Delayed Gratification: Teaching Kids to Wait

We have been working on patience around here. Like every other two year old, Dominik will whine and demand things that he wants right now. Mostly, it’s him opening the fridge or pantry and demanded snacks. But we maintain a pretty strict routine when it comes to eating times, so our answer is usually no or later. Sometimes it’s a toy that he wants or an activity like painting, things that he often needs to wait for. We aren’t intentionally depriving our child or anything, our main reason for this is to teach Dominik how to delay gratification.

There was a famous experiment done in the 1960’s that was eventually called, “The Marshmallow Experiment”. Walter Mischel and his team of researchers studied hundreds of 4 and 5 year olds and their ability to delay gratification. They sat each child in a room in front of a single marshmallow. The children were told that they would be left alone in the room for 15 minutes. If they ate the marshmallow, they would not get a second. But if they waited and did not eat the marshmallow, they would get to enjoy two marshmallows. Some children devoured the marshmallow as soon as they were left alone and others gave in to temptation after a few minutes. Then there were the few that waited the entire 15 minutes.

Prior to the marshmallow test, the children were set up with varied delayed gratification experiences. Some of the children were promised bigger crayons or better stickers, but never received them while the second group did have the promises fulfilled. The group with the positive experiences of waiting for something developed trust in both the researchers as well as in their own ability to wait.

The bigger picture wasn’t revealed until many years later, when they underwent follow up studies. Mischel found that the kids who were more likely to delay gratification had higher test scores, lower rates of obesity, lower divorce rates, better social and emotional skills, dealt with stress effectively, and many other markers of success. It makes sense because the skill of waiting requires many other tools and skills. Delaying gratification involves:

  • distracting ourselves from the wait and shifting our attention
  • trusting that the payoff will be worth it
  • using reasoning skills to give ourselves the logical reasons for waiting
  •  controlling impulses and emotions

So we know that patience and delaying gratification help to lead to a more successful and balanced life, and the good news is that this can be taught.

  1. Out of sight, out of mind. The saying, “out of sight, out of mind” is true, especially for kids. Sometimes, when Dominik sees a snack that he wants, I will remind him that snack time is later and then I will hide the snack where he cannot constantly see it. He pretty quickly forgets about it and is just as happy when we eat it later. It can be even more helpful to have the child hide it themselves. This is a super simple trick to teach kids that will show them that they can help themselves wait.
  2. Change the subject. You don’t only have to hide something to distract from it. Teaching kids that doing something else helps them to wait is an incredibly valuable tool. Have the child sing a song, or play a game of “I Spy”, or busy their hands with something else. This is a major lesson in problem solving.
  3. Cope with emotions. Waiting can be frustrating and lead to tears or anger fueled meltdowns. Instead of giving in with what they want, help the child to deal with their big and scary emotions. Acknowledge how they feel and help them through it with deep breathing, hugs, and words of encouragement. Or, sometimes they just need some time to work through it themselves.
  4. Distract from the reward. Constantly reminding children about what they are waiting for is like taunting them with what they want. They already know what the reward is and reminding them will make waiting more difficult. Stick to distraction and coping skills.
  5. Be a Spock. What I mean by this, is focus on the logical. If they have a snack now, they won’t be hungry for their healthier dinner. If they spend their money on this toy now, they won’t be able to save for something better. Helping them to reason with logic will give them the long-term skills to make better decisions, even if it means delaying gratification.


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