Research shows that delayed gratification is a necessary skill for kids and adults alike. Here’s how to encourage delayed gratification in children.
Do you want one marshmallow now, or two in five minutes?
That was the question psychologist Walter Mischel asked several children in 1972. His now-famous marshmallow test studied whether kids would delay a reward, and how they compared to those who didn’t.
He gave the children two options:
- They could eat the marshmallow in front of them now, but if they did, they would only get that one marshmallow.
- They could wait a few minutes for a second marshmallow, which they would only get if they don’t eat the first that’s sitting in front of them.
Turns out the children who resisted the first marshmallow and waited for the second enjoyed greater success as adults. These kids became adults who learned how to save, wait, and cope with uncomfortable situations.
This makes you wonder: Can we encourage delayed gratification in children so they develop these skills?
How to encourage delayed gratification in children
Mischel says that genetics play a huge role, as it seems to do with most everything about us. But we can still contribute to how well kids can delay gratification. The simplest way?
Have them wait.
You see, the children who resisted were able to do so because they found ways to distract themselves and resist temptation. They used all sorts of ways, from pulling pigtails to tucking their hands under their legs.
How is it that some of them turned to these creative techniques while others didn’t? Mischel says the kids who delayed gratification were able to do so because they knew how to wait.
Kids will devise find ways to distract and entertain themselves, but when we fulfill every need right away, they lose the opportunities to do so.
I can certainly relate. When my son was an infant, I rushed right in to pick him up at the slightest whimper without giving him a chance to settle down. I’d prepare breakfast for him as a toddler before he woke up so he wouldn’t have to wait and get cranky.
I wanted to avoid the inconvenience (and headache) of an impatient child.
But it turns out, kids benefit from waiting, even if it feels unpleasant to everyone involved. And the good news is, we can turn to simple activities to encourage waiting and develop the ability to delay gratification. Here are a few ideas:
1. Cook and bake with your child
Cooking together doesn’t only teach valuable life skills and math. Your child also learns that many of the things she wants, including meals, take time to make. That meals don’t appear just because she’s hungry.
Since she’s helping you cook, she’s even more invested in the result. She learns to value the process of cooking as well as the final product. As they say, it’s the journey, not the destination.
Plus, the act of cooking itself distracts her from wanting the food right now. As hungry as she may be, she develops the skill of doing something else to make waiting more bearable.
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2. Don’t offer a snack at your child’s every request
One of the easiest ways to help your child delay gratification and learn patience is to have her wait for food.
If she says she’s hungry 30 minutes before dinner, have her wait until the food is ready. She learns there’s a time for meals, and it’s not the end of the world if she has to wait a few minutes to eat. Not giving her food (or anything else for that matter) every time she asks also prevents her from growing up feeling entitled.
The best part? She now has an opportunity to find ways to keep herself occupied before meal time. Rather than fulfilling every need the minute they arise, she learns how to cope with the discomfort of waiting.
One simple way to have her wait and avoid a meltdown is to establish set meal times. She’ll know when to expect to eat and will have consistent rules and meal times to guide her.
3. Teach your child not to interrupt conversations
When you’re talking to another person, don’t let your child interrupt. This is yet another fantastic exercise not just in being respectful, but waiting your turn.
Pause and say, “I’m talking to so-and-so right now. Let me finish first and then it can be your turn to talk.” Other times, holding up your hand or finger as you finish your conversation is enough to signal to her to wait.
This doesn’t have to be cold, either. You can acknowledge her presence by placing a hand on her back, or say she has to wait with a smile on you face. She learns the importance of turn-taking and waiting, even if she has the urge to speak.
4. Encourage independent time
Why is it important to let your child play alone?
The ability to wait relies on finding creative ways to make that time more bearable. Independent play provides the opportunity to entertain himself and develop creativity.
Let’s say he says he’s bored. It’s tempting to jump in with an activity to squelch that boredom. But by allowing him to feel bored—and play alone regularly—you encourage him to find ways to make waiting more pleasant.
Rather than relying on you to tell him what to do, he’ll develop his imagination and tinker with distractions. He can even pass the time in typical “boring” settings, like a waiting room or standing in line. These skills will help him develop the ability to delay gratification.
5. Say “no” to your child
The funny thing with saying “no” and setting limits is that your child actually needs them. Sure, he fights it at the moment, but the alternative—letting him get everything he wants—doesn’t feel good to him.
Setting boundaries reassures him that you care enough to enforce limits rather than agreeing all the time.
The happy balance is setting limits while still providing the freedom to explore. Think of horses in a fence: you need something to contain the horses from running wild, but with enough space to move around.
Be firm where it matters, whether it’s buying impulsive toys or establishing set bedtimes, and allow flexibility for the rest. He’ll learn he can’t always get what he wants.
6. Have your child create wish lists
Writing lists is an excellent habit to establish now, even in childhood. Your child learns to plan for the future instead of expecting everything he wants right away.
Lists help him prioritize and see which items he truly wants. You can help him write lists for special items he’d like to have, with the agreement to only buy one or two. These limits force him to avoid instant gratification, like saving enough money or waiting for the holidays.
And lists also teaches him how to save buy a coveted item or wait for an upcoming event, a skill he’ll need in adulthood. He’ll develop the discipline to set money aside for important but distant goals like retirement or a down payment.
Having your child wait is a work in progress, and he might show his displeasure. But making him wait promotes delayed gratification and better success in the future.
The best part is that you can encourage delayed gratification through simple, daily activities.
Cooking together and having him wait for meal times teaches patience. Playing independently develops the creativity to cope with the discomfort of boredom. Setting limits as well as writing lists teaches him that not everything comes instantly.
And that sometimes, learning delayed gratification can be the skill we need for success—and not just a second marshmallow—later in life.
Get more tips:
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- Characteristics of a Resilient Child
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