Teaching kids to delay gratification, the most important factor for success in life

“Be strong enough to let go and wise enough to wait for what you deserve.”

Do you want to see that your kids are getting their homework done now rather than after watching television?

Do you want that next time when you go to the toy store with your children, they don’t make a scene only to threaten you into buying the next new toy?

And do you want to have the assurance and peace of mind that your children will follow diligently the financial plan needed for secure retirement in future?

As parents, we definitely want to see our kids having the ability to resist the short-term temptations and follow plans that are beneficial for the future.  But the demand for instant gratification is seeping into every corner of our lives.  Videos are streaming in seconds.  Retailers are arranging same-day delivery of products.  Smartphone apps are helping to eliminate the wait for a table at hot restaurants.  All these products and services are designed to improve our lives, but at the same time, they train us to be less patient and to have less self-control.

This is definitely worrying since a Standford psychology professor has already proven in his research done in the 60s that the ability to delay gratification was critical for success in life!


The Marshmallow Experiment

This experiment tested hundreds of 4 and 5 years old kids and followed them for 40 years after the experiment before a conclusion was made.  It started with bringing individual child into a private room and giving each of them a marshmallow.  The researcher told the child that he was going to leave the room for 15 mins, and if the child did not eat the marshmallow while he was away, he would give him an extra one as reward.  But if the child decided to eat the first marshmallow before the researcher returned, he would not get a second marshmallow.

Watch a modern version of the Marshmallow Experiment:

In this research, two out of three kids ate the marshmallow before the researcher return.  The research team followed the children who waited for their second marshmallow for 10, 20, 30 and 40 years, and they found that 100% of them were successful in different aspects of lives. They were happy, they had their plans, they had good relationships with others and they were doing much better than those kids who couldn’t resist the temptation.


So what should we do if our children are lacking self-control?

First of all, we need to know that delayed gratification is something trained, not inborn. From a twisted version of The Marshmallow Experiment done by the University of Rochester, it is showed that children’s wait-times reflected their beliefs about whether waiting would ultimately pay off.

In this experiment, before offering the kids marshmallow, the researchers divided the kids into two groups.

First group:  this group of kids was exposed to a series of negative experiences, e.g. they received a small box of crayons and were promised to be brought a bigger one but never did, or they got a smaller sticker and were promised to be brought a better selection of stickers but never did.

Second group:  on contrary to what had happened to the first group, kids at this group were able to get anything they were promised, like a bigger box of crayons or better selection of stickers.

So it’s not surprising to find that kids in the first group simply ate the marshmallow instead of waiting for an extra one, while those from the second group waited patiently and happily.

In other words, the ability to delay gratification is actually impacted by the experiences and environment that surrounded us and it is actually something you can train yourself with.

(To access the full research, click here.)

Second, increase our awareness to self-control issue and the benefit of having self-control (why we lack it and why it can be harmful) will actually help us to be more willing to practice delayed gratification.  In another research done by behavioral economists where they gave information about self-control to part of the sample and not the other part, it is found that the group with education is more likely to save and to save greater amount of money than the other group receiving no such information.



Action plan: 

Building self-control and training our kids about delayed gratification today!

1. Education: explain to our children the meaning of self-control and why it is important for us to resist temptation.

Definition of Self-control / delayed gratification – the ability to resist the short term temptations and to follow plans that are beneficial for the future

 Quote examples to kids:  My son Cayden hates Chinese, be it speaking or writing.  Last Christmas we brought him on a trip to Taiwan and attended some DIY workshops that were conducted in Chinese.  He could barely follow through though he enjoyed those classes a lot.  This skids-learning-chineseummer holiday, we intentionally chose Taiwan again and we brought him to more DIY workshops in Chinese.  This time, he was able to follow all instructions and even answer questions asked in class and won some prizes.  We immediately made use of the situation to highlight the fact that it’s him putting effort the past 6 months and he’s actually learning more and more Chinese bit by bit.  He now understands the importance of Chinese and we never have to worry about him giving up Chinese learning.

So come up with your own story to highlight the benefit of delayed gratification. It can be resonating stories about your kids, or stories of their friends or family members, or even stories from people your kids admire.

2. Training: Build the belief that delaying gratification will result in something good

Set scenarios where your kids have to delay gratification.  First start with something easily achievable, and move on to something more difficult to achieve.  Monitor and make sure you kids are getting positive experiences out of the

 My example:

caydens-lego-carCayden always admires the fact that his friend Jayden is able to make cool cars that can run on motor out of Lego.  But he didn’t remember he’s the one who chose to give up on learning a year ago.  I took this a good opportunity to teach him patience, by helping him set big goal, and then mini-goals that help him reach the big goal step by step.  He is seeing results of mini-goals now (reward) and is willing to give up spending time on other activities for Lego engineering learning (sacrifice).

Final Word:

Remember kids learn from us – do you think your kid will wait for dessert after dinner if we ourselves can’t follow through?  The only way we can really instill the ability to delay gratification into our children is if we’re able to practice it ourselves.

About the Author Tammy Seay

I believe our kids are the key to the future of the world and, as parents, we have a lot of influence while our children are still learning and growing. We set ourselves as our kids’ role models. Consciously and unconsciously, we pass on to them what we know, what we believe, and what we value. This is why partnering with parents in teaching life lessons and soft skills to get kids prepared for the world has become my key purpose in life. I hope that through my experience in teaching communications in university and in NLP training and coaching, I’ll be able to equip you with more tangible methods so that you can be your children’s life teacher, too!

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1 comment
Isaac says July 24, 2016

Thanks for your sharing. I really hope to read more and more articles from your website.

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