Teaching Delayed Gratification Is Hard, But Necessary (And Possible)

Trying to overcome “I want it and I want it now”

Coming off Black Friday and Cyber Monday, I am guilty of not practicing what I preach. There were numerous items that I bought because I wanted them. I didn’t want to wait; I wanted them and I wanted them now.

In a world where Amazon Prime offers 2 day delivery on nearly every item and grocery delivery for any 2 hour window from 6 AM – 10 PM, we are not asked to wait all that often. Some TV shows still air week to week, making you wait an entire week to see the latest episode. However, many are now launching the whole season at once, leading to lots of binge watching. More episodes are available, so we continue watching.

Delaying gratification is hard. It’s hard to wait no matter how old you are. According to The Whole Brain Child, the part of the brain that is responsible for sound decision making and control over one’s emotions and body isn’t fully mature until a person reaches their *mid twenties*. And yet we expect our children to display self regulation and restraint when they don’t immediately get what they want.

What is Delayed Gratification?

Delayed gratification is essentially the ability to wait. It is not taking the “easy” or immediate option in favor of waiting for the long term benefit. If I don’t buy that sweater now, I will have more money later. If I go the gym now, I will be stronger and lose weight later. It’s that later piece that makes it so hard to influence our behavior in the moment. The french fries look and smell delicious right now!

The Marshmallow Test

Some of you have probably heard of the Marshmallow test. Researchers at Stanford had 4 and 5 year olds sitting at a table and were given 1 marshmallow. They were told they could have 1 marshmallow now but 2 if they waited 15 minutes. So the choice was simple, 1 treat now or 2 treats later. Then the examiner left the room.

This longitudinal study found that, 14 years later, the kids who were able to wait the 15 minutes had higher SAT scores, lower levels of substance abuse, better responses to stress, a lower likelihood of obesity, and stronger social skills. Over the next 40 years, they showed to be more successful vocationally and relationally than those that couldn’t wait the 15 minutes.

Strategies to Improve Waiting

Of course nature and nurture play a role; some kids are more apt to demonstrate restraint than others. However, the good news is, it can be developed if it is weak. Kids need to be taught how to have restraint. I need to be taught how to have restraint. I had to give away all of the kids Halloween candy to Treats for Troops because I was making myself sick on it. Here are some ideas on how to help your kids, and yourself:

  • Make the issue of self control transparent. Modeling how you show restraint will go a long way. Kids observe just about everything that we say and do. So be intentional about modeling times when you are using restraint. I really want to eat another cookie right now but I’m not going too. I don’t want too much sugar in my tummy! Instead, I’m going to have an apple.
  • Validate how waiting is hard. Bud, I know that waiting is hard and can feel frustrating. It’s OK to feel frustrated. When you’re feeling frustrated, you can take deep breaths, think about something that makes you happy, or ball your fists tight and then let them go.
  • Out of sight, out of mind. Let your kids know that sometimes the easiest way to limit yourself is to not have it available. Sometimes if there is something I really want that I am trying not to have, I get rid of it. This could mean throwing or giving away something that is hard for me to give up on my own. It takes a strong person to give something away that you really want but it is one way to help yourself work on self control.
  • Practice waiting/using restraint. Use a timer and see how long your child can currently wait. Set a goal together and try and beat it. Goals are a great way to find motivation that might otherwise be lacking. And the excitement of a timer going off is often a good distraction from whatever it is they are waiting for! Make is fun and game like (keep in mind their developing brains in this area) but also use it as a chance to highlight for them that, even though waiting is hard, they CAN do it.
  • Name what they can do to fill the time waiting. Keener will often say, “5 minutes, that’s going to take forever!” And yes, if I was asking him to sit there for 5 minutes and do nothing, it would feel like an eternity. Instead, I try and give him options for how he can use that time. I know you really want dessert and it isn’t time for dessert. You can keep eating your dinner, take deep breaths, look at a book, or think about everything from today that made you really happy to fill the time.

It won’t be easy but it is worth working on. Delayed gratification is the cause of many, if not all tantrums. Think of it as a skill to be developed and play around with what works best for your child. Keep expectations high but also realistic, remembering the brain is still developing in this area. And as always, lead with your heart. Although possibly trivial to us, whatever it is matters to them so validating their feelings can go a long way.

If you want to read more about delayed gratification, I enjoyed this article by author James Clear. He includes another study that look at how experiences and environment impacted the marshmallow test and other ideas to help train yourself to delay gratification.