In this post I want to focus on delayed gratification and how it may benefit children.  Basically, delaying gratification means resisting the temptation to get an immediate reward in order to receive a larger or more enduring reward later.

Developing Delayed gratification - the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment

The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment is a classic test of the ability to delay gratification

In the now famous Stanford Marshmallow Experiment a researcher would place a marshmallow on a plate in front of a young child and tell the child that she had to leave the room for a short period while the child waited.  The child was given the choice between eating the marshmallow on the plate or receiving two marshmallows when the researcher returned.

Long term studies have found  that the children who were able to wait until the researcher returned achieved greater academic success, physical health, psychological health and social competence in later life than their peers who could not resist the temptation.

Being able to delay gratification builds the following self-regulation tools:

  • Patience
  • Impulse control
  • Self-control
  • Will power
  • Greater ability to plan
  • Greater ability to handle stress
  • Greater ability to concentrate
  • The ability to respond to reason

It is important to take note however that children under the age 5 years find it very difficult to delay gratification and even though it is important to give them opportunities to practice this skill, one should be careful not to expect too much from them in this regard.  Generally females have been found to be better at delaying gratification than males, so young boys might find this acquiring this skill particularly challenging.

Here are some of the ways in which you can help develop your child’s ability to delay gratification:

  • Provide your child with opportunities to practice delayed gratification on a regular basis.  Don’t give in to his wining for treats while you’re shopping for groceries together and tell him that he can have two sweets when you get home instead.
  • Emphasise completing all the steps in a task, for instance when baking with your child don’t allow them to only help you until the batter has been mixed but get them to help you grease the pans and put the batter in the oven as well … and then comes the long wait for the cake to finally be ready.
  • Provide visual cues wherever possible.  Being able to count on a calender how many days they have to wait until an anticipated event or feeling the weight increase in their piggy bank as they save their coins will help them see that progress is indeed taking place.
  • Praise their effort not the results.  Do not admonish your child for giving in to his impulsive nature, but rather say something like: “I could see it was very difficult for you to wait.  Well done for holding out so long, maybe next time it will be easier for you to wait a little longer”.
  • Talk about examples of people who are able to delay gratification in everyday life.  Say something like: “Wow!  Your daddy has  really been wanting to buy that fancy new laptop for a while now, I’m so glad that he was able to save enough money to buy it”.
  • Be reliable with rewards.  The marshmallow-researchers found that children were less likely to delay gratification the next time around if the researcher did not give the promised reward even after they waited for her to return.  Before you promise your children a reward for an act of delayed gratification, be very sure that it is indeed a promise that you can make good on.