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 back in 1972. His now-famous marshmallow test studied whether kids would delay a reward, and how they compared to the kids 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 can wait a few minutes for a second marshmallow, but only 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, just as they did as children resisting a tempting marshmallow.
The question now is, can we encourage delayed gratification in children so they develop those skills?
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. But we can still contribute to how well our kids can delay gratification. The simplest way?
Have your child wait.
You see, the children who resisted were able to delay eating the first marshmallow because they found ways to distract themselves and resist temptation. They used all sorts of ways, from pulling on their pigtails or tucking their hands under their legs.
How is it that some kids knew to do 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 can devise creative ways to distract and entertain themselves while they wait, but when we fulfill every need right away, they lose the opportunities to do so.
I can 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 having to wait. And the good news is, we can turn to simple activities to encourage waiting and the ability to delay gratification. Here are a few ideas:
1. Cook and bake with your child
Cooking together doesn’t just teach valuable life skills and measurements. Your child also learns that many of the things she wants, including meals, take time to make. She realizes that meals don’t appear just because she’s hungry.
Since your child is 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 her food right now. As hungry as she may be, she develops the skill of doing something else to make waiting more bearable.
2. Don’t offer a snack at your child’s every request
One of the easiest ways to help children delay gratification and learn patience is to have them wait for food.
If your child 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, your child learns how to cope with the discomfort of waiting we all experience.
One simple way to have your child wait while avoiding 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 anticipate.
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 your child to wait.
This doesn’t have to be cold, either. I’ll acknowledge my son’s presence by placing a hand on his back, or say he has to wait with a smile on my face.
Your child learns the importance of turn-taking and waiting, even if he 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 herself and develop creativity.
Let’s say your child says she’s bored. It’s tempting to jump in with an activity to squelch that boredom, but by allowing her to feel bored—and play alone regularly—you encourage her to find ways to make waiting more pleasant.
Rather than relying on us to tell them what to do, 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. These skills will help them develop the ability to delay gratification.
5. Say “no” to your child
The funny thing with saying “no” and setting limits is that kids actually need them. Sure, they fight it at the moment, but the alternative—letting them get everything they want—doesn’t feel good to them.
Setting boundaries reassures kids we care enough to enforce limits rather than shrugging our shoulders and agreeing all the time.
The happy balance is setting limits while still providing freedom to explore. Think of it as a fence: you need something to contain kids from running wild, but with enough space to play and grow.
Be firm where it matters, whether it’s buying impulsive toys or establishing set bedtimes, and allow flexibility for the rest. Kids will learn they can’t always get what they want.
6. Have your child create wish lists
Writing lists is an excellent habit to establish now. Your child learns to plan for the future instead of expecting everything she wants right away.
Lists help her prioritize and see which items she truly wants. You can help her write lists for special items she’d like to have with the agreement to only buy one or two. These limits force her to practice waiting for certain circumstances to happen (such as having enough money saved or time passed, for instance).
And lists also teaches her how to save buy a coveted item or wait for an upcoming event. This will teach her to save as an adult, as well as develop the discipline to set aside money for important but distant goals such as retirement or a down payment.
Having kids wait is a work in progress, and kids may show their displeasure. But making them wait promotes delayed gratification and better success in the future.
You can encourage delayed gratification in children through simple, daily activities. Cooking together and having your child wait for meal times teaches patience. Playing independently develops the creativity to cope with the discomfort of boredom. And setting limits as well as writing lists teaches her that not everything comes instantly.
And that sometimes, learning delayed gratification can be just the skill we need for success—and not just a second marshmallow—later in life.
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Tell me in the comments: How do you encourage delayed gratification in children?