How to Raise a Smart Child
- Teaching Resilience and Perseverance: How to Raise Kids with Grit
- How to Properly Use Praise to Encourage Your Child’s Potential