How to Teach Delayed Gratification (Exercises for Self Control)

How to teach delayed gratification (in an instant gratification world)? Let me show you how to stretch your kid's gratification muscles.

Have you thought about how to teach delayed gratification to your kiddo?Girl holding a marshmallow to her mouth, looking like she might eat it, with a smile with text overlay: "life skill: how to teach delayed gratification"

Then you've probably heard about the Marshmallow Delayed Gratification experiments.

Pssst: Marshmallow smarshmallow experiments? Here's a quick rundown for you. In the late 1960s and early 1970s psychologist Walter Mischel ran a series of tests on kids aged 4-6 from the Bing Nursery at Stanford University. Each child was offered either one small reward now (their choice of an Oreo, a marshmallow, or a pretzel stick) or a bigger reward (two marshmallows)  if they held out for approximately 15 minutes. An eternity in kid time! In other words, the child could eat the yum-o food immediately, or, if they didn't give into temptation for around 15 minutes, their reward was doubled.

What was really interesting is the finding that years later, the kids who delayed gratification were scoring higher on their SATs plus had lower body mass indices than the kids who did not delay gratification.

Note: these results are debated, and sometimes they don't show up when others try to replicate the experiments.

But that doesn't matter for purposes of this money lesson (this is a precursor to goal setting for kids, fyi).

You see the thing is, I think these experiments are very related to a child's ability to actually see their goals through.

Because let's face it: you need to know how to delay gratification if you're going to reach a goal.

You need to not eat that marshmallow − not only today, but for many days to come − in order to reap rewards that are far greater than what you can get immediately.

I mean, learning how to delay gratification + the stick-to-it-ness to actually do so should basically be a precursor for goal setting, as it'll naturally lead them to much more goal success than if they never understood how or why to delay gratification at all.

Worried your kid is going to be one of the ones to scarf down the marshmallow in one minute flat? Don't worry. Keep reading.

What are Delayed Gratification Examples?

Before we really dive into the marshmallow experiment and the lesson I've got for you today, let's give you a few examples of delayed gratification.

Here's delayed gratification in a sentence:

Delayed gratification is making a sacrifice right now or delaying something enjoyable right now, so that you can enjoy something that's even COOLER/BETTER/MORE PLEASURABLE in the future.

In money terms, the very act of not buying something right now means that you can grow that money and use it in a way that allows you to afford an upgrade in the future. This could be because you are literally growing the money by investing it, putting it in a savings account and earning interest, or that you are growing it's capabilities because there's a sale coming up that will stretch it + you have more time to add additional money to the pot.

Instant Versus Delayed gratification Examples (for both kids AND adults):

  • Buying Christmas decorations in November, when you are thinking about Christmas…versus waiting until the after-Christmas sales to buy Christmas ornaments/decorations because you can get it at a 50%-75% discount.
  • Buying the latest, hot-off-the-press iPhone, versus waiting to buy it a year later when the price is at least 25% less.
  • Buying every book that strikes your fancy at the book store…versus adding it to your interlibrary loan (ILL) list at the library and waiting for them to come in.
  • Draining your piggy bank to get the latest installment in your book series…versus waiting two months until your birthday rolls around and asking for it when your parents want to know what to get you.
  • Spending the $458.33 each month on whatever strikes your fancy…versus sending it to your IRA (individual retirement plan) to max out retirement savings contributions and REALLY live your retirement on your terms decades from now.

Now, let's tune back into why on earth marshmallows are so important when it comes to your kid setting money goals.

Psst: are you teaching self-regulation in students? University of Connecticut's National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented came up with some free lesson plans on how to increase self-regulation in students.

Why Marshmallows are Super Relevant to Money Goal Setting for Kids (Not to Mention, Goal-Achieving)

Well…the marshmallows themselves aren't relevant to reaching money goals, but rather the waiting for the marshmallows is.

In your own life, think about how much better finances get when you delay gratification.

Like:

:: Keeping 40% of the purchase price of a craft supply from Michael's by delaying the purchase until Sunday when you get a new coupon in your newspaper
:: Money growth by not spending it and instead keeping it in an interest-rich savings account
:: Money growth that leads to a happy retirement by not spending today but investing instead
:: etc.

You might be wondering, “yeah, but, my kid is probably going to eat the marshmallow. Does that mean they're cooked for life?”

I've got good news for you (and for every other parent of a kid who is impulsive…because aren't they all to an extent?). Let me show you one way for how to teach delayed gratification.

What is the Marshmallow Effect?

You could conduct the Marshmallow Experiment right now on your child as a one-time event. And it'd probably be something fun + interesting to do.

