Delayed gratification


I am sure many of you have heard the Stanford marshmallow experiment where young children were told they could have one marshmallow now or several at a later time as an exploration of delayed gratification. Needless to say, younger children tended to jump for the less profitable option (one marshmallow now) than older children who were more likely to be able to hold out for the better reward.

Delayed gratification is quite a thing and it takes time and maturity to develop. To master any long term goal, it’s quite essential. For example, to become good at playing a musical instrument, a child would have to forgo more easily enjoyable activities to put in the required amount of practice time to achieve competence. Competence in itself therefore is the delayed gratification (which it could be argued some kids might not be able to imagine or feel overly as a reward).

Delayed gratification is not always about long term goals though. It can be: engaging in ‘work before play’, resisting easier more obviously enjoyable treats or not succumbing laziness and instead being determined to complete harder, less obviously fun tasks. A child who can delay gratification will simply achieve more, be able to be self-motivated and is likely to develop a good work ethic.

Delayed gratification, quite simply, requires good emotion management and self-control. Even as adults, when we are offered a glass of wine when we know we have to get on with an urgent job, we will still sometimes accept it. Emotionally we need the impulse control to resist the immediate joy an instant treat would deliver so that we can ‘slog’ at the longer term goal that might not reap rewards for some time yet or complete the dull but necessary task! No wonder it’s not easy.

So how can we help our children develop a greater ‘work as well as play’ attitude? Here are some ideas:

  • When engaging in ‘chore’ activities, make a point of declaring that it will be good the get X out of the way so we can relax and maybe reward ourselves e.g. with a hot chocolate. Express pleasure at having got a less favourable task (and the benefits it brings from being completed) out of the way so you can relax and focus on enjoyable activities.
  • Regularly mention and consider the long term goal and explore why it will great to achieve it.
  • Explore the idea of impulse control with older children. Of course it would be nice to sit down and watch TV (the easier and more obviously pleasant thing to do), but we will be more relaxed if we have done our homework (the harder and often the less preferable thing to do) first.
  • Consider the long term goals that require delayed gratification e.g. getting good exam results, getting fit, being good at sports, playing a musical instrument, learning a language. For success, many things require delayed gratification.