But it turns out that delayed gratification can be a learned behavior.

*Claps hands in delight*

Why is that? In a recent interview with The Atlantic, original experimenter Walter Mischel, explains that for both adults and kids, the ability to delay gratification is actually like a muscle that people can choose whether or not to flex.

So if your goal is to get actual behavior modification − hey, if chimpanzees and some capuchin monkeys can learn it, there's hope for any kiddo − then you want to set up something that isn't one-and-done, but instead offers continual learning + reinforcement opportunities.

Something that will grow that delayed gratification muscle (you know the one, right next to the left bicep?) good and strong when laying the foundations for successful goal setting for kids.

And how do you make any muscle stronger?

With a little repetition + sweat.

Is Your Child Unable to Delay Gratification? How to Strengthen their Delayed Gratification Muscle

I've got a plan for you to both strengthen whatever delayed gratification muscle your child already has + grow it in Money Prodigy fashion.

It's something anyone should do before moving onto money goal setting for kids (also, one of my favorite delayed gratification activities for preschoolers! Why not start them early?).

Delayed Gratification Lesson Using Chocolate Coins

What You'll Need:

#1: Something that has a reward that can be guzzled right now (i.e. the instant gratification).

That's why I love chocolate coins for this, because not only does it offer an immediate reward (the chocolate), but it also resembles money.

You can snag several different-colored chocolate coins minted to look like a quarter from Party City for just $0.07 each.

Don't forget to let your child know that these are special coins because they are chocolate, and can actually be eaten if/when they would like.

#2: A greater reward the coins can be traded in for in the future.

You could take this in a few different directions:

  1. Get More Chocolate Coins: So if they hold out from eating them and instead allow them to accumulate, they get double the amount at the end of the agreed upon time.
  2. Get an Item or Experience: So if they hold out from eating them and instead allow them to accumulate to a certain amount, there's an item or experience waiting for them at the end.
  3. Get Actual Money: So if they hold out from eating them, instead allowing them to accumulate to a certain amount, then they can trade them in for actual money.

Psst: Do you want to really relate this to money? You can put the concept of interest into your child's brain, and tell them that their money will earn a form of interest from you guys if they can hold onto it until X date.

#3: A system for how to trade in the coins.

You need to develop some sort of system that tells the child:

  • How the chocolate coins are valued: Are purple coins worth more than green coins?
  • How the chocolate coins are earned: Such as when they complete X chore, when they do a good job on X, etc.

#4: Trust that the other, bigger, reward is really there.

Trust that the bigger reward will actually be there (and that they aren't delaying their chocolate gratification for nothing) is really important. So much so that in the Marshmallow Experiments they laid out the extra marshmallows on a tray right in front of the kid.

How can you keep this bigger reward top of mind for your child so that they trust it is there, plus maintain momentum? Could you keep the reward on the fridge using a magnet? Write it on the end of this week's chore chart so they keep their eyes on the prize?

A note about the importance of not breaking promises when parenting kids and teaching delayed gratification: From a 2012 University of Rochester study, toddlers were divided up into two groups. In Group 1, the adult kept her word about going to get art supplies, and in Group 2, she came back empty-handed even though she said there would be art supplies coming. They did this again, but with stickers. Then, they gave the Marshmallow test. Don't you know that 2/3 of the kids who were in the group where they could rely on the adult waited 15 minutes for a second marshmallow, but only one kid out of the entire second group was able to wait. Trust and following through is so important! Your kids are listening to you.

#5 A duration of time.

Decide on how long your kid needs to delay their gratification before they can cash in on the bigger reward.

This isn't the Marshmallow Experiment, so no need to up the ante for your child after only waiting 15 minutes (unless you think that's a good place for them to start). You can have them put some sweat into this.

Typically, the younger the child, the shorter the duration you want them to endure. So perhaps a few days for a child aged 6-8, and a month for a teenager. You choose, and if what you choose seems too challenging at first, then change how you do it the next time. You're in charge of this!

Once that time is up, either deliver on the goods, or start over if they already ate the chocolate coins.

Remember, repetition counts here.

Since delayed gratification is like a muscle, you might need to try this out a few times before some self-control is built up. And if it doesn't work for your child this year? Revisit it again next year, when their brain's natural impulses have had a chance to mature a little.

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Amanda L. Grossman is a Certified Financial Education Instructor, a 2016 Plutus Foundation Grant Recipient, and founder of Money Prodigy. Amanda's kid money work has been featured on Experian, GoBankingRates, PT Money, CA.gov, Rockstar Finance, the Houston Chronicle, and Colonial Life. Read more here.
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